Gaslighting By Proxy – Getting YOU To Do The Dirty Work

Anyone who has a desire to manipulate other people need only learn how the brain processes data and generates information in order to figure out how to bypass the normal vetting mechanisms that have been programmed into our perceptual system. When someone is communicating, you will be much better off in the long run if you take the time to consider WHAT they want you to believe and, more importantly, WHY they want you to believe it and HOW they will benefit if you accept it as true.

Traditional gaslighting is a cooperative act in which one person says and does things that cause a second person to begin to doubt their sanity. I spoke about it in the post Gas Lighting – Vice-Signalling And A Lack Of Self-Respect. It is highly controlling, it is regarded as a form of mental abuse, and it is a partnership of sorts. There is a clear perpetrator, the individual who is trying to get someone else to believe things that are not true and to then begin to loss confidence in the accuracy of their subjective experience of reality, and victim, the individual who is being manipulated. Doubt is the internal state that the perpetrator is trying to trigger and once it has been activated, the gaslighting of the victim has been successful.

Gaslighting is similar but it is a distinct type of mind control than those methods employed by cult leaders. Group manipulation relies on the buy-in from other members of the group to influence the more skeptical members. The entire group is subjected to the same consistent messaging and, overtime, people will either conform or leave. Those who choose to leave are labelled as treacherous and are shunned by those who choose to remain. Dissenting, balanced, and alternative opinions are not allowed and great control is taken to make sure the group is never exposed to them.

While cult leaders will achieve their goal using many of the same tactics as the gaslighter, the main differences is in scale. The cult leverages the other members of the group to ensure buy-in – an uninitiated or unconvinced cult member will hear the message from the leader and feel social pressure from the other members. With gaslighting, the gaslighter tends to work alone in a one to one relationship between them and their victim. Starting a cult is much harder and requires some skill and the possession of some very specific traits by the leader – charisma, passion, unflappability – but once it gets going, the unified actions of the group present a collective message so forcefully that it by-passes or overwhelms the normal resistance to bullshit. Gaslighting on the other hand is easier to do but it is more fragile and will erode very quickly in the face of external information that causes the victim to gain a more balanced perspective.

With gaslighting, it is the traits of the victim and how they are expressed that determine the effectiveness of the manipulation – they feel close to the perpetrator, they trust the people they are close to, they tend to less skeptical, they defer to others as the source of expertise in areas that they have sufficient experience to know what is what, they are high in agreeableness, they tend to avoid conflict, they accept as true or potentially true things that others would immediately doubt, they do not want to do anything that would cause friction with the person who is gaslighting them, etc…. There is nothing wrong with how they process sensory input and the information that their brains generate, they just choose to process things differently under certain circumstances. However, the instant they begin to push back against the other person, and accept and endure the negative emotion associated with doing so, is the moment of liberation. Once other sources of information begin to flow in, they instantly start to reframe their understanding of the world. The outcome tends to favour objective reality as they quickly learn that the other person is full of shit and has been manipulating them.

Critical to traditional gaslighting is the use of counter factual statements in an ongoing and consistent way, along with the use of demonstrable lies. Both are very effective tools for achieving a state of doubt or uncertainty. Counter factual statements act as conditional justifications to explain something, but rely on a non-factor or a non-occurrence to do the heavy lifting. They take the form of “if, then,” “and yet,” or “yes, but” to complicate things and distract the victim from the known facts. They are gentle or subtle ways to influence ones thinking. Lies, on the other hand, are hyper direct and serve to change what the victim believes or knows to be true.

With gaslighting by proxy, none of these tools are used. In fact, if we were to book end the events that comprise the gaslighting by proxy we would notice that there is nothing untruthful or demonstrably wrong ever said. The perpetrator does not lie and will tend to speak fairly directly and concisely about the facts and events. The adherence to the truth is very context specific, however, and these moments will occur randomly. It is this quality about them that make this such an effective way of manipulating people.

Historically, a liar tells lies while a truth teller tells the truth. Unfortunately, this binary way of thinking about the world and about the actions of people is a heuristic that sacrifices specificity in favour of cognitive ease. Once we label someone as a “truth teller” or a “liar,” we enable an automatic evaluation process that has us believe or not believe a person. Generally, we will listen to a truth teller and ignore a liar. But this is just the general case. Our brain cannot help but listen to and hear, to some extent, the words of a liar when they are speaking. This doesn’t matter at all when what they say is untrue – we hear it and the brain ignores or filters it out – but when what they say is true, more cognitive effort is required to fully process the statements and make sense of the world. At best, it is mentally taxing and requires a lot of deliberate effort to maintain an accurate view of things. More likely though, because of the energy demands of keeping things clear, will be a reevaluation of the person some distance away from the “liar” label and an off-line reframing of the world to reflect this change in status.

This is an error that corrupts long term memory and pollutes our heuristic database with a rule that does not reflect reality.

Consider what our brain needs to do when it is confronted with evidence that a known truth-teller knowingly told a lie. Depending on how well and how long we have known them, we might be willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and change nothing about what we have stored. We may create a conditional rule to capture situations under which the person may not tell the truth. Or we may update their label to “liar” and set about ignoring them. The length of time and the amount of experience we have with them will impact how we respond. Strangely, the better we know them the tougher we will be on them. The false statements of spouses, best friends, and adult relatives will have a much bigger effect than the lies of a TV personality, politician, acquaintance or more distant relative. Those held in higher regard will fall much further and much faster than those who do not factor into our life very much. Regardless, in most cases, finding out that someone we considered to be a truth-teller has the capability and willingness to say things that are not true will result in a reduction in our tendency to believe without evaluation.

When we now think about the opposite situation – a liar tells the truth – the reaction is confusingly different in terms of proportion and weight. They have a track record of lying, which means we will keep our psychological distance from them and that they will not be very important to us. Because we do not care about them, we have not been hurt by their lies. In fact, our evaluation of them is probably so low that we are not impacted by the things they say. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being complete non-factor and 10 referring to an extremely important and critical component to our life, the known liar is a 1 and close friends, immediate family and significant others are tens.

These rankings matter and come to be because of how we share the burden of understanding the world among all of the people that we know. With 10 out of 10 people, we lean on their brain and intellectual processing to help manage and maintain certain aspects of our world view; either through shared experience, individual expertise, or the innate ability to connect with other living beings in a synergistic way. When we learn that one of these top tier people is not completely trustworthy, we lose this ability to share the cognitive burden of understanding the world well enough to thrive. It is psychologically damaging and can be very destabilizing. When the same thing happens with a 5 out of 10, there is a much lower impact. Imagine finding-out that a client had lied to you about something. It might be annoying, but it will not trigger an existential crisis. A 1 out of 10 person lying to you will have little to no impact and it may not ever register that you have been lied to.

So when a known and labelled “liar,” or a one, says something that is untrue, we do not need to do anything in response to it. Our world view already includes the information that they do not tell the truth. However, when they tell the truth, the automatic reaction, to ignore, creates an output that is not congruent with reality. The binary labelling of liar fails to capture the possibility, more accurately the reality, that sometimes they are going to tell the truth. No one is always just on thing. Our prediction that they will lie is shown to be inaccurate, throwing a error, and forcing our brain to open-up to new information in an earnest attempt to get clarity on what has happened in order to update the rule to allow for more accurate predictions.

This is the essence and mechanism of gaslighting by proxy.

Assume that we are the intended victim and that a politician is the perpetrator. They want to lower our confidence in the understanding of the world that we possess because they have realized that they need us to believe them for some reason – say reelection. We know they are liars because in the past they have said a lot of things that are not true, so they have a very low ranking – 1 out of 10. As such, we do not spend much time considering what they say. However, as they get closer to the next election, they begin to say more things that are actually true. It isn’t that they stop lying, they just being to tell the truth more frequently. Eventually we begin to hear these true statements and will immediately begin to update our world view to include the fact that they do not always lie or, the affirmative, that they do tell the truth. This is all that is required to trigger the reframing process. It does not matter at all that the next thing they say is a lie because we already knew they lied thus eliminating the need for any reframing.

This puts us into an interesting position. If we deliberately stop the reframing process, it will cause a level of anxiety because our brain will be aware that it is running a rule that is not accurate. If we take action to eliminate the negative emotion associated with the now revealed inaccurate rule and allow the reframing process to run its course, we open ourselves up to being manipulated. The reason is very simple, the reframing will only ever go in one direction, away from the “liar” and towards “truth teller.” Since they were already a labelled “liar” and given a low significance in our life, the movement cannot go any further and will only go in the opposite direction. But the moment the reframe moves at all, it will never go back because the person has shown that they can tell the truth therefore the binary all or nothing poles cannot ever be reached again. They will never be a liar nor will they ever be a “truth teller,” they will be something in between.

Since the goal of any type of gaslighting is to create doubt, this middle ground is exactly where they want us to be. It isn’t necessarily a hopeless situation. We are able to take the time to evaluate every claim they make for accuracy, but this requires effort and is deliberate mental work, both of which serve as disincentives to doing it. But unless the work is done, we will never be certain of the truth or falsehood of their statements.

This is the by proxy aspect of this form of gaslighting. WE are the proxy. How our brain reacts to them telling the truth is what causes the doubt to surface. Whether or not they previously set about trying to convince anyone that their lies were true is not relevant – that is they do not have to have participated in traditional gaslighting. What triggers the process to happen is the fact that historically they have a pattern of lying and suddenly they begin to tell the truth from from time to time.

One could argue that the truth statements of a pathological liar are not important, and this would be a bad argument. The truth matters, facts are important because they impact the world in very real ways. It is not responsible to disbelieve a factual statement simply because it was made by a habitual liar as doing this will cause the brain to update existing long term memories with incorrect information. It is equally irresponsible to believe a false statement simply because it was made by someone who occasionally tells the truth. And this is why gaslighting by proxy chips away at our certainty about the world. The perpetrator is using our own brain to do the leg work to foster doubt, and they using the truth to cause this to happen.

The video below is the second half of the True Hollywood Stories – Rick James bit from the Chappelle show. It is not safe for work due to language, simulated violence, and drug references. I have included it because it contains an example of behaviour that mimics gaslighting by proxy and not because it is an example gaslighting by proxy. However, when you watch it, notice the part with James talking that they repeat and pay particular attention to what happens in your brain and how you feel the wrongness of what you have just heard. When our brain sets about addressing this type of discomfort we open ourselves up to gaslighting by proxy.

I have watched this bit dozens times and continue to feel my brain stumble. And it is a big stumble, one that I am powerless to NOT notice. I laugh because the context provides the necessary cues for my brain to know how to regain its stride – it is the Chapelle show and Charlie Murphy is doing most of the story telling so it is intended to by funny, even if it is relating some aspect of the truth.

But without the context to determine what to do with the information, the brain will simply treat it the same way it is programmed to treat other context free information – the process described above. This is the big difference between shows like “The Daily Show,” which is clearly comedy show (even if some people do not find it to be funny), and “PBS NewsHour,” which is an earnest attempt to document and share a collection of important current events; AKA the news. Seeing a clip of a politician or a CEO of a large multinational corporation on the Daily Show will be handled differently than the same clip appearing on an objective news show. As such, when context is provided, gaslighting by proxy is next to impossible. When it isn’t, the brain will have to work to provide the context to prevent the manipulation, the work being a big disincentive, or avoid doing the work by letting the information in and processing it using the existing heuristics; making one vulnerable to manipulation.

So what?

As amazing as the human brain is, it is not full proof or fool proof. It has a finite processing capacity and, as such, it has the innate capability to create general rules to accelerate the decision making process as well as to simplify the handling of massive amounts of input. These rules are good enough to ensure that we do not suffer an easily avoidable death, but they tend to lead to errors as we journey deeper into the realm abstract reality; not because the brain gets it wrong but because the brain does not have the accurate information or adequate information to generate a correct answer quickly.

Context is very important in determining what to do with information and in figuring out what the information is intending to communicate. Context is not a static thing nor is it locked to a particular moment in time. More often than not, the context of the person who is communicating something is different from the context of the person who is listening to and hearing them. What one hears today is about something in the future or the past, meaning that in order for a message to be accurately understood, it must be processed under the same context in which it was intended. This step is cognitively demanding so unless it is attacked with deliberate and conscious effort, it will occur slowly and over time in an unconscious and passive way. This can result in the message taking hours, days, weeks, months or even years to land as intended in the brain of the listener. If you want to get things right as quickly as possible, accept that it is going to take effort and will require that you spend a lot of time considering things that were not said, are not obvious, and that may even seem to be a little paranoid.

Anyone who has a desire to manipulate other people need only learn how the brain processes data and generates information in order to figure out how to bypass the normal vetting mechanisms that have been programmed into our perceptual system. When someone is communicating, you will be much better off in the long run if you take the time to consider WHAT they want you to believe and, more importantly, WHY they want you to believe it and HOW they will benefit if you accept it as true.

Any failure to adequately surface and consider the context from which the communicator is approaching things will leave you open to being manipulated via your own perceptual processes and the innate code that helps us generate rules to simplify the in-flow of massive amounts of data. Gaslighting by proxy is one example of how a subversive actor can go about using a persons own processing abilities to cause the brain to throw an error thus allowing them to exert control over what is stored on their victims brain.

Personal Relativity – That Time I Said Something Wise And Then forgot To Remember It For Twenty Years

The world is very complicated… Knowing that you do not know is critical, knowing that there are things that you do not know that you do not know about is critical, and taking it easy on yourself is critical when, in the future, you learn one of these things and you realize that you have made a mistake.

I lived in residence when I attended the University of Ottawa during my first year. The school is bilingual, French and English, and it is located in the down town of Canada’s capital city. As such, it offers a unique opportunity that no other school in the country can – proximity to the political establishment and to the government industrial complex. This means access to most aspect of the government along with exposure to a wide selection of people (diplomats and embassy workers) from many other countries. It would be a common occurrence to ride the bus during the evening rush hour and be surrounded by people who do not look or speak the same way I do. As a consequence of this high level of diversity, a lot of international students would attend the University.

This aspect of the city was great, particularly for anyone living in residence, because first year international students were offered a room on campus. I got to meet and spend time with people from places that I had never thought about before. This type of exposure, particularly during this phase of my life had a profound impact on my concept of what a person was or could be. I was just one of billions of people and while we all kind of looked and behaved in the same sort of way, it was clear that the thoughts that people have are wide and varied. There were patterns though, which is a powerful piece of information to have access to as one transitions from high school teenager to university adult.

We were all there to figure things out and most of the people on our floor spent a lot of time talking, particularly later in the evening when our critical faculties were drained from a long day of consuming lectures and text book material. The most fruitful conversations tended to unfold on Sunday, Tuesday or Wednesday evenings because these were the days when we were operationally the furthest away from the weekend and the negative effects that alcohol has on the quality of discourse. Our heads were clear, people listened and heard, and the only thing we really needed to do was study, so everyone seemed to put in the extra effort to keep the conversations flowing in order to reassign the work to tomorrow. The entire thing was a formula for insight – time, bright clear minds, and an incentive to continue probing; so we could avoid doing any direct work.

During one of these late night chats, I said something that was accidentally wise. But because it was an accident, I did not have the presence of mind to deliberately have a good conscious think about it every day. It remained in my brain doing stuff, but I didn’t pay attention to it enough to maximize the impact it would have and to allow it to fully shape the direction of my thinking. This is the nature accidental wisdom, without the hard work to reflect on and create an impression of value, we do not treat it as well as we should and after not too long, it more or less leaves us.

The concept I brought up was “personal relativity” and it was in response to the topic of regret. We had been talking about grad weekend, and one of the girls mentioned that she didn’t talk to her date any more. He had wanted to move their relationship to the next level while she was fine with taking things slow and pacing the upward trajectory so as to leave some things undone for a later time. His desire was to have sex after the formal at the hotel room they had rented, while she wanted something much less intimate. They didn’t have sex and their relationship did not make it through the summer. This had left her a little heart broken and wondering if her decision to wait had been worth it or if it had been the wrong thing to do.

She was a second year student, so she was about 18 months past the grad weekend and around 16 months post break-up. The time had given her plenty of opportunity to reframe things in a way that made them easier to deal with, and the fact that he no longer spoke to her served to validate her decision as the right one. As she was unpacking the situation and kind of outlined how things had evolved, I felt the need to tell her that no matter what she had done, there would always be a time when it was viewed as the right thing to have had happen and a time when it would be viewed as having been the wrong thing. The reality didn’t actually matter because there was not a right or wrong thing in it given the shift in her thinking about it. All we have is one opportunity to do what we think is best, and that is based on what we know at the moment in time when we have to make that decision.

