Mindfulness Is A Noun Or A Verb – We Put Our Narrative Onto It

Both parties are having a very similar experience although each one of them has a very different interpretation of the ideas that are being aired. Each one will believe their idea is better because they will have felt just how right it was when they thought it. What they hear, the other person’s idea, will not have the same quality. They won’t feel it in the same way – both in terms of intensity and rightness – and it will be as though it exists as something that is different from them. Both parties will feel and belief that their solution is the best and each will likely go to bat for it.

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At some point in the recent past I happened across an article titled “The Problem Of Mindfulness” that made my brain throw an error before taking over and getting me to click on the link. I am glad it did, because I got a lot out of reading the article as it reminded me about how far I have come in terms of getting clear on what the present moment is and what the experience of being in it is like. While I did have a challenge with the title, because it begs the question and therefore usurps a number of my brain cycles, I got a lot out of the mental journey caused by reading and reflecting on what the author wrote.

While I have a number of disagreements with what they say, I think it is a good article. It is well written, it comes from the heart and from the author’s experiences, and there is very little in it (possibly nothing) that is distracting in terms of style, language, grammar, or sentence structure. This final point is very critical because it allows the article to stand on its own and to be a thing independent of the medium. The ideas that the author puts forward are evaluated as objectively as they can be and it seems like a lot of care was taken to remove most of the details that might cause a subjective interpretation or trigger a cognitive bias. For example, I had no idea the gender of the author until after I read the article and revisited the page to do some follow-up review. Their gender is probably important to them, but it is not relevant to those who consume the article.

This is something that I think I need to highlight more. Ideas are good, bad, neutral, provocative, progressive, regressive, transformational, ignorant, biased, inclusive, future-altering, creative, etc. and, in an ideal world, they are consumed and interrogated based on their merits. A good idea that you do not like remains a good idea, so ones opinion of the idea should never factor into the critical evaluation of it. The best example here, and one that may remain relevant in perpetuity, is Donald Trump. In this case I am not actually making reference to the person. I am making reference to the idea that is “Donald Trump.”

He does not conform to the stereotypical role of US president or traditional western world leader. His presentation is something closer to a mid-twentieth century union leader than a diplomat of a superpower. There is a straight shooter quality to him that on first glance seems authentic and trustworthy, but does not stand-up to any level of scrutiny. It is authentic in so far as it is true that he is thinking the thing that he is saying in and around the time that he says it, but there is no evidence or proof that the thoughts existed before the moment or have much of a life afterwards. There doesn’t seem to be any stacking of ideas that is building to a grand theory or understanding of things. It is just a stream of ideas, one after the other, and mostly non-sequiturs.

Which is why it is inappropriate to dismiss everything he says out of hand or to accept everything he says instantly. There are a few very good ideas in the totality of everything he communicates, just as there are some absolutely awful things. Uncovering these things will only occur when you take the time to divorce the message from the man and allow the idea to stand alone. The problem here is that this takes a lot of effort and it is not something that comes naturally or is even remotely palatable to do. It’s easier to say “he’s a genius, MAGA!” or “he’s a dope who is ruining the country” and then take this view into the evaluation of the next thing he communicates.

Like most things, the middle way is ideal, but it lacks all of the power and energy that tribal reactions affords us. This is what I try to do in-spite of the fact that it is draining and a lonely pursuit. Fewer people operate this way now than at any time in our history and I have a feeling that this approach will be effectively eliminated within a couple of decades. But until then, I’m going to try to detach an idea from its creator and consume it as though it came from someone who has a strong track record of putting forward reasonable perspectives that are not dogmatically charged or partisan.

So given all of this, here are my thoughts on the article title “The Problem Of Mindfulness” and the ideas that it puts forward.

The way the title reads is that “mindfulness” is a lot like a dryer that hides a single sock, if you are in a great mood, diarrhea, if you are feeling nothing much at all, or something between homelessness and   cancer depending on just how down you are feeling.