Sure, they could have slept together and stayed together forever. Maybe the only reason the relationship ended was because she were not ready and he was; although that doesn’t really make a lot of sense because a life long partnership will not end simply because one partner wants to have sex and the other partner does not. But this doesn’t actually matter given the amount of time between prom night, the eventual break-up, and the evening when we are having the conversation.

Sure, they could have slept together and still broken-up towards the end of the summer, on the same day that they broke-up in reality. While it feels like this version of reality would validate the correctness of her decision to wait, it doesn’t matter in exactly the same way and amount as the “do it and live happily ever after” scenario.

The truth is, and it is always true, that life runs in one direction and there are no chance to redo any of it. Even if we get to repeat an experience, it isn’t the same experience no matter how close to the same it might appear. Materially, the world chances from instant to instant, so the notion that a mulligan is a redo is inherently flawed. What seems like a second chance at something is actually the first chance at something else, something that is very similar to the thing that was done before.

There was a moment when everyone was considering what I had said and it was clear that something was happening inside their heads. It wasn’t so much that a light was going on or that they suddenly had access to an insight that they had been struggling to surface, it was more like they had realized something very sad yet promising about their existential experience of life. The decisions we make are, so long as we take proper care to consider the known and the possible unknown information, always going to be correct. Any post hoc evaluation that considers information that we did not have access to at the time, and could not have reasonably imagined, is an evaluation about a future present (relative to when the decision was made) or a past present (relative to when the evaluation is being made) and does NOTHING to alter quality of the decision that was actually made. Even if future present or past present seem kind of confusing, the fact that there are two or three unique moments in time being combined in order for an evaluation to occur is a nonstarter. Relative to the moment in time when you chose, your decision was logical, sound, and valid. Relative to any time in the future, your decision cannot be viewed through the same lens and any value judgments about it are meaningless and inherently flawed.

This is sad because it sets up a situation in which every decision we can make will be viewed as wrong. It is promising because it gives us permission to leave the past behind and learn from the outcome of the choices we make. It is this promising aspect of it that I wish I had been able to constantly keep in mind. The knowledge that a mistake was made should cause a little pain, but only enough to serve as an incentive to learn from and a disincentive to repeat the mistake. It should never turn into regret or manifest as a generalization about ones tendency to make mistakes. And under no circumstance should it ever be internalized as an identity statement.

The world is very complicated and there is too much to know for any one person to know everything. We are going to be mostly clueless about most things and possible know a lot about one or two subjects. So long as there are at least a few people to know each thing who are capable of sharing or teaching it to others, the massive blind spots each one of us have are not necessarily going to cause much of an issue. Problems arise when we don’t seek out, listen to and hear, or adjust our course based on the things that those who know tell us. Knowing that you do not know is critical, knowing that there are things that you do not know that you do not know about is critical, and taking it easy on yourself is critical when, in the future, you learn one of these things and you realize that you have made a mistake.

So what?

Personal relativity is not a way to banish negative emotions from your life, nor is it an easy justification for being careless. It is simply a way to highlight the complexities of being alive, of managing your way through life knowing that you exist in an information void, and of giving yourself permission to be more charitable when your fallible nature contributes to a stumble. The concept of time is hard enough to wrap your head around, so it makes no sense to assume that your understanding of its experience is accurate.

Regret is built on the belief that you should have done differently, while assuming that you could have done differently. Personal relativity is built on the fact that you did what was correct at a very specific moment in time with all of the information you had access to. Just because the future present reveals something that would have altered your decision does not change anything about the past.

Each one of us has a perspective that is unique – we are the centre of ALL of our experiences and are therefore the centre of the universe. But so is everyone else. Personal relativity captures this aspect of experience while also including time as another dimension. So just as you will never know the experience of being someone else, you will never know the experience of simultaneously being yourself at two different moments in time.

Be mindful of what is going on, of what you know that is relevant, of what might possibly be known by others that is relevant, of what is not yet known by anyone that might be relevant, and of what is possible but has not yet happened that might be relevant. Once you have primed your brain with as much of this information as you can, trust it to make a logical and rational decision knowing full well that something may pop-up one day that seems to reframe your action as a mistake.

An Ounce Of Prevention Is Worth A Pound Of Cure – But The Money Is In The Treatment

Money, and specifically other people making as much money as they can, is the external reason why most human beings favour salience over statistics when it comes to managing health risk. All of the companies that stand to make a profit from treatment have a number of people on staff who are very aware that preventing an illness or disease will lead to a much better outcome than relying on their company’s treatment. But the majority of the marketing budget is directed towards proving the need for and advertising the availability of their products.

According to the Internet, Benjamin Franklin said “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” sometime towards the end of 1736. He was making reference to fire safety and not to public health; germ theory was over 100 years away and while diseases that were preventable simply by employing good hygiene were killing thousands of people, these deaths were mysterious and void of the spectacle associated with fires. Today, in most western countries, fire prevention technologies are so effective and ubiquitous that most fire fighters spend the majority of their time attending MVA and medical calls. This is fantastic, but it only happened because most fire departments are run by the local government as not-for-profit essential services.

Compare this to what most people assume the quote is making reference to, health. The statement remains true in this realm, but the nature of the health industry is very different from that of the fire fighting industry. For one thing, it is much larger in scale because life is very complicated and maintaining optimal health can be achieved in a number of seemingly very different ways. The causes of sickness and disease are numerous and there is a very large life style component to it. Cancer, for example, can be caused by exposure to chemicals and different wave lengths of electromagnetic energy that are naturally occurring, but these carcinogens can also be consumed in quantities that are much greater than what occurs naturally in the environment. This allows for people to twist the narrative in such a way as to blame the person with lung or skin cancer for the emergence of the disease. It may not be demonstrably true, but human beings who have a vested interest in convincing people to believe a particular thing tend not to realize the role this conflict of interest plays in their efforts to propagate a story of Randian personal responsibility.

This, when coupled with the length of time it can take for a disease to run its course, makes possible something that fires do not, the creation of a number of profit centers that have the illusion of being concerned with addressing the illness. With fires, you have two unique inflection points, before the fire and during the fire. Before the fire we have prevention. During the fire we have suppression and elimination. Generally speaking, government regulations are the realm of prevention and suppression while municipal fire departments are concerned with verifying the completion of the prevention activities and performing the elimination activities (the actual hands on efforts to put fires out once they begin). The private sector is involved in all areas, but primarily in the manufacturing of fire prevention, suppression, and elimination of equipment used in these tasks. General motors manufactures fire trucks, various machine companies make water pumps, hoses, and water proof gear, GE makes smoke detectors, other companies make metal pipes and sprinkler heads for fire suppression systems, and various manufacturing companies make the electronic components and devices that are used for monitoring heat and smoke. Other companies will sell services that support and ensure that the government regulations are followed and that buildings are up to code.

From a capitalistic point of view, there is some money and many civil servant jobs in fire elimination, but the bulk of the profit is generated in the manufacturing and sale of the equipment that addresses the prevention and suppression aspects of fire. This is actually how it should be and it is not a random outcome. There were times when fire departments were privately owned for-profit ventures and this lead to the very predictable outcome of services being denied to people / companies that could not afford to pay the price being demanded to put their fires out. Fires spread however, so this arrangement became unworkable very quickly as a fire that burned in the house or business of a person who could not afford to pay the private company to put it out would quickly become a fire that was burning in the neighbouring houses. City blocks would be destroyed unnecessarily simply because the fire department was a private venture that decide on the cost and withheld the service from those unwilling or unable to pay for it.

This needs to be compared to the health industry, which is profit driven at nearly every step. The only piece that is not completely infected by capitalism is that of single payer or socialized health care which is only just mostly infected by it. Canada is a good example of a single payer system that serves to line the pockets of nearly everyone involved. While the citizens and permanent residents of the country will get treatment if they go to hospital or a health care provider, not everything is covered and there is an incentive for the providers to adopt a mostly transactional methodology when administering services. The users need to pay out of pocket for many things and while the government has attempted to eliminate the possibility of a two tiered system, it is not entirely illegal for a doctor to charge their patients for certain services, particularly unproven treatments that may or may not do anything.

As is the way with people when incentives are involved, some number of the providers WILL act in the ways that ensure that they maximize the amount of money they make. This can be an ugly mark on the illusion of socialized medicine, but it tends to manifest itself in all of the areas other than treatment of acute illness and life threatening disease. For example, if you break your leg, the hospital will diagnose and treat you, if you get cancer, you will get access to the specialists who are trained to treat it and to the medications that have been scientifically proven to destroy the cancer cells. You will not, however, be given free access to emerging treatments that have not yet been proven effective or deemed to be effective treatments by the provinces health ministry. Some medicines that are free to patients in British Colombia are either not available to people in Ontario or are available only to those who are willing to pay the drug company directly for them.

The situation is worse for non-fatal or terminal illness, diseases, or pathologies . Connective tissue injuries like ligament tears or cartilage damage are treated using an opportunity cost model more than the triage model. Someone who is younger, an athlete, or who has a very high earning potential, will get access to treatment much faster than someone who is older or is retired. Statistically this is a good approach given that the government stands to collect more tax revenue for a person who is highly skilled and closer to the beginning of their career than someone who is retired and living off of their savings or social welfare programs. The opportunity cost of delaying treatment for the currently employed is much higher than it is for the person who is in the twilight of their life. Even if we were to factor money out of it, which is impossible, fixing an ACL tear for a younger persons will statistically lead to a greater increase in the time of restored mobility than fixing it for an older person – a 25 year old person may get 55 years while an older person might get 3. Statistics do not deal with the individual cases, so the sound logic of treating the younger contributors before the older no-longer contributing will not have an impact on the older person who is delayed treatment, but the approach the government is taking is at least defensible from this perspective.

Another characteristic that makes things foggy is the role that soonness and salience play in evaluating and ranking risk. Human beings are almost powerless to do anything other than believe that negative outcomes that are going to occur soon and that are very easy to imagine are worse than the ones that will arrive later or that are tough to get a handle on. A fire that is burning right now is much more dangerous than the 4 instances of skin cancer that are on someones back. Fire triggers a visceral feeling while early and mid stage cancer remain primarily abstract. Everyone can see the value of preventing and putting out fires quickly, it is much harder to see the problem that cancer is causing within a person until it crosses into the realm of a health crisis; at which point it is probably too late to actually cure the person.

This creates a problem for people in assessing risk and determining value of prevention. While a fire may destroy a row of houses, as long as the people and pets get out, most things can be restored within a few months. It is more than a simple inconvenience, having your home burn down can be life altering, but if the living beings get out of the house, it is going to be life threatening only to the fire fighters. And yet when we happen across a fire in progress, it is a compelling sight, one that seem to mandate attention and action.

Cancer, obesity, chronic stress, mental illness, etc… do not have this salience. We likely see people who have cancer everyday and go about our business as though they are not on fire from the inside. We when encounter an obese person, any negative reaction we have has nothing to do with their increased all cause mortality risk and is more likely to come from a value judgment about what we perceive are their life style choices. Those we encourage who are suffering from mental illness or chronic stress tend to be categorically dismissed as being weak in the head or in need of some relaxation. The physical nature of these diseases is invisible and we cannot see that their bodies are actually running so quickly as to be physically burning out.

I have no doubt that if Benjamin Franklin was alive today that he would make the same statement, this time about health. But with more authority and urgency, because the cost of prevention is so much lower than the cost of these diseases running their course. And I have no doubt that people would agree with him and “like” his post before returning to worry about things that are bright and shiny, and much less of a problem than cancer. Each year in the US just under 3 million people die; of which about 3500 deaths are attributed to fire and 609640 are attributed to cancer. This means ‭0.124% of the total number of deaths are due to fire while 21.67% are the result of cancer.

This begs the question, why are we all so misguidedly idealistic? Or why is there a pragmatic void when it comes to risk assessment?

Well, there are two reasons, the first is that our statistical intuition is dreadful and the second reason is money.

Regarding the first, there is a cognitive bias labelled “the law of small numbers” that captures the human tendency to overweight the importance of a very small number of occurrences and to then generalize or apply this exaggerated significance to the general population.

However, and I believe that this is the most important part of it, people can learn the facts and then apply them to life EVEN if they never actually gain the ability to do it intuitively. They just need to learn the information, create a rule to guide their thinking, and then put in the effort to use the rule by consciously thinking about the relevant subject. KNOWING that they cannot trust their innate thinking about the topic and having the willingness to put in the mental effort are the only things that are required to get it right. But this is neither natural nor is it cost free.

The Monty Hall problem, for example, is something that I now understand but still don’t feel completely comfortable with. My guess was that the odds did not change once one of the possible choices was eliminated. But, having looked at the math, it clearly makes statistical sense to switch your choice. Even still, it doesn’t feel that way. The odds seem to have gone from 1 in 3 to 1 in 2; this is only the case when you switch choices – and even then, a mathematical case can be made for an improvement in the odds from 1 in 3 to 2 in 3 but only if you switch. I do however get the question right now because I learned the correct answer, studied the relevant math and committed to memory the fact that my brain makes this error.

My incentive for putting in the work to learn how to avoid these types of mistakes is a desire to avoid being wrong or the desire to be right in the future. For whatever reason I am motivated to operate this way – likely because my brain responds very well to thinking and releases a big reward when it figures things out.

In this case, no one has a vested interest in withholding the information that is needed to inform my understanding and to illustrate how I can avoid making statistical errors. Monty Hall himself became aware that there was a benefit to switching after one of the three options was revealed not to be the big prize, so his suggestions to switch were likely an earnest attempt to actually help the contestants out. So even though the information was available, very few people knew it, and fewer still went onto the show Let’s Make A Deal to put it to work for themselves.

The key consideration with cognitive biases and the errors they contribute to are that they are well documented, proven, and discussed. It is not a lack of wisdom that is preventing people from educating themselves and taking the necessary steps to avoid making the mistakes that they cause. This is not done by most people for one of three reasons: a lack of an incentive to learn and take steps to avoid them, the existence of a disincentive to learn about them, or an external variable. In the case of the law of small numbers, as it applies to health, it is primarily the third reason.

Money, and specifically other people making as much money as they can, is the external reason why most human beings favour salience over statistics when it comes to managing health risk. All of the companies that stand to make a profit from treatment have a number of people on staff who are very aware that preventing an illness or disease will lead to a much better outcome than relying on their company’s treatment. But the majority of the marketing budget is directed towards proving the need for and advertising the availability of their products. They have a vested interest in selling the problem and solution (treatment), and this conflict of interest stops the entire company from doing anything to educate their potential customers about the law of small numbers, the value of prevention, and the quality of life benefit to anyone who puts in the work to avoid the need to ever become one of their customers.

This is a slight head scratcher to me. Not the actions of the corporations that sell health treatments, but the lack of action by their potential customers. On one hand, I understand and accept that putting effort into doing anything that is different from our automatic behaviour feels like and IS work. It has the very real sensation of “paying now” for something that is so far in the future that it doesn’t exist. The effort spent today cannot easily be viewed as the cost of a long healthful life and is instead experienced as a loss of something scarce and very valuable. But on the other hand, there is no denying the existence of disease and illness. Cancer, for example, is something that is very real and which society no longer has any difficulty talking about. Most people who reach adulthood know at least one person who has died from cancer and a few people who have gotten it. Practically everyone knows that food choices and ones level of activity are correlated with disease and illness risk and yet obesity and inactivity are now major contributers to decreased life and health span. The belief that technology and science will offer up a suitable treatment when sickness punches our ticket is an understandable, while overly optimistic, rationalization for not doing enough to prevent illness.

During all of my time working at gyms and in the fitness industry, it was painfully obvious that less than 10% of the population who were not athletes or fitness enthusiasts would ever make the move into one of these groups. I am biased here, but all evidence points to moderate amounts of intense physical exercise and the mindful eating of appropriate amounts of food, mostly plants, as being preventative measures in terms of disease and illness. The cognitive enhancement benefits of improvement in circulations, along with the increase in energy / vitality are massive bonuses. However, there seems to be a prevailing belief that there are chemicals we can take that will mitigate all of the negative effects of not taking the actions that have been proven to help us delay and avoid disease.

This is where I begin to blame the corporations and other companies. While they are not responsible for the things that people hold as truths, they are responsible for selling them the promise and the chemicals that will treat whatever comes along. Their efforts and motivation to sell more of their products get them to play their role, which is at best misleading / incomplete and at worst a blatant lie, in the cooperative act that results in us buying their treatments.

There is a saying that is credited to Henry Oberlander that captures the fact that everyone is willing to give something in trade for whatever it is that they want. On our side of the table is the desire (want) to change nothing about how we live our life and on their side of the table is the promise of a treatment for the negative outcomes of a life not lived with an eye on the needle of preventative actions. It’s a win win insofar as we get to feel safe and secure that we can change nothing and our future will be fine and they get to feel rich. Except ours is just a feeling while theirs is a fact.

To their credit, most of the treatment sellers are NOT engaging in a campaign of outright disinformation and many of them are selling goods and services that are an effective treatment. You can take the pills every day for the rest of your life and die from something other than the disease you didn’t prevent. In this regard, the treatment is kind of like a cure, except for the fact that the company gains a life long customer and the customer gains a life long dependence on an exogenous chemical or external service to make-up for what their body cannot do, but must have done, because of the illness.

So what?

Prevention is effectively the front loading of effort and it is a gamble. We work today in the hopes that we are able to shape the future and cause a very specific outcome. Life does not last forever and over its course the body begins to breakdown and lose its ability to fix itself. Prevention can be viewed as the taking of specific actions that have been demonstrated to extend these self-repair mechanisms OR avoid those actions that have been shown to destroy this innate ability.

Human beings have a preference to avoid spending energy, mental or physical, and will only spend it when they have an incentive to do so. The consequences of not taking preventive action are so far in the future that they do not register as a disincentive for NOT taking known harmful actions. The same temporal distance also serves to negate the incentive someone has for taking preventative actions.

Our brains are not very good at dealing with statistic so we have a tendency to make gross generalizations or to create ALL or NOTHING rules to increase cognitive ease when thinking about things. When we are given a solution to a problem that we do not have, we will update our understanding of the world and the implicated subject to include the fact that the problem has a known solution. The operational impact of doing this is the perception that the risk associated with the problem has been eliminated. This grants us an unjustified freedom of action because our brain holds the belief that there are no consequences to any action that might lead to the problem.

We WANT to believe that the future will be safe and the same as or better than the present. Anyone who wants to sell you something can leverage this desire by presenting their product or service as a solution to a future problem. While there is a philosophical difference between a treatment, a cure, and never needing either, there is no actual distinction between the three when exist only as future possibilities.

Living a good life, one full of the actions that promote long term health and void of the actions that harm it requires effort and sacrifice, and the outcome is never a sure thing. While we may one day become old, we are alive right now and open to the pleasure and joys of a diverse range of activities and actions. Saying “no” to immediate reward in favour of a future possible reward just doesn’t have the same kick as saying “yes” to what we can have right now.

The important thing to keep in mind is that your actions now will have an impact on the person you live to become. While the treatment for the consequence of your poor actions, or lack of action, may seem like something future you will be fine with, present you has a conflict of interest and therefore cannot be trusted. They want to experience the pleasure of doing what they want all while NOT having the disease or illness at preventative actions might eliminate.

You need to take sometime to have a good think about your future and really get a handle on what you want it to look like and how you want it to unfold. Hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and impaired mobility, while not necessarily real to you today, are very real for a lot of people who didn’t look after themselves as well as they should have. Their present experience is that of someone who is relying on treatment to combat things that were mostly avoidable. Some of their money is going to people and companies who have a vested interest in a growing population of sick people.

What You See Is All There Is Example – The Survivor Bias

… you go to a baseball game on a rainy day and notice a lot of empty seats. When asked about the game later, you comment that the game was an absolute blow-out in favour of the home team (your team) and that the stands were practically empty because of the rain. You assume that people stayed away because of the weather and never consider that the game was against the worst team in the league and even though they won, it was uninteresting to watch because it was never competitive.

I really like the sentence “what you see is all there is” because it is implicated in so many of the cognitive errors that people make. I first heard the sentence when I was talking to my brother about how two different people can draw wildly different conclusions based on what appears to be the same information. He replied making two points: it is very unlikely that two people will draw different conclusions if they consume and process the same information and read the book “Thinking – Fast And Slow” by Daniel Kahneman.

I’m not certain about the first point, although probably. He was absolutely correct with the second point. The book is a master piece from the very beginning. A heart felt introduction lays the landscape – the book covers the topics of research that two psychologists collaborated on over a number of years. They developed a very close friendship, one that seemed to complement one another in terms of how they engaged and thought about the world. The work they did together has been highly influential and led to Kahneman being awarded the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics. He maintains that had Amos Tversky not died in 1996 that they would have shared the honour. Unsurprisingly, “Thinking, Fast And Slow” is a heavy and demanding read. It is important and brilliantly revealing as it dissects, in terms of understanding, how and why people are the way they are and why the world is the way it is.

“What you see is all there is” (WYSIATI) is a way of making reference to the brains tendency to immediately process available sensory or perceptual information and to quickly and automatically make predictions based on ONLY this information. For example, you go to a baseball game on a rainy day and notice a lot of empty seats. When asked about the game later, you comment that the game was an absolute blow-out in favour of the home team (your team) and that the stands were practically empty because of the rain. You assume that people stayed away because of the weather and never consider that the game was against the worst team in the league and even though they won, it was uninteresting to watch because it was never competitive.

All you saw was the rain so therefore THAT must have been the reason why people didn’t show up. The truth is actually that people do not pay money to watch boring baseball games.

WYSIATI is the mental process of paying attention to only what is visible or that comes to mind when considering a decision. It is an “in the moment” and automatic phenomena and we are able to overcome it only when we take the time to consider what is not visible, what is not known, or what is known but currently not being brought to mind. Unless we take care to slow things down and work to create a mental placeholder for the things that you cannot see or that do not immediately come to mind, we are going to move forward considering only what is right in front of us; both literally and metaphorically.

This phenomena is likely the underlying cause of many other cognitive biases and its effects can be seen in a variety of different places causing predictable errors with decision making.

A great example of one of these biases is that of the survivor or survivor-ship bias because it has a near one to one relationship with WYSIATI. If you have never heard of the survivor bias consider the saying “history is written by victorious” and allow your brain to build the connection between these two things. You may notice that in your minds eye you begin to see two groups of people, one being the winners of the war and the other being the losers. The winners might even appear as larger, more clear, and in vibrant colour while the losers are smaller, blurry or lacking detail, and in black and white or grey scale. It is obvious from these images who is going to speak with more authority and clarity, and which group is going to have the volume turned down because their opinions are not worth listening to or hearing. The consequence to this is that one group gets to say everything while the other group doesn’t get to say much at all. If these just happened to be the two different sides of a war, it is obvious who gets to write down what happened and who needs to keep their mouths shut, accept their place, and to remain grateful for the fact that they didn’t get killed when their side lost.

Regardless of what gets captured as “history” by the group that has been given a voice, the other group still exists. Their silence, or the censorship of their stories, is not the same thing as them not existing. They remain alive and their version of events lives on in their brains, even if no one ever listens to or hears it. Pure or objective history is a single thing and is a point by point record of what ACTUALLY occurred regardless of the outcome. The text books may not contain any single sentence about it, instead being filled with the writings of the winning side, but this does not change reality at all. However, if you were given a test on the history of this specific event, you would be considered correct if you were to recite what is captured by the text books and would very likely lose marks for mentioning anything that was objective history but which did not match what the winners chose to put to paper.

Looking at this example it is easy to see that even though there is an other side to the story, it is as if there wasn’t because this side has never been shared. WYSIATI because you have never been exposed to anything else IN SPITE of the reality that something else did happen and this fact means that you are almost certainly wrong about history, or at the very least, profoundly ill-informed.

How this example relates to the survivor bias is that the winners are the survivors and the losers are the ones who did not make it. Both groups did exist, but we never hear from the losers because they never get to voice their experiences. If they could tell their tales, they would enrich the narrative and balance things out. This second thing is actually much more important because without their stories, the narrative seems completely balanced. It is only by becoming exposed to these stories that the lopsidedness of the initial history become obvious. But what you see is all there is and since you only get to see the stuff from the people who survived, your “objective” perception of things is completely skewed.

The big example that is used to illustrate the survivor bias is that returning war planes during the second world war. Everyone knew that both sides were losing a lot of planes because they were shot down by enemy pilots or anti-aircraft fire. They also knew that they could probably lower these numbers simply by adding more armour to certain areas of the plane. To this end, they set about collecting data on the damaged planes in hopes that they would uncover a pattern of vulnerability. Their efforts did reveal a lot of interesting things. The outer portions of the wings sustained a lot of damage, as did the rear wings, and the areas behind both engines extending back and across the centre of the aircraft including the fuselage. The initial thoughts were “reinforce these areas, add armour to reduce the chances that the plane would go down from enemy fire.”

This seems to make sense, the planes return with damage to some very distinct areas. Adding armour to these places is going to make the planes safer. It seems like the right thing to do.

WYSIATI.

What doesn’t come to mind initially are the areas with no damage. Look again at the image, the areas of impact are concentrated, as are the areas of no impact. There are very clear boundaries between them. This may or may not be significant.

Think about the history that the planes would write if they could write it. They’d tell you about getting shot, by the enemy, and of limping home, with holes all over their wings and body. Probably a close call for some of them. but no matter what else happened, the damage sustained was not sufficient enough to take them down. ALL of the ones that made it back made it back. If these planes are used for 100% of the samples in the study, you are only going to learn about damage that was not catastrophic. Putting more armour on these planes might be helpful, but all of them made it back safely without having any extra armour.

What really needed extra armour were the planes that did NOT make it back because their impacts were mission ending. But these planes never got to tell their story or write their history because they did not survive. If 50 planes went out and 25 of them returned, we can conclude that the armour on the 25 that did not make it back was not adequate to handle the impacts from the enemy. We do not know anything about the nature of these hits and we learn nothing about these hits by looking at the planes that returned damaged. This is a case of WYSIATI and the survivor bias.

What we are not seeing and need to see in order to solve the armour question is the damage on the planes that did NOT make it back because the damage was too severe for them to keep going.

Let this sink in if it doesn’t seem right or if you have never before thought about things in this way. Without taking the time to stop and really consider the problem, we make the error of assuming that the survivors DID something that allowed them to survive. But when we take some time to work the problem through again, we begin to open up to the possibility that maybe they survived because something was NOT done to them. This is exactly what was happening to the planes. When you look at the damage patterns of those that survived, you’ll notice a complete lack of damage to the engines, the front of the plane, and the fuselage right at the cockpit. So the planes that returned had working engines, intact forward facing aerodynamic surfaces, and pilots that were still alive.

The story about where armour should go was not logically told by looking at the survivors UNLESS you took the time to consider where the damage was NOT and to think about the consequences of damage to the unharmed areas.

Make no mistake about it, the other side was working with this information. In fact, by not having any access to the survivors, they were able to focus all of their attention onto solving the problem of how to destroy more planes by looking at the ones they destroyed and uncovering patterns. It was pretty clear to them, shoot the pilot, shoot the engines, or shoot any leading aerodynamic surface. Shooting the wings in general did not seem to have the devastating effect of hitting these other locations.

There is a good and a bad to the survivor bias and to the phenomena of WYSIATI. The good is that both can be counteracted to varying degrees by taking some time to think about what isn’t visible or what isn’t being said – to essentially give a voice to the vanquished. By asking the questions “what do I not know but is very probable,” “of everything there is to know about this situation, what happened to the stuff that isn’t known,” “what percentage of the totality do I know,” and “to make the best decision, is what you know more valuable or is what you don’t know more valuable?”

Asking these questions about the planes, you’ll get answers like “the planes that didn’t make it back may have been hit in other places,” “those planes crashed,” “50%” assuming that 50 planes left and 25 returned, and “what we do not know is more valuable because those planes got hit in the places that actually need improved armour.

The bad thing about the survivor bias and WYSIATI is that they do not feel like anything OTHER than sound rational decision making and analysis. The only reason you will know they exist is if you have learned about them or are the type of thinker who defaults to knowing there is stuff that is unknown and that this stuff has a big impact on things. Both are learned behaviours and even when we know them, both require effort to cultivate sufficient doubt to move you off of feeling certain and onto the task of figuring things out.

This effort requiring quality means that most human beings will continue to have their thinking impacted by these biases because most people are unwilling to put the effort into thinking about the impossible and the invisible. For most things and most people, the cost of being wrong is not all that high and most often the effort required to do the work to counteract these biases is greater than the work required to maintain an incorrect point of view. It is easier to justify why you are right than it is to put in the work to correct an error.

So what?

The brain does not make errors. It is a machine that operates in a purely logical way. When it doesn’t have accurate information or when it doesn’t have sufficient information, the output it generates may not be correct. It can only do what it is programmed to do and it can only do this with what it has access to.

This means that we need to use our attention to make sure we bring in the most accurate information we can, that we take sufficient care to interpret the information accurately while correcting errors quickly, and that we put the effort into surfacing or activating as much of the relevant information as possible. Experientially this is going to feel like work but there is a big pay off. In the short term it will mean improved decision making, and in the long term it will result in enhanced levels of expertise and a boost in cognitive ease.

WYSIATI exists because the brain is not able to bring to mind or activate everything it knows about a topic instantly, nor is it able to activate everything all at once. With enough time it will probably cycle through everything, but each new activation causes something else to fade away. All of it will serve however as input so given enough time, if your brain has the information stored, it will generate output that is correct. When we do not take enough time, we do not supply it with sufficient information to generate the correct answer.

When someone is an expert in a particular area, they are rarely impacted by WYSIATI because the information that they have stored in their brain is very accurate and they have created a new automatic and unconscious process for activating all of the needed information and giving the brain the input it needs.

Try To Say Only As Much As You Need To – The Benefits Of Saying Less And Keeping Quiet

It needs to be said that the human brain functions in a way that leads to errors that are of a predictable type. It is not capable of keeping EVERYTHING in mind all at once, so it filters out almost everything in an attempt to keep only the relevant things active. This filtering process is not full proof and when dealing with complex things, critical information is discarded.

Author Reading Blog Post

There is a video that my YouTube app continues to suggest to me called “Don’t Talk To The Police.” I recently cleared my search and watch history so the app has no idea that I have already watched the video. To the best of my recollection, the video is basically a criminal defence lawyer giving a lecture to a university class in which he relates his experience and knowledge about the nature of conversations between law enforcement personnel and members of the public. His view is that NO ONE but a lawyer should talk to the police and in the event that someone is a lawyer, they should keep their mouth closed and let their lawyer do the talking. What is extra funny about the video, at least as I am remembering it now, is the presenters comments to a second speaker who will follow him, a member of law enforcement, in which they both agree that you should not talk to the police.

The lawyers view is that the police have a job to do, one that is potentially very dangerous and challenging. They have been tasked with enforcing the law and identifying people to charge with crimes. For the overwhelming majority of the public, the police satisfy these tasks by playing a crime prevention role and the administration of traffic tickets for moving violations. For the civilians who get pulled over, it can be slightly intimidating and unnerving. This isn’t a big surprise given that getting a traffic ticket can be expensive and can increase the cost of our mandatory insurance. Driving however is a privilege and since the government has a monopoly on violence and a responsibility to keep all citizens safe, we agree to certain things whenever we make the decision to drive. As such, if we are driving a motor vehicle and a police officer pulls us over we must show them our licence, vehicle ownership, and proof of insurance. In the event a driver doesn’t have a licence on them, they MUST reveal their name. Other than these three items, we have no obligation to say anything else. They can ask us any number of questions and we are free to refuse to answer them, just as we are free to say anything we want.

HOWEVER, choosing to remain silent or refusing to answer their questions, while not an indication of anything subversive, can lead to a more complicated interaction and a less desirable outcome. E.g. if they were considering just giving you a warning, refusing to answer their questions may serve only to ensure that they give you a ticket. If, in the very unlikely case you do happen to match a person of interest who they are looking for, not answering their questions does nothing to eliminate you as being the person of interest.