Of course, when the page opens and the reader is greeted with the article, the title is there, superimposed over a picture of someone’s face, both of which are being joined by a subtitle that would, if not for the first one, cause the brain to throw an error.

“Mindfulness promotes itself as value-neutral but it is loaded with (troubling) assumptions about the self and the cosmos,” which indicates that its creator is making much more troubling assumption than the noun or verb “mindfulness” has, is, or will. Let’s also throw “can” into that mix as well.

Before moving forward, I need to declare my conflict of interest here. I am a fan of mindfulness meditation and a big believer in the positive effects of disenchantment and its close relative disillusionment. Phrased more crassly, the sooner someone takes their head out of their ass and begins to see reality in more objective terms, the sooner they can start to do more impressive things in the world and with their life. For example, a lot of people have challenges realizing or learning that there is a boundary between themselves and other people, meaning that everyone else has an experience of reality that is theirs alone and rarely (never) is their perspective from your point of view. This makes sense logically. So much sense that you may even think “what a stupid and unnecessary statement to make,” which is exactly the point I am making. From YOUR perspective it is unnecessary, so therefore it is unnecessary. That doesn’t change the reality that until we learn to act otherwise, our first impulse is always going to be to see things from our own point of view followed by a castigation of anyone who is not aligned with it.

It doesn’t need to be this way, you can train your brain to table harsh judgment of dissention for later in favor of considering how the world would have to be in order for someone to believe something OTHER than what you believe. Here’s the rub, the world is actually much closer to that way than the way you believe it is.

And it is this way for EVERYONE. We evolved to get it wrong and we do, until we realize that we are wrong and take the steps to correct our path.

For me, mindfulness meditation represents the main step we can take in order to correct our path. So it follows that “mindfulness” as a noun and verb is making reference to some aspect of what we experience when we practice mindfulness meditation. It allows us to notice what is actually going on from moment to moment and in doing so, creates a juxtaposition between reality and what we think is going on. This may or may not make sense to you on any level, but once you spend any amount of time sitting still, with your eyes and mouth closed, noticing the sensations of your breath on the area of skin above your upper lip and in and around your nostrils, things will become more clear. You are probably still not going to understand what I’m talking about, but you’ll begin to grow more certain that I am actually talking about something that is real, and not spewing a new age or metaphysical creation designed to improve my position on some enlightenment hierarchy. And the more you practice, the more in-focus these two things will become – reality and the experience of reality that each one of us manufacture from moment to moment.

With that out of the way, let us move forward and deal with the two main goals of what I’m writing here. They are to address the authors concern and to then address my concern with how they went about addressing their concern.

The author has a long back ground with, at least in terms of observational exposure to, meditation. And they admit that they were bored when they went to the temple. They practiced a few techniques during university and later served as a control group member in a large scale University of Cambridge study about the effects of mindfulness. Read the original article, both to validate my summary and to gain more insight into how the author is approaching the subject. And I’ll add that it is a good piece of writing.

They found the practice of mindfulness, like many people do, to be rather destabilizing. For one thing, it reveals a lot about the world that we have never paid attention to, either because we learned to ignore it or because we never took the time to notice it. Those in the first group find mindfulness a lot easier to integrate and it tends not to rock their world nearly as much. They can be curious and fascinated with all that is reveals while never feeling like they are losing their grip. The second group, those who never noticed the things in the first place, tend not to fare so well in the short term. Initially their mind will be blown by all that they become aware of and the automatic nature of perception and how the brain manufactures ones experience of being alive. But this will usually give way to feelings of loss, confusion, and detachment. Feeling this way sucks. It won’t make any difference if the core lessons of impermanence are taking hold, the feelings are real and experiencing them has a negative valence until they go away. Over time though, things will stabilize as the brain updates the software and begins to gain confidence in its predictive accuracy. At some point in the future, everything will be assimilated and you will move forward with a new mental process called “mindfulness” that can be called upon as needed, and which will run in the background making sure that your perceptions are closer to reality than they were before.

About this fact, consider what happens when someone in a long term committed monogamous relationship cheats on their spouse / partner. Initially nothing happens to their partner, the world is the way it was the day before. It will continue to be this way until they find out about their partners infidelity. Then all hell breaks loose. Personally, I don’t think people should cheat when they are in committed relationships. It’s a shittie thing to do and is an act of immense disrespect to yourself. BUT, if it happens and you make the decision to tell your significant other about it, do it as soon as possible. Do not wait any longer than is necessary because the longer the gap, the greater the damage you will be causing to the other person.

Cheating on a partner is bad, but continuing along as though nothing happened for years only to come clean about it later is pathologically selfish and has the tendency of shattering the other person’s world view. The reason is very simple, and it is exactly the same thing that happens with the second group mentioned above – those who did not choose to ignore how the world actually is because they never realized how the world actually is – it causes them to question the past and to doubt their own judgment and their experiences. If someone comes clean five years later, they are forcing their partner to reprocess the last five years of their life before they can move forward. Sure, they are not going to be completely stuck at ground zero, but a very large portion of their mental energy will be redirected away from the day to day tasks of living and onto assimilating the new information and updating their long term memory as it applies to their relationship, their partner, and their shared experiences.

Over time, they will probably get through it. The brain is remarkably resilient and can process many different types of traumas. But the energy expenditure required to adjust to the information that your partner cheated is proportionate to the length of time between the act and when it came to light.

Something very similar happens when someone takes up mindfulness and starts to realize that how they have been experiencing the world is not aligned with reality. It will be resisted and denied until it can no longer be disregarded. Then will come the difficult tasks of reframing and reorganizing everything you know about the world to accommodate the fact that there is, for example, no self. A lot of stuff will need to get torn down and rebuilt, and this will take time and mental effort, and probably a good diet and sufficient rest / recovery. But it can happen so long as the person stays the course and relinquishes their attachment to their old world view. Anyone who jumps ship will find their swim back to their old reality to be less challenging than continuing forward, but they will be returning to a different place than from where they left and will likely be embittered about the subject as a whole.

My own experience with onboarding meditation was similar to what the author experienced. But I was older when I started and was certain that my world view was inaccurate which was leading to a drop in predictive accuracy. My journey had me leaving behind something pretty crappy and while I was not certain about the “goodness” of what I was choosing to move towards, life had taught me that different is good when the normal has become difficult, challenging, or painful. It needs to be said that I had already learned to doubt the validity of what I knew, so as destabilizing as I found the transition, it was no more so than the year leading up to the start of the journey.

The author does a good job at shining a light on the lack of thoroughness in the on-boarding that many people have with mindfulness practices. There is no doubt that had she engaged the practice more when she was young and being dragged to the temple, she would have been guided with a lot more vigor and care than what many people experience presently in western societies. But that is the nature of things. More care is taken with younger people as well as in places where what is being taught is viewed as important or is a big part of the traditional culture. North America is new to mindfulness, and when coming from a tradition of capitalism with a side serving of violence, it is not surprising that the care is being taken to collect the money as opposed to guiding the people.

This is not the fault of mindfulness, as either a noun or a verb, and is should not surprise anyone that the “money over everything” view is muddying the waters. The thing is this, mindfulness is like any skill, it takes time to generate, it is going to be messy in the middle, and it cannot be done for us. It is the quintessential selfish undertaking that one could argue is impaired by other people and enhanced by temporary isolation. It is like committing law to long term memory or learning how to solve advanced calculus equations, a teacher or instructor can help along the process, but the individual needs to do the practice to stimulate the brain growth to support the new memories or the new way of thinking. To this end, it is a less than optimal capitalist venture since capitalism places experience or perceived value at the top of the service offering. You cannot do mindfulness for your customers, they have to do it themselves, so the only way to make money doing it is to offer something that is scalable. Which in this case means something that is incomplete, is useless crap, or is actually counter-productive and harmful.