In all cases OTHER than being pulled over while driving, you have the right to say nothing to the police, to tell them that you do not answer questions or to request a lawyer to be present when they are questioning you. You maintain these rights forever and regardless of what the police may suggest. This is the essence of what the YouTube video is all about. Do not, under any circumstances, talk to the police or say more than you are legally required to say. You do not have to identify yourself, you do not have to explain what you are doing, where you are going or coming from, where you live or work, give a reason for being where you are, or identify any of the people you are with. In the event that they need to know these things, they will arrest you, take you to the police station, and allow you to connect with and bring-in your lawyer to do the talking for you. They cannot compel you to talk REGARDLESS of what they may try to do.

This is important. They are just doing their jobs, but since a big part of their job is to identify people to charge for crimes, it is safe to proceed under the assumption that they are trying to figure out what crime they can charge you with. This is such a big part of their job that the US has the Miranda warning that law enforcement personnel need to give to those they take into custody (those individuals who have been deprived of their right to liberty, which is the freedom to walk away at will). There is a script that most of us have heard dozens of times on Law And Order and on any number of crime shows, but a verbatim reading of the script is not actually a requirements. The law enforcement person must make the detained person aware of four things:

1) they have the right to remain silent
2) anything the suspect says can and may be used against them in a court of law
3) they have the right to have an attorney present before and during the questioning
4) if they cannot afford the services of an attorney, they have the right to have one appointed, at public expense and without cost to them, to represent them before and during the questioning

If they do not make a person aware of these things and proceed with questioning them, there is a near certain chance that any of the information they uncover will not be admissible in court. This may not matter if they are able to surface the information independently, but if the only source of the information is the non Mirandaized suspect, it cannot be introduced during a trial.

Related to the Miranda warning is the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. This amendment gives a number of rights to citizens of the US as they relate to crime procedures. There are a number of rights, but the relevant one here is that of the right to NOT incriminate oneself. When someone pleads the fifth, they are invoking the right to not answer a question that they believe may lead to self-incrimination. This is similar to the Miranda warning but is used in more formal situations such as criminal trials, depositions, and speaking in front of congress or other legislative bodies. The point of each is the same, there is a separation between the government and the individual citizens and while the government holds practically all of the power, the citizens must have the right to safely resist this power in a way that ensures they are not victimized by the government without having the opportunity to consent to it.

So back to talking, or not talking, to the police. Given that one of their main responsibilities is to identify people to charge with crimes, it makes sense for us to unpack this a little more. Crime is not always or mostly a zero sum type of thing. In some instances, there will be one victim for each perpetrator – think about a mugging or a common assault. But in most other cases there can be more than one perpetrator – a gang attack, criminal syndicate, or most white collar crimes. With the exception of Bernie Madoff, who by all accounts was the sole perpetrator of a ponzi scheme that netted millions of dollars, most white collar crimes involve groups of people who are aware of what is going on and many more who are wilfully ignorant to what is occurring. This means that it is possible for hundreds of people to be guilty of a crime even if there was only one victim and even if there was no victim. People can be guilty of conspiracy and “after the fact” crimes.

This being said, the police have a responsibility to assume that EVERYONE they interact with might have broken the law. This is most likely true given the number of laws that are on the books. The police do not need to be actively investigating a crime in order to arrest someone for it, all that is required is a substantial belief that a crime has been committed by the person to whom they are speaking OR sufficient evidence of guilt that there is a reasonable chance that the person would be convicted at the end of a trial. Note that the person who gets convicted does not necessarily need to be the person who committed the crime, nor does a crime actually need to have been committed. A reasonable belief or sufficient evidence of guilt are enough to garner first the charge and then subsequent finding of “guilty.”

This is the underlying reason why the lawyer was telling the law students to NEVER speak to the police. His motivation is not to be a jerk or to make the job of police more difficult, although it could be for the first point and absolutely does cause the second. The human brain is not a fully logical operator, and it does NOT take in and process ALL of the available information because there is just too much. It then uses this incomplete information to manufacture an on-the-fly meaning and to then make predictions about the future based on this meaning and the experience it has previously had. Further to this, once it makes a prediction, this is used in the process of manufacturing meaning. The consequence to any interpretation and prediction is the re-prioritization of what information is important and what can be ignored.

This entire process makes a lot of sense as it serve the primary goal of all living beings, which is to remain alive. This is a remarkable achievement given just how complicated the physical world is. But the world of law and order exists primarily on the brains of human beings. It is therefore more abstract than tangible, which renders the human brain inadequate for accurately addressing it in an error free way. Ideas are the currency of thinking. Since these are made-up of electrical activity within the brain, they can only exist when someone is thinking them. The brain has a finite capacity and a finite speed, so the complex ideas that contain “law and order” come into existence when they are triggered and will fade away quickly when they are no longer being activated. This is the very reason why we cannot trust our brains completely in the moment and the reason why the clarity of our thinking will always benefit from taking more time to process and assess more of the information AND have a willingness to see the things that are not deemed to be meaningful by our initial interpretation.

The willingness is critical because without it, if someone has a vested interest in seeing things a particular way they will see things that way. Any conflict of interest has the possibility of altering the meaning that a person puts onto something, which will then alter the predictions they make, altering what information they pay attention, further impacting the meaning. Things can and do speed off into the realm of untruth very quickly rendering the predictions inaccurate and changing the way a person thinks, and about what they think, so profoundly that their predictions seem completely accurate.

In the case of the video, the lawyer is speaking to the conflict of interest that the police have when interpreting meaning out of their conversations with people. Since crime is everywhere and since most drivers routinely break the law, there is a near certain chance that any time a police officer speaks to someone that they are speaking to someone who has broken the law. The overwhelming majority of the people and crime pairings are inconsequential in the grand scheme of life – rolling a stop sign, speeding while keeping-up with the flow of traffic, etc… – but they are crimes nonetheless. Ones that, had the cop been looking for someone to be committing them WHILE the person committed them, they would have intervened and issued a citation for the violation. The fact that they did not see it while it was occurring is irrelevant to the fact that the person did violate the law.

We would like to believe that the police have no incentive OTHER than upholding the law when they do their jobs, but this simply is not true. Some officers are tasked with investigating a particular type of crime and are less inclined to care about other types of crimes, but, when all is said and done, crime is crime and there is a belief that someones past is the best predictor of their future actions. While moving or parking violations are not necessarily gateway crimes for drug trafficking, armed robbery, or tax evasion, there is an all or nothing quality to crime that is a slippery slope. It implies that maybe the speeder WILL become a thug because they have already shown a propensity if not a predilection towards violating the law. Since the police have the responsibility of enforcing the law and since most adults who drive violate the law fairly consistently, any conversation an officer has with an adult is also a conversation with a potentially violent criminal.

Three things here:

The first is that I am not suggesting that this makes anything more than narrative sense. I’m guiding you down the path in such a way as to make the conclusion seem inevitable. The fact that it matches reality is why I am doing this.

The second is that I am NOT suggesting that people who work in law enforcement are unethical or are behaving in any way that is different from how most people behave. They are effectively identical to everyone else and are simply doing their jobs as well as they can. If you or I were tasked with doing their job, we would do it in the same way because that is what the job requires. The consequences for a false negative are too high, and there is, after all, a slow and more methodical second evaluation in the form of the court system. This means that false positives can be sorted our later.

The third is about the incentive a police officer might have when doing their job that can be best understood when laid out in a blown syllogism.

If no crime occurs THEN there is no need for a law enforcement agency THEREFORE the police MUST charge people with crime.

There are a few things wrong with this, but it is an overview of the approach that is used almost the world over. Those who work in law enforcement have a vested interest in maintaining the appearance of a certain level of crime because without the crime, there is no need for a law enforcement agency.

Make no mistake about it, I have no problem with the police or with the desire to enforce the law in such a way as to allow people to live as safe a life as possible. I don’t have a problem with a law enforcement officer engaging me with a mindset that I am guilty of something and will talk myself into admitting to it if given a long enough time. Even though I am mindful to the rules of the road and the way in which I operate the cars that I drive, I likely commit at least one moving violation every time I get behind the wheel.

The problem I have is with talking to people who have already made-up their mind about the topic and are simply talking to me in an attempt to surface “proof” that they are correct. The video is used to illustrate the very natural tendency for people to uncover the things that they have an incentive to find, and it is much easier to appreciate this phenomenon when we examine the actions and behaviour of law enforcement personnel.

The fact of the matter is that EVERYONE operates the same way and will use conversation as the means to validate the predictions that they have already made. The only way to combat this biased information seeking behaviour is to limit what we say and to gain a more complete understanding of what we stand to lose when we keep talking.

Take a moment to think back on a real life crime show that included a part that had the interrogation of the prime suspect. When a lawyer is not present, the detectives work hard to get and keep the suspect talking because they know that very few people are capable of relating personal information and experiences without revealing some aspect of questionable behaviour. Once revealed, these details will be used as a wedge to cause their entirety of their story to unravel. We feel great when we believe that the person who is being interrogated is guilty. But we also feel good when the person looks a particular way or is from a particular geographic location. Having bad teeth or being from a country that is not as highly regarded as the US are not indications of guilt or criminal intent, but they are sufficient enough for us to manufacture meaning and make a prediction. So if we feel good when our “not based on anything” opinions are validated, imagine what can go wrong when the police form an opinion and set about getting the suspect to keep talking.

So what?

It needs to be said that the human brain functions in a way that leads to errors that are of a predictable type. It is not capable of keeping EVERYTHING in mind all at once, so it filters out almost everything in an attempt to keep only the relevant things active. This filtering process is not full proof and when dealing with complex things, critical information is discarded.

The filtering process itself is highly influenced by the information that is currently active in the brain and also by the information that is NOT filtered out.

Once a prediction is made, evidence that does not support the prediction or which invalidates it is filtered out. At this point, a cognitive error has occurred and the brain has moved into the realm of fiction.

Once the brain has created this fiction it is very good at asking the questions that reveal information that supports it. However, without information, the brain is mostly powerless at keeping the prediction alive. This means that saying nothing is a more effective way of maintaining the truth than trying to convince someone of it when they have made their mind up about it.

The sayings “their silence speaks volumes” and “if they had nothing to hide they would be willing to talk” are complete bullshit and they actually reveal a lot more about the mind set of someone who says them than of anyone who chooses to say nothing.

Uncomfortable silences benefit those who are seeking information MORE than anyone else, and they benefit those who are seeking biased or fictional information most of all.

If you take anything out of this post try to make sure that it is the following: the words we say change the world in ways that make taking them back impossible, so be sure to speak only when it is necessary, helpful, or true. Even then, always keep in mind that people tend to hear what they believe they will hear while filtering out most of the things that they do not believe they will hear or that they have an incentive to not hear.

NOTE: I am not a lawyer and this post is not intended to be nor is it actually legal advice. Any statements that can be interpreted as being legal advice should be interpreted as being statements about the nature of the human brain and of human behaviour. When in doubt, say less or nothing while seeking out the skilled professional in the area of concern. If someone is pressing you to talk or answer questions, they have a conflict of interest that will be served by getting you to say something. Do not give in to their desire until you have had the opportunity to fully assess the situation, uncover what you stand to lose, and involve the needed experts.

Human Beings Are All Addicts – Born Addicted, Like Our Life Depends On It

You are a chemical addict, you were born one because your parents were both addicts, and all of their ancestors were addicts too. In fact, all of your friends are addicts, everyone you have ever loved, cared about, or respected was an addict. Frankly, the strength of your character isn’t enough to keep you on the wagon. Okay, maybe YOUR’s is, but statistically speaking it isn’t.

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Occasionally, but more frequently recently, people ask me “what the hell are you talking about?” when I make the claim that human beings are born addicted to chemicals and spend the duration of their life seeking them out. I suppose that I should or could be more careful with the language I choose when discussing my opinions about the subject, because it is next to impossible for a person to hear my statement and not automatically assume that I am talking about them. But since I am, maybe my word choice is exactly what is needed.

You are a chemical addict, you were born one because your parents were both addicts, and all of their ancestors were addicts too. In fact, all of your friends are addicts, everyone you have ever loved, cared about, or respected was an addict. Frankly, the strength of your character isn’t enough to keep you on the wagon. Okay, maybe YOUR’s is, but statistically speaking it isn’t. There have only been a small number of human beings who have ever lived that were able to overcome their addiction, all of which suffered the fatal consequences of ridding their bodies of the chemical of choice.

Look at the video below, with the sound off, then take a few minutes to consider what you have just read, what you see in the video, and what I am getting at.

Funny baby eh?

Well that baby is you. Maybe not right now, although it is possible. Everyone is that baby a number of times throughout their life and when we take the time to realize this fact, we gain a level of insight into the essential nature of what it means to be a human being.

“What the hell am I talking about?”

Well, that baby has no experience with ice cream before this video was recorded. It is accustomed to having one of its caregivers feed it. It has learned that when a caregiver presents food to it in this way, by holding it up in front of its face, that the food will find its way into its mouth if it opens it. Its young brain has collected a lot of information, created and tested a few theories, and arrived with a cause and effect pairing that has a high degree of predictive accuracy. This is a remarkable thing to have happen and yet this less than a year old baby has done it.

But it has never had ice cream before this moment. I am certain about this fact not because of the title of the video but because of how the baby reacts to the ice cream. Watch it again and you will notice that the baby does not reach for the ice cream UNTIL after it has had a moment to process what has just occurred. Then notice that it doesn’t seem to have any aversion to holding onto the it in-spite of the fact that ice cream is very cold.

The adults in the video are laughing because it is superficially very funny. It’s as though the baby goes “oh, they’re about to feed me, I’ll just open my mouth and the food will go in.” Adult moves food to mouth and baby takes a lick because this is what its experience has taught it to be the best action to take in this type of situation. It is not reaching for anything, it is letting the adult move the food; its little arms are kind of hanging there, not completely relaxed but not taking any purposeful action. There is a moment, a very short one, and then things change, slowly then dramatically and the adults begin to laugh.

The first thing that happens after the ice cream and the baby connect is a moment of assessment. It isn’t entirely clear what is going on in the baby’s brain here, at least by trying to read its face, but we know from our own experience with eating new things that there is a cascade of events all of which are aimed at determining what role the food will play in our future. There are three potential outcomes, two of which are very important. Should this be eaten again, should this not be eaten again, or does it not matter one way or the other. The first two are critical assessments because the brain is programmed to do the things that increase the chances of survival and never repeat the things that reduce the chances. This assessment is made automatically, unconsciously and very quickly. In this situation the brain registers a “not a survival risk” then “can be eaten again” followed by “MUST EAT NOW.”

You can see the look of absolute novel delight on its face followed by the automatic and impulsive seeking behaviour as it reaches out, grabs the ice cream and pulls it into its face and mouth.

But there is even more to it. Coldness is a sensation that human beings are programmed to notice and avoid unless they have cause to try and lower their body temperature. The video looks like it is being filmed in a mall, which is going to be kept at a comfortable temperature, so the baby is not seeking out something that will cool it off. However, coldness in general and a dramatic contrast in temperature specifically are sensations that the brain CANNOT NOT notice given the very narrow and relatively high temperature that the body must maintain in order to continue functioning effectively. The baby, or the baby’s brain, is absolutely aware of the temperature of the ice cream, likely from the first moment when it touches its mouth, but definitely when it grabs and holds onto it.

Survival is THE most important thing to living beings, everything else is at best secondary. We have temperature receptors in our skin because they improve survival fitness. While they are important to human beings, they were MORE important to whatever species first developed them, and because they helped those beings survive, the instructions to develop them remained and were passed along to whatever species was next in the evolutionary sequence. The survival advantage they afforded was greater than the energy cost of growing and maintaining them.

Cold temperatures destroy tissue, and anything that is close to or below the freezing point of water is particularly dangerous. The contrast between air temperature in a mall and the temperature of ice-cream is impossible to perceive as anything other than great and given the cause and effect understanding that the baby has already generated, its brain is attributing the cold contrast to whatever it touched its mouth and then to whatever it just grabbed.

The baby does not, however, withdraw from the ice cream nor does it let go of it. It assesses the taste and then reaches for, grabs onto and pulls close to its mouth the very thing that is cold. This is something that a living being will do under two circumstances. The first is that it does so consciously, the second is that it does so because there is a survival advantage in doing so. The first one is a non factor here because the child does not have the level of brain development that is needed for consciousness to emerge. This leaves the second one, there is a survival benefit to enduring the coldness.