The medium is the message here. Those who seek enlightenment and the cultivation of the skill of mindfulness through a smart phone get smart phone levels of enlightenment and mindfulness. Smart phones are tools to trigger the release of dopamine through the activation of outrage, exposure to novelty, and social validation / approval. Mindfulness is a tool to make you aware of what is happening from moment to moment. While these things are not the exact opposite of each other, they are reasonable close to being completely dissimilar. Meditation, the primary way to cultivate the skill of mindfulness, is as close to doing nothing as someone can do without being asleep. The mind is very active, you are alert, but you are focusing so intensely simply because you do not want to become distracted, outraged, etc. Cultivating mindfulness is an act that inhibits the release of reward chemicals, so it offers no hook that business people can use to capture you as a customer.

The author talks a lot about the concept of “no self” in a way that makes it difficult to reconcile the truth of it with the experience of being or having a self. I am not aligned with them here. Two things that seem to be in contradiction can coexist simply because neither one of them actually does. It is kind of like Schrödinger’s cat or the wave–particle duality in that sometimes something is one thing while other times it is something else (meditation and mindfulness have NOTHING to do with quantum mechanics and my use of QM terms is only to describe the fact that sometimes we will need to look at things differently in order to understand them more completely).

You are a physical being, a meat sack if you will. You are made-up of matter, and that matter obeys laws of physics and chemistry, and other subjects. Materialism applies to people just as it applies to rocks or dogs. The difference is, as far as we know, rocks and dogs do not have a well-formed narrative identity of themselves. To make reference to a rock having “no self” seems redundant. It seems similarly so, although not necessarily completely so, to say the same of a dog. But what is the different between these two things, and then, from these two things and us? It seems to me that human beings have reflective consciousness that gives them the ability to think about the world and about things that are not there or are not presently happening. Rocks do not have this ability and while a dog may be conscious and does have the ability to learn, we get no sense that there is any depth to their understanding of what they are or their uniqueness in terms of being a distinct piece of life.

What this means is that as something is happening, it is just a meaningless thing that is occurring – it is a collection of molecules moving in a particular direction. So in order for it to mean something, the observer will need to take a moment to reflect upon what is occurring, allowing their brain to interpret the collection of molecules and their corresponding vectors as being something. But this process is not an act of mindfulness in the purest sense of the term. It is a result of reflection and by virtue of the fact that any meaning is generated, the person is no longer living in the moment and is instead living in a latency period between stimulus and response.

So when we are simply experiencing reality as it unfolds from moment to moment, there is no self. When we are perceiving and understanding what is unfolding from moment to moment, there is a self. It is slightly confusing but not at all if there is a willingness to understand what it is all about.

It just seems really out of place in modern life because without reflection, modern life could not have come to be. But no self makes a lot of sense and is more easily observed and appreciated when someone is sitting in a forest meditating away from everything that has been manufacture. Simplicity allows for the sustained existence of no self because it affords the opportunity to do nothing other than take in whatever is occurring from moment to moment, so basically what is steaming into the brain from the senses. Other people and manufactured material objects make this task nearly impossible because they create the need for rules. This causes complexity and moves the person away from the role of observer and into role of reflector in order to generate an understanding of what is going on.