So the brain of the baby is aware that there is something about ice cream that will improve its chances of remaining alive and that this improvement is GREATER than the threat represented by the coldness. Being a brain and being in control of the body, it reaches out to the survival substance, grabs onto it, takes control, and begins to eat it. It is programmed to do this whenever it can, so once the assessment has been made that ice cream will improve survival the outcome is automatic.

Ice cream is not good for us though. If we eat too much of it, it will begin to harm us and it is entirely possible that someone could eat themselves through ill health and arrive at death. BUT, and this is very important when considering what evolutionary fitness means in a practical sense and what survival actually means. Survival is everything other than death. Given this binary definition, eating so much ice cream so as to cause illness is achieving the goal of surviving. Also consider the time frame we are dealing with. It takes WAY longer to eat ourselves to death by ice cream than it would take to starve ourselves to death by simply not eating.

Eating crappy food does not present the existential risk that NOT eating food presents. In fact, a case can be made that when we do not have access to a lot of food, eating things that are high in calories is actually a very pragmatic approach. When the choice is between dying or eating crappy food, the brain does not register that there is a choice to be made and will simply cause the body to do whatever it has to do in order to eat.

Recall that I mentioned about temperature receptors that we have in our skin being the result of a change to the genetic code of one of our early ancestors? EVERY gene we have is the result of a change in the genetic code of our ancestors but not every change that occurred was helpful. A new trait was only helpful if it increased the likelihood that the creature would survive and reproduce within the environment that the creature lived in. Therefore our ancestors lived in an environment that favoured beings that ate ice cream while enduring coldness MORE than ones that would avoid coldness even if that meant they did not eat ice cream.

Given that the earliest that ice cream could have been invented is 3000 BCE, which is not long enough in the past to impact evolution in any meaningful way, we have to assume that the ice cream is a place holder for something else. In this case, it is holding the place of high energy food – sugar and fat. Am I suggesting that the human brain is programmed to seek out and consume sugar and fat containing foods, even when there is some level of physical discomfort associated with this consumption? Yes, that is exactly what I am suggesting. I’ll go one further and say that human beings have the genes to motivate us to eat high calorie foods because there was a time in our evolutionary past when there wasn’t an abundance of food leading individuals who ate high calorie foods to have a survival advantage over those who ate lower calorie foods.

When was this time? Not every long ago. Food insecurity was a fact of life for the entire planet less than 150 years ago. The discovery / invention of farming about 11000 years ago improved the food scarcity situation for human considerably, but there were still seasonal cycles of abundance and scarcity, and the occasional famine when weather changes, disease, or war interrupted the food supply causing the death of the young, the old, and the weak.

We always need to keep in mind that the genes coded on our DNA are the ones that favoured our ancestors at the time they lived and are not the ones that necessarily serve our survival needs today. They are amazing, but some of them are not what we would select for modern life. Oh well, that isn’t how things work.

What does any of this have to do with YOU being an addict?

Take another look at the first 5 seconds of the video again and notice the look on the baby’s face right before it tries to exert control over its environment by grabbing onto the ice cream, pulling it towards its mouth and getting down to eating it.

That look is very important and arguably the most revealing thing in the video; and possibly the most revealing thing in any video that is hosted on YouTube. Something very important has just happened inside the brain of the baby that causes a number of physiological changes that lead to psychological changes and then to physical actions. The first is a profound level of delight that nearly every human being who sees the video feels to some extent. The second is a focusing of attention onto the ice cream that is so tight that it clears EVERYTHING else out. The next thing is a targeting / aiming followed by the seeking and consumption behaviour that has the baby grab the ice cream and begin to eat it. This desire for more is so powerful that the baby effectively ignores the sensation of coldness that represents a threat to survival. You can see some slightly grimaced looks each time its gums hit the ice cream but whatever the cause of them does not rise-up to the level of changing course. The baby, upon tasting the ice cream, gets after possessing and eating the ice cream in a near maniacal and single-minded way. To the baby there is nothing else BUT the ice cream.

The baby is an addict and the video captures a moment when it got a fix. On the surface it appears that they are addicted to ice cream but this is only partially correct. It isn’t the ice cream, nor is it anything that is contained within the ice cream, at least not directly. The baby, and you and me, are addicted to what the brain does in reaction to the ice cream. And the brain doesn’t just react to ice cream in this way, it reacts to many things in the same way. The younger the person is and the lower their experience with the world, the smaller is the list of things that will trigger this reaction.

What we are seeing on the video is the result of the baby’s brain releasing dopamine into the synaptic cleft between the neurons that make-up the reward centre of its brain. This causes a sensation / level of activity that the brain is coded to seek out. Once it learns how to cause the release, it will begin to engineer life in such a way as to ensure the consumption of or participation in the things that will trigger the release. This process is what is understood to be the mechanism of psychological reward, which functions to reinforce particular actions and to incentivize the repeating of these actions.

For babies, the only actions that will trigger a dopamine release are those actions that at one point improved evolutionary fitness. This means high calorie food, social connection, contact with caregivers, any successful pattern match between immediate sensory data and something contained in long term memory, and the creation of a stimulus : response / cause : effect pairing EVEN ones that are not accurate. This last one can be understood to be learning, even when what is learned is not accurate.

The key to the entire thing is that living beings need to take action in order to survive and the dopamine reward system is what emerged to motivate a being to spend energy taking an action within an environment that was energy scarce. In a world that is both “act or die” and “act and die,” this system is fantastic at causing individuals to both take actions and to take very specific ones.

Take a second to think about some of the stories that you have heard about someone who got addicted to crack cocaine. Crack is considered to be more addictive than powder cocaine although all crack users say they would rather use powder than smoke crack. The key difference between them is the method of delivery – crack is burned and the smoke is inhaled while the powder is snorted. The smoke finds its way into the blood stream faster than the powder which means it hits the brain faster. It is the same underlying mechanism of action, that is to delay the re-uptake of dopamine thus prolonging the effect of dopamine. It isn’t the cocaine itself that causes the effect, it is the impact that the cocaine has on the dopamine that cause the physiological and psychological changes. Crack is more addictive because you feel the effects faster, but for less time.

A common horror story about crack and cocaine addiction is that of a person who replaces every action in their life with drug seeking and consumption behaviour. While this might make sense for a baby or someone who knows nothing about life, it makes very little sense for someone who has the life experience and skills enough to be able to afford to buy drugs given that if they know enough about the world to earn money they probably also know that cocaine is a highly addictive drug. But when we remember that the dopamine reward system exists to motivate beings to take action, the only thing that is actually stopping someone from becoming a cocaine addict is their brains lack of knowledge that cocaine powerfully activates their reward system. That is all. It doesn’t really matter what you know consciously, once the nervous system has the experience of pairing an action with the activation of the reward system, the lesson is learned and the pairing will last forever. It is such a powerful system that it will have a baby grab onto freezing cold ice cream and repeatedly eat bites of it, and when it is dialed up, it is powerful enough to motivate someone to do nothing BUT take the actions that most quickly and intensely trigger it to be activated.

Okay, you are not addicted to cocaine although you have all of the requirements for a life destroying addiction to it. You have a dopamine reward system that will motivate you to take the actions that cause it to become active. This system shows a down regulation or tolerance in response to repeated activation in both a perceptual sense and in a real synaptic level sense – repeated exposure to the same stimuli will, over time, result in a diminished release of dopamine while any increase in activation at the neural junction will, over time, result in a decrease in the number of receptor sites which means a larger amount of dopamine will be required to trigger the same level of activation. These are basically the only requirements that are needed in order for someone to develop an addiction for something; so while we are not born addicted to anything, we are very close to having one and just need to uncover the ways to get the brain to release the chemicals. Once our brain learns what actions cause the release, this is sufficient enough to manifest seeking behaviour which has the goal of triggering a release. After a few of them, the magnitude of the response begins to drop, resulting in an increase of the required behaviour. From this point on, the down regulation of dopamine receptors results in a low level of activation which makes the baseline level of dopamine release to be experienced as less rewarding. Below a certain level, this will result in withdrawal-like symptoms, the primary one being a overwhelming craving for the activities that trigger release. If an individual continues to display the behaviour, their level of tolerance continues to grow resulting in a linear increase in the severity of withdrawal symptoms. However, if the individual stops the behaviour and puts an end to the activation, there will be a return to baseline through the up-regulation in the number of receptor sites allowing the brain to return to its pre-exposure level of activity. How long this takes will be determined by exposure length, duration and quantity, level of down regulation, overall health, diet, amount of rest, and a persons physiological ability to facilitate organic tissue growth.

So what?

The brain is coded to release reward chemicals in response to things that increase the chances of remaining alive and that improve evolutionary fitness, with the objective of motivating the individual to repeat these actions.

This system is powerful, but it not a direct system in most cases. While there are a number of things that will trigger its activation directly – such as the consumption of fatty high sugar foods, social connection, matching a pattern between sensory data and long term memory – most of the activation is indirect, either through the ingestion of exogenous molecules or the interpretation / perception of sensory data.

Living beings know innately or learn very early in life that there is a stimulus response relationship or cause and effect connection between things in the external world. This piece of wisdom is the key stone in the effectiveness of the dopamine based reward system because it allows the brain to learn that action A caused the release of rewards. Once this is learned, the brain will begin to repeat action A in order to get more reward.

When we look at the baby in the video, we are able to notice three critical yet completely distinct moments and one that is invisible but clearly present – the action, the release of the reward chemicals, the invisible moment of learning (the pairing of the ice cream to the reward), and the reward seeking behaviour which is the repeating of the action.

The baby is now aware that ice cream causes the release of reward chemicals so it will be motivated to eat ice cream again in the future and it is one very big step closer to developing an addiction to fatty high sugar substances.

If no action is taken, no learning will occur. If an action is taken but no reward chemicals are released, the brain will learn that there is no incentive in repeating the action.

Before wrapping this up, please take another look at the video and then come back to read to the end. Human beings are in a unique place in history. We are running the code that allowed all of our ancestors to survive long enough to reproduce and to have a survival advantage over other individuals who did not have the code. But our larger brain has given us the ability to communicate very effectively with other individuals along with the capacity for creativity. Working together in groups and using these two skills, we have developed the ability to consistently change the external environment in a way that eliminates the majority of the things that the evolved code helped us to survive in spite of. This has rendered the reward system mostly irreverent and potentially problematic in that it motivates us to seek out things that are no longer rare and are only of marginal survival advantage if at all helpful.

We are born addicted to dopamine, given that we will seek out things that trigger its release and given our ability to develop tolerance to this chemical. We are not born addicted to cocaine, other drugs, or to specific fatty high sugar foods. However, it is very simple for the brain to learn the association between actions and rewards, and to then develop an addiction to those actions. The baby at the end of the video is a lot closer to becoming a compulsive eater of fatty high sugar food than it was at the beginning of the video. This would not be the case if it had never had the experience of eating the ice cream.

Be very careful when taking any new action, particularly ones that have you consume external molecules. Pay very close attention to how you feel in the moments immediately surrounding you taking any new action when you notice that you begin to feel fantastic, good, heightened in a positive direction, or any state that is higher than your baseline. Be very mindful when choosing to repeat that action. If the action is NOT necessary or if it pointless, useless, or unhelpful, consider NEVER repeating it again. Your brain has already learned that the action causes the release of reward chemicals so you are only a few repetitions away from creating a compulsive or habitual pattern of behaviour that will, over time, start to make-up a larger portion of the actions that you take.

We are born addicted, over time we learn what it is that we are addicted to.

Cynicism And Skepticism Are NOT The Same

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Someone once told me that I was the most cynical person they had ever met. I thanked them for the feedback, mentioned that they needed to get out more, and agreed with them that I was skeptical. They either didn’t notice this correction-agreement pairing or didn’t react to it; although I presume it was the former.

Cynicism and skepticism are not the same thing. While both are is “isms”, the locus of control for each is different. With cynicism, the individual is in control of the interpretation. No matter what other people do, the individual will remain in a negatively valianced state that has them default to the worst possible interpretation of things, one that is highly resistant to contradictory evidence. With skepticism, the individual tends towards an initial negative interpretation that is not sticky; it is a wait and see approach that moves in response to evidence pointing one way or the other. Skeptics have a locus of control that is external meaning other people get to determine whether the doubt continues based on their actions.

Back to me being called cynical for displaying skepticism. It was very clear right from the start what the person was trying to communicate and it had nothing to do with me being cynical or not, it had to do with them not liking the prediction I had made about the future based on my experience. It was one of my old bosses, who was speaking about the future actions of one of my peers. They were telling me that my peer was going to take care of something and as soon as they had, I would be able to move forward with a project that my boss was pressuring me to complete. When they mentioned that my peer would have things wrapped-up by the end of that business day, meaning I could get started that night working from home to make sure no deadlines were missed, I replied with “I’ll try to get started this evening, but I’m not going to do any work on it if what they deliver is not accurate.” This was met with a reply of “oh my God, you are so cynical.”

Why was my comment an indication of skepticism vs. cynicism?

Evidence, and very specific evidence. My peer had a track record of not delivering the work that was needed in order for me to pick-up the baton, do my part, and then hand off the complete project to the sales team.

A peer not being up to speed on the requirements or them lacking the ability to perform their tasks is not something that I necessarily have a problem with. Life is tough, most jobs are composed of a multitude of tasks that are novel and only meaningful in a very tight context. It is going to take people a few tries to get it right, and a bunch more to get good enough at it so as to be a contributing member of a team. So long as the person approaches things without any arrogance, I am fine with their below average performance and bug-filled work because I know they are open to feedback and will make the effort to alter their specific actions to improve the quality of their results as they move forward. There will be incremental improvement as they take in more information and adjust their approach in response.

The peer in question, however, was arrogant. They had a track record of handing off error filled work and reacting to my feedback with “interesting, I’ll try that next time” or, “well, if you were to think about for a second, you’d realize my approach is an improvement.” Both of which were followed by them doing nothing more at that moment and doing nothing different in the future. I was left to correct their mistakes and after a couple of these interactions, I knew full well that my job had expanded to include the new task of fixing their inaccurate work.

When they started, I was optimistic that they were the correct hire and that they had the right values in terms of doing the best work possible. That was not based on anything that had happened yet, just the hope that those in a position of making the hiring decision had the ability to identify the correct values and soft skills that would ultimately result in a competent coworker. Whether or not being able to generate hope is a bug or a feature of the human brain is an interesting side question, but I have found that it is a requirement when working with other people. You cannot approach things with certainty one way or the other because the human brain has tremendous capacity to learn new things, just as it has the capacity to decide that it knows all that is needed and then remain impervious to new information.

More often than not, people rise to the occasion and invest the effort to learn and improve. It takes effort, willingness, and the ability to tolerate being wrong for long enough choose to do something about it. While not everyone will do this, I have had ample opportunity to notice that many people will lean into the uncertainty (or the certainty that they are wrong) and advance their understanding of the situation. And it is only because of these experiences that I have been able to avoid cynicism. I have seen enough people take action to try and improve that I accept that the locus of control for other peoples ignorance resides outside of me. I KNOW that they CAN do it, I just do not know if they will. Most of my other peers did, the one in question did not.

With cynicism, the locus of control for taking the actions to address ones ignorance becomes secondary to the lack of hope or belief that anyone will take the actions that are needed; or the certainty that they will NOT take these actions. It is as though the cynical person adds something to the effect of “and yet they won’t” to the end of any sentence or statement that makes reference to someones ability to take the actions to move forward or advance their understanding. For example, “They have the ability the fix the problem, and yet they won’t.”

Doubling down in this, cynical people also employ a more robust version of the fundamental attribution error (FAE). When an outcome is bad, they attribute it to a characterlogical short-comings or flaw, which is a near text book definition of the FAE. What they add to it is their response to a positive outcome, which is to attribute situational or circumstantial causes to it vs. the unconscious assumption that the other person got it right because of talent, skill, or ability. When the outcome is bad, the other person is to blame, when the outcome is good, the other person was lucky. So no matter what happens, the other person is always going to be painted in the worst possible light.

NOTE: I have not suggested a second alternative, that the cynic has an internal locus of control for taking the actions to correct another persons ignorance, because that point of view is only embodied in people who believe that things can be different, which a cynic does not believe.

So what?

There is nothing at all wrong with being skeptical so long as you change your view when you encounter evidence that justifies changing your point of view. Skepticism is basically taking a “wait and see” approach, which is actually a very logical way to view things. People can, but will they?