Neuroscience has revealed a lot about the nature thinking, and one part that applies to no self / self duality is captured by the two self’s phenomena. Specifically, your brain operates with information in two ways. The first way, the no-self way, is about experience. This is what happens from moment to moment and it is what is lumped into the experience of “now.” The second way is about the remembering self, which is what your consciousness recalls about an experience. While it would be partially correct to refer to this as long term memory, given that long term memories do contribute to what we remember, it is not the entire story. The truth is that most of us do not actually remember most things very well and what comes to mind when we are thinking about the past is a combination of long term memories and things we make-up on the fly to fill-in the details or manufacture a more rich or complete narrative. The point here is not to suggest that neuroscience has uncovered evidence to support the truth about what the Buddhist teachers have been saying for centuries but to lend weight to the notion that sensation / experience is a different thing than perception / reflection / remembering. So given this, it makes sense that we should hold different views about two different things.

There is a Buddhist / Zen saying that goes something like “before enlightenment work, after enlightenment work” that addresses the next concern the author has about “mindfulness.”

They raise a very good point, but do not track in on the source of the issue with any vigor or accuracy, when they state: “In claiming to offer a multipurpose, multi-user remedy for all occasions, mindfulness oversimplifies the difficult business of understanding oneself.”

The first part of the sentence is more or less accurate, as it would be if it was said about anything that is put forward as a panacea or cure to everything that ails a person, culture, or society. The second part of the sentence is less accurate. In fairness, they were writing an article and not a text book, so there was probably a word count limit in place for them. However, that does not negate the responsibility an author has for guarding their words and to speak as clearly, accurately, and concisely as possible. Their article is not a work of fiction so it is reasonable to assume that what is written down is factual and represents the truth as the author knew it at the time. Putting aside their right to have and voice an opinion, that sentence journeys well into the realm of a statement of disinformation or a statement that is demonstrably false.

The first thing is that mindfulness is a skill, so a noun or verb, and makes no claim about its abilities to do anything – in exactly the same way as reading is a skill and completely incapable of promoting its virtues. Mindfulness needs boosters because mindfulness is not alive. The problem then is not with anything that mindfulness itself is doing but with the claims that are being made about it. In the event that this seems so obvious and therefore unnecessary to mention, it is worth pointing out that racism is both a problem and a part of our internal operating system. Many skills or behaviours that human beings are capable of, that seem to lack any value in modern life, are there because they served a valuable survival purpose at one point in time. Racism is not good, but the ability to identify those who are not like us and to treat those we are similar to had a place in our evolutionary past. It is an antiquated thing, particularly given that every unique race has suffered MORE at the hands of those who look like them than those who look different, but so too is the appendix and a considerable amount of our DNA given that it doesn’t seem to code for anything at all. Well the appendix used to do something and those unnecessary genes used to code for something that promoted survival.

So the problem with mindfulness is that people who promote it are making extraordinary claims about what it can do and how it will impact the lives of anyone who uses it as an approach to life. The problem the author is making reference to is the overstating or direct lying about the utility of mindfulness made by the people who promote it. This is something that I agree with, but it was not stated as directly as that in the article.

The second part of the sentence “mindfulness oversimplifies the difficult business of understanding oneself” doesn’t hold up nearly as well, even when translated or updated to reflect what is actually going on. I believe that the author is intending to say “the skill of mindfulness is presented as a simple way to understand yourself.” This is true and it is not a problem. The fact is that human beings are biological machines whose brain manufactures meaning out of electrical impulses that are triggered by collisions between the body and molecules that are not a part of the body. The tree we see is a collection of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, etc. that is in tree form. What we see is the light that bounces off of some of these molecules and hits our retina. When we touch it, the molecules of our skin are repelled by the molecules that make-up the tree, so this ends up stimulating receptors on the skin that trigger electrical impulses to flow into the brain that cause the sensation of touch. If we were to eat the tree, tree molecules would stimulate taste receptors, if we were to smell it, tree molecules would stimulate olfactory receptors, and when we hear the tree, receptors in our inner ear are simply responding to air that is coming off of the tree and going into our ears.

I am not intending to be irreverent when I say that it is “simply” anything, but our experience of a tree is so much less than any narrative story we manufacture to capture the entirety of our knowledge about trees. It is our brain that do all of the heavy lifting that allow us to perceive things and to understand the world in reflective terms.