I invite everyone to engage life with this or a more optimistic approach as it will help you achieve a lot more than taking the cynical view that “they can but won’t” or that “they can’t.” The reasons are twofold. The first is that it will allow you to change your mind and move forward based on reality vs. the application of a preconceived generalization that does not change. The second is that it communicates a very different message to other people. Cynics tend to broadcast their doubt in a way that influences the actions of other people leading to the very outcomes the cynic was predicting. Being skeptical does not broadcast doubt because there isn’t any. It tells the other person that they can, that you believe they can, but that actions need to be taken by them.

Slow-motion Car Crash – Wrecking The Planet Takes Humans And Time

There are worse things for humanity than global warming…. Pollution is a bigger problem. Antibiotic resistance is a bigger problem. Bad ideas about differences between groups of people is a bigger problem. A lack of diversity in terms of crops and livestock farming is a bigger problem. Obesity is a bigger problem. The fact that very few people know how to make any of the things that we use is a bigger problem. Our collective ignorance about how exactly we got here is a bigger problem.

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Things take time. Other than the big bang, which for some inexplicable reason created an expanding universe out of a near infinite mass of matter contained in a tiny area of space. That was very very quick. Everything else takes time.

We as a species are beginning to stumble from one disaster to another at a quickening pace. For billions of years, not much happened. Then things started to pick-up a bit of speed. It wasn’t much speed, but it was a lot faster than the pace in the previous billion or so years. This continued along for hundreds of millions of years with only slightly more than nothing happening. There was another increase in the speed of change, still slow by big bang standards, but it was faster. This incremental pace of increases continued along for hundreds of millions and probably billions of years.

Not everything went at this snail’s pace. There were moments of dramatic action followed by slightly longer periods of time when the planet would experiences the physical consequences to that moment before things slowed right down again. These moments are more or less completely made-up of the times when large objects that had been travelling through space crashed into the earth. Like that time when a massive asteroid / early planet joined the earth with such force that the resulting debris eventually all coalesced to form the moon. Or that other time when an asteroid slammed into the water just off the coast of what is now Mexico and the ensuing chaos killed 98% of the land dwelling creatures – basically all of the ones that were not able to take shelter a few inches below the surface. The consequences from this one took a lot less time to materialize than the moon maker; estimates range from less than 6 hours to a couple of years.

Then effectively nothing for an unimaginably long time.

Except this time was a little different. The culling of most surface life created a space for a different type of animal (or classification) to get an opportunity to live without too many predators. This classification was the warm blood, live birth giving creates that are collectively known as mammals. Some of the most famous animals that are not dinosaurs fall into this category – panda bears, the cute as anything kola bears, sloths, wild dogs, wild cats, and human beings. It took a while for each one of these species to come to be but what is important is that it happened. The land was safe enough for early mammals to live, breed, and naturally select or mutate a high level of diversity into this class of beings. Sometime between 50 thousand and half a millions years ago homo-sapiens came into existence. This was the beginning of something entirely new, a species of life that would eventually develop the capability to manufacture natural disasters and other slow moving events that that nature used to have a monopoly on causing.

I’m not going to suggest that human beings are great, because we are kind of flawed in very fundamental ways, but we appear to be the first species to ever exist on the planet that is able to engage in complex interactions with other members of the species, and of considering abstract ideas and stuff that doesn’t exist. There is reason to believe that many other species are capable of at least rudimentary abstraction, but none of them have the capacity to communicate these ideas to others nor do they have the ability to look at what is going on at one moment and figure out what will happen in the next, at least not to any substantial degree. Some can learn through observation and understand concepts like fairness and reciprocity, many more are capable of the abstraction that is object permanence, and all of them are incapable of communicating these things to other members of the species – all learning was the result of direct observation or direct experience.

Welcome to the beginning of the end, thank you for coming!

In fairness to early man, they were practically useless. Sure they had an advanced brain that ran much of the same programming of the mammal species that came before it and it functioned in effectively the same way (neurons that alter their electrical charge slightly to be “on” vs “off” and collections of them interacting to form neural networks to respond to and make things happen), but out of the box, there wasn’t much more to this version than the one that came before it, but there was potential. The newer version had a huge capacity for storage and the capability to process more information faster, and in a way that was new. This brain was also coded to grow a larger prefrontal cortex than any that came before, although it was programmed to do most of this growth beginning around the time puberty.

This late growth stage is an argument against intelligent design. No one with a fully developed and functioning prefrontal cortex could miss the inherent problems with having one part of the brain lag 15 years behind the rest of it. This will not go as well as having a brain that grows at the same pace.

It’s also an occurrence that supports the theory of evolution that a new species will arise from what came before. Whatever mutation triggered the brain to grow an exceptionally large prefrontal cortex also coded for it to grow later in life. Take what is already there, let it run its course, and when it’s done, start growing the new stuff.

This of course changes nothing about the eventual outcome of having human beings evolve into existence. These consequence will take time but the moment the genetic code mutated to program for a human brain, the count down was started.

The problem has to do with the human ability to learn quickly and without having to observe or directly experience something. Consider wild dogs for comparison and contrast. When they are born, their genetic code contains instructions that will ensure that the reward centers of their brains will release reward chemicals in response to particular things. If these things never happen, the animal will never become conditioned to take particular action. Their motivation will be fueled only by punishment and thus be exclusively avoidant. However, if the animal happens to experience one of the things for which the reward chemicals will get released, their future will immediately transform to include repeating the experience. Through this mechanism, wild pack dogs can learn a number of things and act in very specific ways that can very easily be mistakenly to be group behaviours that were communicated. Wolf packs can track down prey and perform some highly coordinated attacks including flanking maneuvers by pack members that are invisible to the rest of the pack. But all of it is simply the result of gene expression and behaviour shaping based on reinforcement. It is fantastic, but all of it was determined by the millions of years of life that led to the emergence of the wolf species.

Human beings are not like that. Well, they are not JUST like that. Gene expression and behaviour shaping through reward and punishment are at work within each one of us, but we also have the ability for abstract thought and remarkably robust communication abilities. The addition of these later two means that we are capable of out of context learning merely by hearing them. E.g. we learn many things at school that we later apply to work and the day to day living of adult life. Factor into this the ability to learn fantastic amounts of information and to then work with and reprocess this information and the floodgates to knowledge and wisdom swing wide open.

It might be important to consider the fact that very little advanced knowledge exists in isolation – advanced ideas build upon less advanced ideas, which were themselves built upon less advanced ideas. When we figure a fact out, it gives our species a big hand in accumulating knowledge. As the collection of knowledge grows to include more advanced concepts, we have the ability to fill-in the gaps or the missing steps in our knowledge. For example, if we teach someone fact A and then teach them fact B and then just to fact G, the human brain will be able to make a guess about steps C, D, E and F and will be able to manufacture compatible and congruent knowledge based on knowing the starting point and knowing the ending point.

That wasn’t a big deal for early man, which we accept as being mostly clueless. But it didn’t take very long before they began to develop technology that was based on this progressive model of knowledge organization. Shelters, fires, weapons, tools, tribes, leaders, education, division of labour, hunting, gathering, farming, domestication of animals, specialization of labour, government, schools, etc…. While not necessarily in chronological order, each one of these technological advancements / discoveries had the effect of improving production and security and of reducing the need to teach young people EVERY lesson that came before. If you work on a farm, what is important is that someone knows how to hunt well enough so that you don’t have to know how to hunt and that you know how to farm well enough so that they don’t have to know. This will free-up a lot of energy to learn or discover more about farming or hunting. When the first working animals were domesticated, farmers no longer needed to know how to plow the fields by hand, they just needed to know how to connect the animal to the plow and how to walk it in a straight line while it drags it. Learning how to do this, however, also meant that you could easily figure-out how to do it by hand by reverse engineering the process.

The rate of change began to accelerate. Sure, it took a very long time for the first pieces of homo-sapien discovered technology to surface, but as soon as they did, they could be shared. This gave the technology staying power and it allowed other human beings to improve upon it. Things advanced slightly and slowly, but within a couple of generations, early man was capable of doing things that pre-man had no concept of. Give it a few hundred generations and what the people consider to be common knowledge would have seemed like magic to early man.

This is the point at which the fate of the species and possibly the planet was sealed. We began to assimilate ever increasing amounts of the physical environment into the collection of matter that is implicated into the life of humanity. Whereas early man would eat animal and plant life in order to convert it into energy and building material, use other plants to build and heat shelters, and use other various materials to form primitive tools, tens of thousands of years later we had developed the ability to build complex tools and machines out of molecules that were themselves processed into usable form by other complex tools and technologies. Sand was turned into glass, iron ore was processed into the iron, the stored energy of the sun was harnessed through the use of mills on rivers and dams, the movement of electrons that is triggered when a magnetic field moves across a copper wire becomes electricity, etc….

A lot of these things were just novel ways to use or take advantage of what had always existed, many were just an industrial scale increase in the assimilation of existing things, but some of the technology caused the formation of completely new combinations of molecules that had never existed in nature before. These useful yet Frankenstein creations and the increase in availability of the preexisting ones are problematic for a similar reason. Life evolved in the presence and concentration of the preexisting elements and compounds meaning anything that is alive either used the molecules or was unharmed by them. Changing the availability of them, and adding new ones, can interfere with the normal biological functioning.

The industrial revolution lead to the creation of the chemical industry and from that moment on, there was a no holds bar assault on the environment. The levels of everything increased, and creatures that had never been exposed to particular chemicals began to assimilate them into their bodies. These chemicals then began to change how cells function.

Some of these changes were health promoting – various medicines, vitamins, and nutritional compounds supply something that predictably alters physiological functioning in the direction of better. Some of them helpful because of the very specific way in which they are incompatible with life – antibiotics, cancer drugs. But many of them have effects on life that are neither helpful nor compatible with the ongoing flourishment of human kind – PVC and asbestos cause cancer, while bacteria adapt to become resistant to antibiotics.

This brings us to where we find ourselves today. The slow change over billions of years has been transformed by human technology into a lightening pace of change. The carbon that has been locked and stored in various places in being released at an ever growing rate as we our technologies break apart the molecules to release the stored energy. The energy is useful, the resulting molecules is less so. It is a matter of scale here. Seasonal fires used to trigger the release of large amount of CO2, but the fires would go out and the land would quickly begin to recapture the carbon as the forest started to regrow. Over millions of years, a balance had been struck that effectively negated any of the positive or negative consequences of releasing this stored carbon. Human beings and the technology they have created since the beginning of the industrial revolution has eliminate the seasonal aspect of release and recapture, replacing it with constant release and a decreasing partial recapturing.

We have entered a no man’s land of chemical diversity and availability. Plastic is everywhere. Carbon dioxide levels are higher than they have been in a very long time and have increased at a rate that is faster than any time in the past except for the moments of impact with asteroids or volcanic explosions.

This is where the mutation that caused the human brain to come into existence is no longer something that is improving our chances of surviving. Specifically, the ability to think in abstract terms, to learn through listening vs. direct experience or the observation of real experience, and to build upon existing knowledge in ever more complex ways, means that we have no experience and little awareness with the consequences of our technology. Unlike the dinosaur killing asteroid which was a near instant released of 1.3 – 58 yottajoules of energy into the environment, the rate of human caused energy release is much slower. This slow burn delays the impact and consequences from less than a few hours to years, decades or even generations, which is the exact recipe for imperceivable and denial. For example, an earth quake, forest fire, or volcano will reveal consequences almost immediately or within days, the effects of moderate radiation or moderate toxic chemical exposures can take twenty years or more for come to pass. This causes humans to make the incorrect assumption that these technologies are only acute harmful in high doses given the quick onset and death in these circumstance. Smoking was harmless until the 1950’s when doctors began to notice a big increase in cancer deaths, particular lung cancer, and other respiratory diseases. Those who were getting sick had been smoking for decades so the temporal relationship between cause and effect was too wide for most people to perceive the existence of a relationship at all. Nonetheless, there is a strong link between smoking and disease, and there is a correlation between the amount of exposure, both in terms of concentration and duration, and negative health outcomes.

There are worse things for humanity than global warming. Not to trivialize the direct impact on millions of people so far, and the billions of people who will be impacted by rising sea levels, but there will be enough well above sea level land that those effected will be able to move. It will suck and it will be expensive, but they will still be alive and healthy. Although by the time it happens, there may not be a lot of people left to be impacted.

Pollution is a bigger problem. Antibiotic resistance is a bigger problem. Bad ideas about differences between groups of people is a bigger problem. A lack of diversity in terms of crops and livestock farming is a bigger problem. Obesity is a bigger problem. The fact that very few people know how to make any of the things that we use is a bigger problem. Our collective ignorance about how exactly we got here is a bigger problem.

And yet, very few people are talking about these things because they are too busy talking about the latest stupid tweet, reality tv show, fashion trend, or the absolute vileness of anyone who doesn’t agree with them. We are talking about what doesn’t matter because it feels more real than the things that do matter. We’ll wear our ignorance like a badge of honour instead of it triggering shame and motivating us to learn something.

There’s a slow-motion car crash happening but we’re not noticing it. We only see the shiny, new, and the fast moving. None of us have seen an extinction level event first hand and since the last one created the clearing that allowed human beings to evolve into existence, we have nothing to fear, especially given that we are the ones steering the car.

“OK boomer” – Because more Division Is Not What Is Needed

My problem with it is that it causes further division between people and it risks triggering people from one group to line-up across from the other group to battle it out in equally childish and unproductive ways. “I don’t listen to boomers” or “I don’t listen to millennials” is a remarkably unhelpful attitude simply because not listening to other people is a remarkably useless way to behave.

NOTE: The title of this post was updated on April 2, 2020 to include the word “not” to improve clarity and reduce the cognitive overhead caused by managing the incongruence between the title and the content of the post. The audio remains unchanged.

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TikTok, in the event you have never heard of it, is a social media / video app that lets users make and share videos of three to fifteen seconds. It will also allow users to loop a video for up to sixty seconds. I have never used it and the only TikTok videos that I have seen are compilation videos posted on YouTube. As close as I can tell, it is very similar to Vine (which allows users to post videos that are slightly more than 6 seconds long). My reasons for not using TikTok, or Vine, have nothing to do with the app. My life just isn’t that interesting and I am not so connected to other people that I or they feel the need to share or consume small chunks of life. These are common feelings that are reported from many people who are a part of generation X and did not grow-up with the Internet. Maybe we are just not good at it, maybe we never learned to find these things rewarding, or maybe it is something else entirely.

Before my father died in 2012, I recall having a conversation with him about Twitter. Neither one of us had an account, I still don’t. I’m not proud of it, nor does it trigger any shame, I just don’t have a need for one. The key thing I remember from our chat was his feeling that it was kind of pointless because the character limit prevents the sharing of complete thoughts. There was a sense or concern that the compression of complex ideas into a sentence or two effectively ensured that misunderstanding was going to occur in nearly every case. He loved reading and consumed a massive amount of information over the course of his life. Paying attention, listening and hearing what people had to say, and asking clarifying questions was something that he was good at. He had seen a lot and had, over time, come to realize that many aspects of history tend to repeat themselves. The only thing to blame were the people directly involved and the people who did nothing to prevent the predictable outcome. “People are smart. We can be lazy though, and a lack of effort is very often the antidote to progress. Most of the answers are out there because so much of this has happened before, a few times before. We hit the iceberg when we choose to go with the feeling that we know as opposed to finding out if we actually do.”

Having been born in 1944, he had memories of rationing after the end of the Second World War as Europe took the time to rebuild from all the destruction. In fact, his brain was filled with memories of the Korean war, the Vietnam war, countless wars in the middle east, revolutions in south America, the troubles in Northern Ireland, the cold war, the space race, the creation and spread of personal computers, the Civil Rights movement, famines, natural disasters, too many musical trends to count, the cycles of fashion, economic booms, busts, and echoes, and more than 60 years of other things. In all of that he had come to accept that everything changes and almost everything repeats. The cast of characters will be different, but the events and the mistakes they make will be the same. Because of this, he had invited my brother and me to try and remain curious about what was actually going on and to be humble enough to be uncertain about the things we pretended to know with certainty. The challenge he had with Twitter was the lack of depth 140 characters allows. It was good for transmitting simple factual information, like a road closure or an approaching weather event, but it was just too limiting in terms of allowed text to clearly transmit anything more complicated than that. It was also hindered by the anonymous nature of being online. You were probably never going to know with certainty who was tweeting, and that opened the platform up to all of the antisocial behaviour associated with there being no real consequences for your words.