The fact of the matter is that most of what we know about things is just a story we are telling ourselves and sharing with other people. It is accurate in so far as it works in allowing us to navigate our way through life with a lot of ease, but nearly all of it is just manufactured rules about collections of molecules that human beings mostly agree on just so they do not have to think about it anymore than they have to.

Considering and then assimilating this fact is alarming, at least initially, but our brain will reconcile things very quickly and it will allow us to go back to living life as though we didn’t gain the insight. From an experiential point of view, the facts and the truth are of much less consequence than the position and movement of the molecules that we bump into. So no matter what we learn, life will return to normal quickly because it must be lived by each one of us.

The skill of mindfulness is a way that anyone can gain clarity into the nature of the world and, more importantly, the nature of our social interactions and social conventions. It will allow someone to  uncover what they are in terms of molecules and what they are in terms of a narrative understanding, while giving them great power to figure out what is important, what is real, and what is worth pursuing. It isn’t going to fix anything EXCEPT the delusions someone may have created about what is going on from moment to moment. It is not a cure for clinical depression, it will not help someone grow taller or regrow their hair, and it will not open up the doors to effortless success. But it can allow someone to experience what is actually going on in the world, to gain a better understanding of the difference between sadness and depression, it can help someone accept the reality of their height or hair situation, and it can give someone the clarity to figure out what actions they need to take in order to find greatness and to then make the decision on whether or not they actually want it.

Mindfulness, when practiced consistently, gives someone the ability to separate the sensations from the perceptions and to then make the decision to act in a way that makes the most sense to them in terms of these sensations and perceptions. But that is all it is going to do. The reason some people feel calmer when they practice it is because it dissolves the narrative, for a short period of time, which will allow for whatever triggered emotions to run their course before returning the person back to their baseline. There are two ways to describe it, the first is the feeling you have right as you wake-up in the morning without an alarm clock and when you have nowhere to go – your mind is at ease and filled with next to nothing. It doesn’t last very long, but while it does, it is still and peaceful and nothing is pulling it one way or the other. The second is the feeling you have right after a very intense workout as your heart rate and breathing return to normal. Physically you feel fantastic and mentally you are overcome with a sense of wellness and indifference to the world. Your mind has been parked into unflappable so you feel, for a spell, like you are on vacation and weeks away from having to deal with the real world again.

Now consider what you have just read and apply it to the author’s statement: “to look for richer explanations about why you think and feel the way you do, you need to see yourself as a distinct individual, operating within a certain context. You need to have some account of the self, as this demarcates what is a response to your context, and what flows from yourself.”

Who we are is not a static thing, and a lot of what we may choose to believe we are is subject to the present emotional state at the time of perception. Before my long intense bike ride, I may be an angry co-worker who doesn’t take the time to consider the ideas of other people before pushing my own solution forward. At the end of the bike ride I’m more than capable of working through their solution to actually see the merits of what they are suggesting and realize that not only is it better than my idea, but it is the only way forward. I would suggest that this insight occurs because the “self” has disappeared affording me an objective perspective that is based on the consideration of a more complete view of the available information. There is no ego so there is no desire to be the problem solver, only a desire to have the problem solved as effectively and as permanently as possible.

The tendency for people to see the world only from their own perspective and to view this perspective as being more important or valuable is a characteristic of something called disordered attachment. With the exception of a few people, everyone has a bias towards their own point of view simply because there is nothing so real in the universe as it. Every moment of our waking life is experienced from inside ourselves and a good case can be made that most of our dreams are also from our own unique point of view. “We” exist somewhere right behind the eyes, nose and mouth, between the ears, and slightly above our tongue and throat. All of our physical sensations have a “I” quality insofar as they tend to originate on our skin, or at the boundary between “us” and the rest of the world. It is reasonable that we would create and carry such an inflated perspective given that there are only two things in the world and that “we” are one of them; the other one is the rest of the world / universe.

But this isn’t the entire picture because EVERYONE has the same sort of perspective and experience of being alive. When you are in a room with nine other people, there are ten unique perspectives, each one as the sole center of all experience. This means that no specific reality is more real than any of the rest. As many people as there are on the planet, there are that many versions of the real world running. So we are real, but we are not really real.

Disordered attachment is a type of psychological attachment or dependence to something, someone or some activity. It is consider disordered because it is out of proportion to reality or to the nature of things. The solution I was forcing through, for example, is only held by me as the better solution when I am attached to it and am therefore willing to dismiss the merits of my co-workers solution. However, at the end of my intense bike ride or at some point after around 5 minutes of meditation, my attachment has evaporated because my emotional state has returned to baseline and I am more able to see the world in objective terms. This can only be a good thing given that a good idea is a good idea regardless of where it comes from. By eliminating the disordered attachment, objective reality can come more clearly into focus and the world can get better for all those who are relying on the best possible results.

There are a slew of cognitive biases that have at their core this type of disordered thinking / rationalization. The ego centric bias, the Ikea bias, the fundamental attribution error, and conflicts of interest are just a few of them that apply directly to the work situation I outlined. The ego centric bias has someone rely too much on their own perspective and experience, the Ikea bias has someone inflate the value of something that they created well above the fair market value of similar items, the fundamental attribution error has someone view their own decisions or actions as being related to situational factors while viewing the decisions and actions of others as being the result of character traits, and a conflict of interest is the tendency for people to unconsciously act in ways that promote an outcome that will benefit them all the while believing and feeling like they are acting objectively. There are many more, but this list should be sufficient to provide evidence that things are not as simple as they seem or even as we perceive them to be.

However, intense exercise, a good night’s sleep, or a mindfulness meditation session can go a long way in mitigating the impact of being the center of ALL of your experiences simply because they put some distance between the stimulus and the response. This time delay will allow any emotional response to fade and it will reduce the perception of the magnitude of any gain or loss.

This piece of it is rather peculiar. The “self” is something to which things happen and this allows for the “self” to react to those things in a way that seems like it is automatic and beyond any conscious control. However, this is not the case for most things. With the exception of being physically hit by something or getting physically ill, most of the stuff that occurs doesn’t actually happen to anyone, or at least it does not actually happen to us. We see or hear it, but our bodies are in no way implicated by what happened. This means that the perception we have of events plays a much bigger role in how we go about living our life than anything that actually happens to us or our bodies. This leads to the situation that when something occurs in the world but that only impacts us in terms of our perception or narrative interpretation of it, we have a chemical response that causes us to “feel” something BUT that reaction is not to anything that is real. If we think about two co-workers putting forward different solutions to a specific problem, not much is happening in a physical sense – some brain activity creates a thought that is the solution, and other brain activity causes muscles to contract in very specific ways that allow air to flow out of the lungs, passing over the vocal chords to make a very specific sound that is the air vibration equivalent to the thought. Both parties are having a very similar experience although each one of them has a very different interpretation of the ideas that are being aired. Each one will believe their idea is better because they will have felt just how right it was when they thought it. What they hear, the other person’s idea, will not have the same quality. They won’t feel it in the same way – both in terms of intensity and rightness – and it will be as though it exists as something that is different from them. Both parties will feel and belief that their solution is the best and each will likely go to bat for it.

But this is only happening because each one is acting as though they are something independent from the other and that the other is part of everything else. While this may be narratively or perceptually correct, it is not correct in terms of what is actually going on in the world. A detached third party would simply listen to both ideas and give their opinion on which one is the best because they are neither of the two self’s who have been tasked with solving the problem. They get to be objective because both solutions are coming from outside of them. Their ego does not factor into it as they get to say “the best idea is this one” and get back to doing whatever it is they do. They will probably feel that one of the answers is better, but they will not be inclined to feel that their OWN idea is better simply because it came from inside of them.