What was sort of funny about it was that he had a lot of respect of Jack Dorsey and the rest of the Twitter founders, and basically anyone who created an app, a platform, a social media site, or basically any legal IT thing. Even when their creations were not things that he would ever use, the fact that there were human beings using computers in new and interesting ways was something to admire. It didn’t matter if, in his view, it was pointless, it was still a very impressive thing to make something out of nothing. The fact that it was younger people doing it actually made him feel better. “It’s their world too so they have to make it the way they want it to be. I don’t have to like it, they do, because they are going to be around well after I move on.”

At the time, I didn’t think much about this approach. I accepted it as probably being true but most importantly I was happy enough to just live my life and not have to involve myself with having to control the actions of other people.

This was a powerful lesson that I wish all people taught their children. Each generation gets their chance to make the world the way they want, so as long as no one is killing, hurting or causing suffering in other human beings, it’s probably best to leave them at it to do their thing however they deem fit. Being alive is so complicated and the universe is so large that it is impossible to say that life has a singular purpose that is unchanging and shared by all living beings.

About 2 weeks before he died, I asked my dad what it was like to know that he wouldn’t be around soon and he replied with something very similar to what he said about twitter. “I know I’m supposed to be sad about it, but I’m having some trouble with that. I was always going to die, and I knew it, so I tried to have the best life possible. I enjoyed my childhood, I loved my parents and brothers (he had no sisters). I had fun. I got a job, met and married your mother, and raised you and your brother. There are no regrets. Sure I’d like more time, but all I have left is all I’m getting, so that’s not going to happen. It’s important for old people to get out of the way and let the younger people have their turn. Life has come-up with the perfect solution for any of us who are unwilling to move to a back seat and give the reins to the next generation. Death clears a path and I’m glad it does. It cleared one for my generation, and it will clear us out of the way for the next generation.”

There was something very sinister though. Not in his views but in the accuracy of what he was saying. He had seen what the 1960’s had been like and understood very well the damage that will be done when one group of people vilify another group of people for reasons that do not exist, as opposed to clearing the way the younger people to make the world they wanted. The older people had views that were not aligned with common decency or anything factual. As they dug in to resist change, the rest of the world rolled forward.

The most striking example was that of skin colour. Underlying racism is an automatic mental process that notices things that are similar or different, and which are the same as us superficially and which are different for this reason. The output of this noticing process becomes the input for other processes that are more narrative than binary, and they quickly begin to surface evidence to support the idea that a lack of sameness is an indication of material differences. When left unquestioned, this evidence is consolidated into reality and begins to be a “fact” vs. the output of some mental process.

My dad was exceptionally liberally minded in that he didn’t care to stop anyone from doing anything that wasn’t harming others or that all parties had consented to do. It was as though he believed that anyone who was 18 years old or more had the right to do whatever they wanted with their life, even if that to waste it. If someone made a mistake and owned it, he was a big fan of second chances because he knew full well that very little is what it seems and when people realize how things actually are, they make different decisions.

However, there is a limit to what human beings are able to experience and continue to be able change as they move forward. I’m not sure what this limit is exactly, like if it is an experience, a duration of exposure or reaching a particular age, but most people tend to change less as they get older. For example, the views I held when I was 15 are remarkable different from the views I held at 30. My views at 30 are much more similar to the views I hold today. I have never cared about a person’s race, in my late teens I shifted away from having opinions about sexual orientation. I was a fairly tolerant teenager, a very tolerant 30 year old, and an “uninvolved in other people’s business” 45 year old. If I had to guess about the one thing that will continue to shift as I move into my 60s it would be that I will remain a social liberal and will become more financially conservative in so far as I will become even more certain in my belief that a person needs to take responsibility for the outcome of their choices. Most people are not victims of anything other than not trying, not doing their best, or not taking the actions that are within their control to cause a better results. There is an element of luck in all of it, but too few generate any because their actions are weak, misguided, or non-existent.

I am a fair distance from the liberal thinker I was at 27 because I have endured the consequences that years of not acting strategically have served into my life. As much as I would like to blame other people, no one but me is responsible for these things. The benefit of this shift in thinking is that I now have the chance to improve things on my own, something that I started doing towards the end of my thirties.

This is a process that many people experience as they move their way thought life. When we are young, we have very little power, so we look around for people and things that have it. There are competence, prestige, and dominance hierarchies everywhere, and when we have a low place on all of them, we try to identify the higher-up so that we can get stuff from them. But the human brain is a remarkable thing, so if we work hard enough and for long enough on something, we will gain knowledge and wisdom that will move us higher. We may not see it initially because we spend the first 10-15 years of life being completely helpless and fully reliant on our parents or caregivers. We form an unconscious habit of believing that we are at the bottom of these hierarchies so any movement upwards will need to be perceived before it can impact the narrative story we tell our selves about the world and our place in it. This is a slow process and for many people it never gets much traction because that the powers that be are constantly conspire to keep them down.

All of this comes down to our DNA and the impact that experience plays in gene expression.

Some simple background in the form of a story. All life has a very complex program that has been written over millions of years that determine how life will unfold in terms of physiology – how we create blood cell, who our cells use oxygen, how we respond to pain, etc…. All of this information is stored in our DNA, and any grouping of related information that codes for something is called a gene. We have hundreds of thousands of genes and they determine everything about us. Some of them are stand alone, some of them are primarily stand-alone while being conditionally related to others, some of them do nothing on their own, while many do not appear to do anything at all.

Some of these genes will automatically express themselves while other will only express themselves in response to very specific experiences. NOTE – it is not the experience itself that triggers gene expression, it is triggered by the chemicals that are released by the body in response to specific experiences. This is a blessing for most living beings, and a mixed blessing for humans. While dogs and cats will enjoy the beneficial outcomes that real experience facilitates in terms of gene expression, human beings can cause gene expression through lived experiences OR through imagined experiences.

A great example of this is anxiety which is a universal emotion for all people. It seems that the reason we evolved to experience it is because it improves physical and mental performance when compared to our resting baseline. An elevated respiratory and heart rate improves blood flow to all cells priming the muscles for activity because of the increase of oxygen and energy. It also improves cerebral blood flow, which can enhance brain activity. These things are useful when peak performance will improve outcomes. A cold start tends to result in more injuries and delayed thinking. So the ability to experience a baseline level of anxiety provides a survival advantage.

Problems begin to take shape when an individual’s anxiety response is triggered too easily. While there are people who have an innate response that is on the higher end of the scale, this does not necessarily cause a problem. It is entirely possible that one of these people could live a completely normal life so long as they do not trigger too many releases OR they do not trigger the “enhanced anxiety” genes to express. IF these genes express themselves, even someone with lower end baseline levels can find themselves suffering from the symptoms excessive anxiety.

There are only three ways this can happen. The first is through repeated direct experience, the second is through repeated imagined experience, and the third is through a combination of the two others. Regardless of the source, once the enhanced anxiety genes become expressed, the individual is prone to unnecessary or excessive bouts of it.

Imagined experience is much easier for people to have, so with reference to anxiety, worry or uncertainty about anything are sufficient triggers. Given a long enough time frame, someone can condition anxiety to be their default state which will leave them suffering from a heightened state of physiological arousal that has no immediate catalyst.

Gene expression is permanent. Someone who activated the enhanced anxiety gene will ALWAYS have the ability to experience more anxiety than they did before. Relapse after years of remission is very common with anxiety disorders and often times there is no warning that something is about to happen.

The unique challenge with anxiety stems from how the body physiologically goes about causing it. When anxiety is triggered, chemicals are dumped into the blood stream and begin to impact on the cell for which there are receptors. There are hundreds of millions of these cells located throughout the entire body, and particularly within the brain. So just as muscle cells will begin to alter their functioning, brain cells will also alter their functioning. With small releases, the impact is usually enhance mental functioning. As the quantities increase, this beneficial effect will drop and very quickly begin to impair our ability to think. This can impact how the person perceives the source of the anxiety, allowing them to subjective react to something that is an objectively non-factor.

This is why being deeply in debt or reaching a state of insolvency lowers people’s performance on cognitive tests and why everyone who declares bankruptcy very quickly find their mood lifting and the restoration of their objectivity. The source of their chronic anxiety evaporates and while much about their future remains unknown, the darkest pieces of it are simply eliminated.

Take a moment to consider what actually happens when someone declares bankruptcy. A form is signed, you hand back or cut-up all of your credit cards, you lose access to any credit you did have, a 9 to 21 month process is started that sees your declaration sent to the credit rating agencies rendering you a high credit risk for 7 or more years. That is a lot of things happening, but when you look at each one in isolation, very little actually happens. In fact, almost nothing happens to you directly. You needed to sign a form and probably have a couple of meetings with a trustee, but other than a few clerical items – keeping and submitting a monthly budget, changing bank – the days leading up to the date you declare are nearly identical to the days leading away from it. If you are in a situation that frees you from having to borrow money and allows you to avoid having a credit review performed, there is only up-side. All of your debt is wiped off the books and this eliminates the source of your anxiety.

Think about that for a second. By signing a form, the source of your problems disappears. This means that the source of your problems was a lack of a signature on a form. Well, sort of. The source of your problems was an imagined future that has you unable to pay your bills and NOT the real experience of trying to pay them but not being able to. The problem was the version of the story you were experiencing and not the lived reality you were experiencing.

The take home here is that the experience of living the story is sufficient to serve as a trigger for gene expression in spite of the fact that what was really happening was not much of anything. And changing the story was enough to prevent an anxiety response. This is why the dogs and cats have an easier time with activating the best genes to help them survive their life than people do because the only genes that get expressed that wouldn’t have been expressed automatically are the ones that get expressed in response to REAL changes in the environment.

Bringing this back to the topic at hand, remember that once a gene has been expressed it will remain expressed and that any heightened response it may cause will be triggered by real and imagined things. But since most of what happens in modern life has no physical impact on us and therefore only occurs as an imagined event, anything we do that changes the story has the potential to alter a response. My movement towards the more liberal side of the social spectrum was caused by changes in the narrative and not by any hands on specific experiences. I stopped caring about sexual orientation when I realized just how hard life can be and how difficult it is find a source lasting joy. If two people find love in each other that is fantastic, and when they are left alone to enjoy it, the outcomes from all people improve slightly. The opposite is also true, when joy is denied from people, the outcomes for all people get slightly worse. My progressive mindset wasn’t progressive for the sake of being progressive, it was a reframing of things that just happened to have what seems like a progressive outcome. I still find it strange that two men can fall in love because I have never experienced it, but I no longer care about the genders of people who fall in love with each other. I know that people finding, falling and being in love is way better for society and for me specifically than making sure the world runs according to whatever I learned was normal when I was growing-up.

I think that maybe my dad had realized that there is a limit to what human beings are able to reframe and this was why he was so certain that old people needed to move on and make room for the next generation. We never chatted about why people close-off from reframing, and while I wish we had because my dad had some compelling and transformative ideas, it doesn’t change the fact of the matter. Very few people remain young in mind for the entirety of their life. Many close off very early on, and the rest move from being open and certain to closed and certain during the first 3 to 6 decades of their life. This I believe is why he was so willing to view the IT inventions as being remarkable and why we are more than happy to invite someone back to the table when they realized, admitted to, and made their best amends for taking action based on something they no longer believed.

So what?

Since life does not have a clearly defined purpose that all human beings share, the best we can hope for is that over time things will improve and that the amount of suffering that is experienced by people continues to fall. After that, who knows. We all live in the real world but we are all living out a different story. The story we tell and the meanings we put onto things, is going to be determined by our life experiences and these will, in a very real way, help to determine our future experiences; either through gene expression or the reframing of the story. The impossible will become possible the instant our story changes, and if it never changes the thing will remain impossible.

Older people know this because they have experienced it. Younger people may believe it, but having never experienced it, they are more likely to weigh their actual experiences more heavily. Younger people know a lot less than older people. In many ways this makes their living of life easier because they have a lot less stuff in their brains to consider, but this lack of information has the effect of presenting their experiences as being unique and everything that happens in the world as being completely new.

They are also struggling to move up the prestige and competency hierarchies, which are already stuffed full of people. It is very competitive and since it takes a very long time to generate prestige and competency, when being compared to people who have 20-40 years more experience, it can be very appealing to reframe the story and usurp a spot by removing some of those who are in the way. But the realness of these hierarchies is not sufficient enough to actually locate someone let alone physically remove them, so taking over someone’s spot is as easy and simple as reframing them as being in a different position or as not being on the hierarchy at all.

The most effective way to achieve this is to believe that what is going on is completely new and that NO ONE has any information that will make navigating it any easier. To this end, if someone is able to reframe an older person as having no more information than the younger person, they have neutralized them in terms of prestige, and if they then reframe them as being so far removed from the current social zeitgeist as to be unaffected by it, they have effectively kicked them off of the competency hierarchy. This will work out very well for them IF the thing is actually new, moderately well if the older people do not actually know something, and very badly when what is occurring is a part of the repeating nature of things. The reasons are simple, if it is new, a younger faster brain that is not bogged down by lots of experience will find solutions much faster, particularly if it doesn’t have to deal with the irrelevant musings of old people. If the old people do not know anything, the young people stand only to lose out if they spend anytime listening to them. But if what is occurring is actually the same thing that happened 35 years ago, shutting out the old people who have experience with it forces the remainder to solve the problems without the benefit of having access to the knowledge that has already been discovered.

The “okay boomer” phenomena is a clear indication that this is happening again. The 1960’s saying “never trust anyone over 30” has been rebranded and launched into the minds of next generation. It is a pejorative that a younger person will say to an older person in an attempt to dismiss their point of view because it came from someone who doesn’t know anything about how things are now and who is probably responsible for why things are so bad. It’s a power grab of sorts because it tells someone that they are too old and too ignorant to provide anything of value to the discussion while simultaneously placing the person who says it above them in a number of hierarchies.

Saying it is rude. Dismissing something out of hand with no evaluation is short sighted. Shoe-horning yourself into a higher position is a non-accomplishment.

And yet saying it is very effective because it hurts to hear. The emotional reaction to being dismissed is primal and automatic. It lands like pain. It’s no good and by the time you notice how you feel about it, the reaction is already well established. Now you have to deal with someone calling you old. It is a lot to handle and the energy that is building in your body would be released if you could just attack. You can’t, so how are you going to deal with it?

The thing is this, NO human being likes to be dismissed. Even when they have nothing to add or contribute, the act of remaining connected to the group or a person is at least slightly rewarding. Having someone else sever this tie on you removes this reward and the sense of alienation and worthlessness that accompany being pushed away hit you like a punishing blow.

Everything I am saying here applies equally to ANYONE who uses any tactic of dismissal to reduce the force or silence other people. And in a way, I can understand why some millennial or generation Z members direct “okay boomer” towards older people. What have they had to listen to being directed towards them?

A couple of years ago, I was talking to one of my friends about her job, and she mentioned that there are a lot of clueless people in positions of power and influence, who cannot seem to make a good decision to save their jobs. This women is bright. She thinks faster than nearly everyone I have ever met, she sees connection between things that seem completely unrelated, and she has a very clear understanding of what is going on inside the heads of the people she is talking to. She kind of scares the crap out me because she’s fine with being wrong, making mistakes, admitting to them, and learning the proper way to handle the situation next time. There is no arrogance and she is kind to everyone, until they give her a reason to not be.

In this particular conversation, she was relating to me how her boss had responded to one of her concerns about a process change by saying “oh you millennials, you’re all so keen to point out what can go wrong. Such a sense of entitlement, like you expect everything to be perfect” before discarding her suggestion and chastising her. When I replied with “oh, that’s rude” followed by “but they pay you to point out what could go wrong” she took off.

“I’m f’ing glad he said it Pat. He SHOULDN’T need me to identify the stupid things he does, and he clearly doesn’t WANT me to. Throwing me into a bucket based on when I was born and suggesting that all those people have a sense of entitlement actually works better for me. We’re not partners anymore, we’re not aligned. He’s an ageist knob who now gets to drive his career into a brick wall. I’ve been dismissed, he gets no more of my help.”

He was fired less than three months later for screwing-up the very thing she was trying to help him with.

If she had said “okay boomer” to him, I would have understood it and I would only fault her if the reply was a reaction vs. a response. But she said nothing to him in spite of the fact the interaction annoyed the hell out of her. She was less offended that a simpleton had said something stupid than she was that he dismissed her outright because of some story he tells himself about all people her age.

This is where I struggle with “okay boomer.” On one hand I can understand someone wanting and feeling that they need to say it to someone, particularly if that person has a track record of saying “millennials are lazy” or “millennials don’t want to earn their place” or any variation of the same theme. But on the other hand, meeting rudeness with rudeness is a kind of biblical vengeance that makes me question the righteousness of the responding party after having determined that the instigator is unable to address the material concern and is therefore going after the person for things they cannot control and which do not make any difference.

My problem with it is that it causes further division between people and it risks triggering people from one group to line-up across from the other group to battle it out in equally childish and unproductive ways. “I don’t listen to boomers” or “I don’t listen to millennials” is a remarkably unhelpful attitude simply because not listening to other people is a remarkably useless way to behave.

My friends’ response was perfect. She vented out whatever negative emotion that was created and journeyed forward honoring the belief system that her boss possessed and made clear to her – if all millennials are that way, best they don’t bother you with it anymore. She continued to listen to him until he was fired because she had a lot to learn about how not to do the job. So even though he had dismissed her, she had not dismissed him. What he knew was still valuable because it was knowledge, even if some of his beliefs were out of line. She had no desire to make the same mistakes he did so continuing to pay attention to him was only going to make her future easier.

If you were to take only one thing out of this post it would be to always remember that when we have not lived through history, our decision to ignore those who have will guarantee that we get to.

Politicians, Watch Out For The Middle, We Have Figured You Out

…the need for an enemy that we can blame for everything seems to be written into our operating system, a fact that renders us vulnerable to manipulation by anyone who successfully labels another group the enemy because of all the automatic behaviour that this triggers. Fear reduces our ability to think completely about it and we move forward believing that they are the problem without ever noticing what is going on as it is occurring.

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I can easily imagine that there is a saying that political operatives use behind closed doors that goes something like “don’t worry about the middle until the month before an election, then throw them a bone and they’ll fall into line.”

The reason why I have no trouble putting these words into the months of hypothetical people who work for very real political campaigns and politicians is because the political candidates and parties ACT like this. In Canada, a country that has a very limited campaign time and predetermined election dates, we have to listen to politicians throwing mud at each other and towards the supporters of their political rivals for close to 4 years, only to have them pivot and talk at the middle for 36 to 50 days as the campaign officially runs. The Canadian public vote on the third Monday of the forth October following the previous election and on the very next day everyone goes back to ignoring the middle while focusing their praise and efforts on either the left or the right, and their scorn on the other side.

I’m not sure which is more embarrassing, the behaviour of the political class or the fact that the overwhelming majority of Canadians, those who make-up the middle, allow this abuse to continue. It is like all those in the middle suffer from a collective Stockholm syndrome or from the disease of low expectations caused by the race to the bottom that has us hand-over our power the moment someone exceeds them.

There is another saying, stick with me here, that has a public life, one used by personal trainers, coaches and anyone who is responsible for directing the actions of other people that explains who is at fault.

“If you have a client who is doing something wrong, they are doing it because you coached them to do it or because you are letting them do it.”

So the reason why the politicians treat the majority of Canadians with complete contempt is because we have coached them to do it by letting them do it. It’s sad for them because they might actually want to do good for people, but we let them treat us poorly nearly all of the time and respond like trained animals when, come election time, they promise us something nice and shinny.

This last federal election in Canada, and the last midterm election in the US, have seen a change in the strategy that the political class employ to manipulate people into giving them a job or allowing them to keep the one they manipulated themselves into last time. Whereas they used to only buy our votes, they have added catastrophizing to the play book. This is very effective for two psychological reasons, a re-framing effect that capitalizes on our inability to process information effectively and an emotional hijack that triggers a reduction in, and possible elimination of, logical thinking.

The re-framing effect converts a cost into a loss. Previously, a vote for anyone other than them would cost you whatever it was that they were promising. Everyone accepted this fact and has more or less made their peace with it. In fact, we seem to be able to handle paying big costs so long as we get something of value out of it. For example, lets imagine that a person was carrying a $10 bill in their pocket and when they reach into their pocket they notice that it is gone. They have, for all intents and purposes, lost it. However, if they take some time to consider what has happened and decide that they will only carry money in their wallet which will be placed into a zipped-up pocket, they may be able to perceive the missing $10 as the cost of this lesson. They have paid $10 to ensure that they will never lose $20 or $50. The value of this lesson is at least $10 but may be $40. That is a 1:1 ratio or a 1:4 ratio. It sucks but it wasn’t a complete waste and in the long run, there is a chance that they will be better off for having learned this way vs. some other way.

From a psychological perspective, a loss of $10 is experienced as more painful than a $10 lesson. The reality is that re-framing a loss into a cost actually requires more energy in terms of having to think about “what did I learn?” The brain however does not view it this way and accepts what has happened as a fair or fair enough trade of one thing of value for something of approximate value.

By catastrophizing the outcome of voting for anyone OTHER than them, they are effectively telling people that a vote their opponents is going to destroy everything that is good in your life. So not only do you not get the thing, the cost, but you will NEVER get the thing and your remaining time on the planet is going to be much harder than you can possibly imagine, the loss of practically everything. The story they are telling is that a vote for someone else is both a cost and a loss, and this is enough to boost the psychological pain associated with simply thinking about doing so.

This catastrophizing is also very emotionally triggering. YOU are going to be responsible for destroying the world and eliminating the future of every young person that has the potential to exist. That’s a big cross to bare and arguably the worst thing that you could ever do, and you are going to do it simply by voting for the other guy. That makes you the worst person in the universe, something that you can avoid by voting for someone else.

Being emotionally triggered is not necessarily a bad thing. It depends on which emotion has been triggered and the magnitude of the emotional response. Being happy is not the same thing as being sad, and being slightly angry is a very different state than being apoplectic, and each of these states has a different impact on the brain. The general rules of thumb are 1) the greater the magnitude of a response, the larger the impact on mental functioning and 2) emotions that have a negative valence have a greater impact on cognitive functioning than emotions that have a positive valence.

For example, someone who is slightly happy will show brain activity that is very close to their neutral baseline and they show very little impairment in cognitive test. Someone who is very happy will have a greater deviation from baseline both in terms of brain activity and performance. Someone who is slightly angry will show a moderate change in brain activity as well as performance when compared to their neutral baseline and to their slightly happy state. An extremely angry person will display a very large deviation from baseline, with certain areas of brain effectively being off-line; the dramatic alteration and decrease in brain activity will temporarily eliminate certain cognitive processes rendering the person operationally different from who their are at baseline.

Emotions that are of a positive valence tend to impact critical thinking while emotions that are of a negative valence tend to impact logical thinking. The narrative practical implication of these alterations are that happy people are willing to take action, but they are more inclined to make mistakes that a level of skepticism or a second review would catch. In other words, they are less likely to feel “wrong” and will therefore move forward believing that they are right. Angry people are more likely to react in disproportionately large ways and are more inclined to take “final” actions or actions that permanently take care of the situation – they will be more aggressive than normal and will attack with the full force of their fight or flight abilities.

The underlying mechanism at play is not the same and for the purposes of winning elections via the introduction of losses, it is sufficient to understand that large negatively valenced emotions suppress activity in the prefrontal cortex which has the consequence of eliminating the future, removing the ability to regulate reactions, and to reduce logical thought. This is a survival response that is adaptive and has historically been very effective at keeping our species alive because in a life or death situation, the individual needs to take drastic action or else they will die. When time and intensity are of the essence, there is little time for rational thought because any delay might just prove to be fatal. It basically comes down to “do this or die” and since this part of our programming evolved hundreds of thousands or millions of years ago when death was all around, it was both necessary and effective. However, modern life has effectively eliminated most of the actual life and death moments, meaning that nearly all of these reactions are out of place and are very likely to cause more harm than they prevent.

But the code that programs these processes and the hardware on which they run is exactly the same today as it was hundreds of thousands of years ago. This means that anyone who is able to trigger an emotional response in another persons brain has the ability to alter their thinking in very predictable ways.

Another important fact to consider is that negative things are more salient in our minds than positive things. In order to counter-act something that has a measurement of -1 in terms of negativity, the person will need to be simultaneously exposed to something that is a +2 in terms of positivist. This is why re-framing a loss as a cost makes the experience less negative. It is also why the “sunny ways” talk that was thrown around during the 2015 Canadian election wasn’t present in 2019 – it wouldn’t have worked because the tone of this most recent election was intensely negative and fear evoking.

So in summary, modern elections are about fear and anger because 1) these emotions reduce logical thinking, boost catastrophizing, and promote action of a specific type (getting people to the polling stations to vote for the candidate that will protect us from the object of fear or anger 2) you only need half as much of these emotions so they are more favourable from an economic stand point 3) the bypassing of critical analysis that positive states fuels is very narrow in terms of time frame and context – when a person is happy, you will be able to slip things past them but since they return to baseline very quickly, the door is only open for a short time and 4) negative emotions persist for a much longer time than positive emotions. All emotions are made up of matter in the form of neurotransmitters and hormones but negative emotions are composed of more physical material because they actually serve to fuel physical action. The entire body is involved with a fight or flight response, therefore these chemicals are released into the blood and circulate everywhere. It takes time for the body to remove them from the blood stream, particularly if no intense physical activity has occurred. The mass of happiness is much smaller, it serves very little survival purpose, and it is more psychological in nature meaning it is more or less only a brain experience. It requires much less clean-up and in fact it can be stopped almost immediately if something bad happens right in the middle of it. This is not the case with intense anger.

It is complicated. It is well understood but it is complicated. It is also very hard to be aware of as it is happening because the very thing that is responsible for noticing it happen is the same thing that it is happening to. So when you are happy, you are not well set-up to analyze what is going on because your critical faculties are dialed down. When you are angry, your brain has been hijacked and is only capable of focusing on survival. Outsiders can see it, and we can see it in ourselves after the fact, but as it is going on we are nearly powerless to do anything against it. This is why we have seen the addition of losses and catastrophizing to the political campaigns – they do predictable things and make us susceptible to manipulation, lies and bullshit.

So what?

Well, there’s a lot.

First off, we are being lied to by everyone and we can uncover the nature of the lie based on the emotion they are working to activate.

Those that are trying to make us feel happy are about to insert a thought into our brains that we would normally resist or at least vet for accuracy. For example, taxes will go down or the standard of living is going to improve for everyone. The realities here are that if taxes go down, services will be reduced OR deficits will increase OR the taxes for someone else will increase to make-up any shortfall, the standard of living does have, in the short term, a zero sum flavor and it doesn’t happen for everyone all at once – it starts with the rich and works its way down to the lower classes.

Those trying to make us angry or scared are trying to motivate us to take action to ensure that we survive. Ultimately the action is to vote for them, but it will also include vilifying the group they are talking about and updating our definition of them to include aversion, disgust and anything else that will move us away from them. The goal is to manipulate our world view to have us want to see the other group eliminated and to condition our nervous system to release negative emotion in response to thoughts or the mere mention of them.

Second, the re-framing of costs as losses is an economic manipulation in that creates an imaginary loss that then serves to trigger a negative emotional response. It makes something out of nothing and this something has a big impact on our nervous system and brain. Logically, we know that a vote for one person is the same as not voting for everyone else and that not voting for any particular person will probably cost us whatever it was they were promising. BUT when this is presented as loss and not cost, it increases the significance and is much more likely to trigger negative emotion, which will suppress logical thinking.

Finally, the story telling that uses catastrophizing IS triggering for fear and anger and it DOES suppress logical thinking. The moment we react, we no longer have the ability think about the future, which eliminates our innate capability to ask the question “what do they have to gain from making me feel angry or scared.”

In summary then, for most of the time the politicians ignore the people in the middle while trying to do things to make their base happy. When election time comes around, they begin to focus their attention towards the middle in an attempt to buy votes through promises of goods or services, take votes away for their opponents by presenting costs as losses, and to temporarily suppress cognitive abilities by manipulating blood flow to the prefrontal cortex via the release of emotional neurotransmitters and hormones.

Phrased another way, be concerned when they are talking and be very concerned when they are talking to you.

What is the significance of the middle having figured out how politicians manipulate them when they are not simply ignoring them? Society is very expensive and there is a constant demand for our limited resources. We are already giving a lot of them to the government and regardless of who is in power, not everyone gets the same value from the money they spend. The D’s or L’s will look after their base first and everyone else second while the R’s or C’s will look after their base first and everyone else second. But each side has a punching bag on the other side that they hammer to get money for their base or to generate votes. We flip flop back and forth between these two sides with things getting worse for one group and better for another, then reversing, all the while those in the middle get nothing new while paying disproportionately for the entire thing. When we say something about it, we get chastised, lied to, told that the solutions for our problems come from a different level of government, or, worst of all, get told that is it nuanced in a tone that reeks of condescension and from a person who is so smug that they do most of their talking with their eyes closed. They treat us like we are stupid, which may actually be true given that they do get voted into office over and over again.

Personally, I am glad this part of it is coming to an end, and the sooner the better. Politics is both boring and complicated, and for the very same reason. It’s so complicated that most people who talk about it do not know enough to have a good conversation making their opinions shallow, uninteresting, and therefore as valuable as those opinions spewed out by a partisan talking head.

This being said, it is going to be a lot worse before it begins improve unless something awful happens that serves as the catalyst to united people. World war one and two, the space race, the aftermath of 9/11 before the politicians decided it would be a good time to eat the public’s liberty and freedom, and the occasional sporting event, like the 2019 NBA final, that has one country align together for the metaphoric face off against another country.

The reason for this are very simple, human beings NEED an enemy and they will find it in their friends and family if there is no one else around to blame for life going the way life goes. We find it a lot easier to declare and demonize a new out group, like the liberals, the conservatives, the tree-huggers, the immigrants, the Apple fanboys, the whatevers…. But we are not fussy when it comes to filling the role of dangerous and vile enemy so when a real enemy does not exist we’ll find someone and set about re-framing everything in our life that bothers us as being somewhat causally related to them, even if that person is our neighbour or someone we have broken bread with.

As bad as this seems, the fact that we have started turning on our fellow citizens is actually a sign that things in the world have gotten a lot better in so far as most other people in the world do not spend much time or energy making our lives tough. Life is actually very good, void of serious conflicts, and our biggest threats are actually the known consequences of our own actions. Pollution, global warming, and the abundance of low cost, highly rewarding foods will shorten the lives and reduce its quality for more people than any of our enemies ever can, will or did.

This being said, the need for an enemy that we can blame for everything seems to be written into our operating system, a fact that renders us vulnerable to manipulation by anyone who successfully labels another group the enemy because of all the automatic behaviour that this triggers. Fear reduces our ability to think completely about it and we move forward believing that they are the problem without ever noticing what is going on as it is occurring.

But lies are lies, and no matter how convincingly they are told sooner or later they will be discovered. The volume of them has increased so dramatically recently that anyone who consumes the news or talks to anyone is getting exposed to dozens of them a day, hundreds a week and thousands a year. With this amount of exposure and practice, it is nearly impossible to not get good at spotting them. And with the Internet available all of the time, EVERYTHING a politician says will remain on the record and at easy reach. We will identify the pattern, and as soon as we do, most of the automatic and unconscious click-whir power that the liars have will evaporate. They will be seen for what they are, other people who have a conflict of interest that serves to fuel their motivated reasoning and the ideas they push forward in spite of the fact that they are demonstrably false. While they are not all full of shit, none of them are full enough of diverse opinions and experiences to be seen as objective brokers of reality. They are just human beings who need a job and want the power and are so blinded by these desires that they will try to convince you that one idea is better than all others and any of the others will harm you, your children and all the other good people who believe what they do.

I’m not holding my breath for this to happen quickly, mostly because I cannot hold my breath for the next two to seven years. BUT there are promising signs that things are starting to change. Specifically the ugliness of the last US election, the last Canadian election, the awareness that Fox News and CNN are biased sources of whatever it is they are pumping out 24 / 7, along with the fact that violence has started to breakout at protests about some issues. All of these things are bad, but they are bad in a way that is both unsustainable and so outside of the normal human interaction dynamic that they stand as examples that something is not working. The volume just needs to get turned-up a little bit louder before the middle can no longer ignore what is going on, moving them to put their foot down and putting an end to the nonsense the fabulists are spewing in order to get whatever it is they are seeking.