It is worth suggesting that this level of insight – to notice that cognitive biases have a sensation and that I am as prone as everyone else to be subjected to them – really only came to life for me when I spent a lot of time meditating, noticing my thoughts and feelings arise and pass away, and getting very clear that the next thing that I think about or the next sensation that I have is most often a complete mystery to me. The most I can do is to try and shape them by paying attention to very specific things, but generally speaking, there is a very random nature to almost all of it. Which brings us to the final concern the author raises.

“After a certain point, mindfulness doesn’t allow you to take responsibility for and analyse your feelings.”

I believe that the opposite is true, that we can only take responsibility for and gain insight into our feelings through the practice of mindfulness. Right where the author claims mindfulness impairs our ability to own and understand our feelings is the point I believe that mindfulness facilitates these things. I also believe that we are talking about the same phenome and may actually believe more or less the same thing.

It seems that their conclusion here is based off of some of the other concerns they mention; which means that all that comes after may not be rooted in reality or fact. For example, if someone does not allow for the duality of self and no-self, they are powerless to draw any other conclusion that “mindfulness doesn’t allow you to take responsibility for and analyse your feelings” because if there is no self, there can be no ownership of the feelings that are being experienced and nothing there to analyse them. But it there is only a self, the observation that thoughts and feelings just seem to flow out of our spontaneous brain activity becomes a lot tougher to notice or it must exist in a world to which it is incompatible. Both concepts are needed because there are times when we are a self and times when we are no self. The author has laid out their concerns with this part of it which has had the effect of limiting the moves they are able to make without appearing to contradict themselves or outline a paradox / problem.

I suppose I am more willing to allow for the coexistence of mutually exclusive ideas because I am very confident that the experience we have of being alive from moment to moment is not well enough understood to limit any aspect or to allow us to say that “there is no self” or “there is only a self.” There are times when it seems to be a self and other times when there appears to be no self, so I’m going to hedge my bets by assuming that they are both accurate while conceding that there is probably a more complete theory or understanding that covers them both perfectly. Apart from this being a safe move, given just how complex consciousness is, it has the added benefit of allowing me to pick and choose the best or most effective stuff from whichever side I happen to be considering. My goal here is to point out and highlight what works and why it may be of value, as opposed to pointing out what doesn’t work or the underlying historical problems with a technology such as mindfulness.

Cultivating the skill of mindfulness will go a very long way in helping someone understand what feelings are and what they are not. It will also give a person the ability to critically assess what is going on in terms of their emotional reactions / responses. On the very surface level, knowing that you are experiencing the sensations of anger moments before you have the emotional experience of anger can be very helpful in determining the appropriate course of action. Anger may be the right response, but it may be an overreaction, and one with a big downside. On a deeper level, having a more full experience and understanding of an emotional response will allow the emotion to be all that it is and ONLY what it is. You can be sad because your sports team lost, but you do not end-up devastated or left feeling aimless.

Most importantly is the fact that by gaining the ability to see and feel emotions more accurately, you will begin to gain the insight into what the whole thing is all about and how your brain will react to the things that it believes are happening and the things that actually do. I would be inclined to suggest that you cannot possibly have a cursory understanding of your feelings or your motivations / action unless you are able to notice them as sensations, experiences, and linguistic narrative expressions. Having access to one or two of these things is not complete enough to be useful as each one supplies a portion of the information. But when all three are available and processed, we are able to create a more complete understanding of any situation and move forward having made any decision from a place of being fully informed.

In summary then, the skill of mindfulness is an essential piece of the equation that allows someone to figure out what is actually going on and what actions need to be taken to ensure continued survival. Without it, we are moving forward on autopilot, oblivious to the lack of depth in our understanding and completely unaware of the impact our manufactured fiction is having on the decisions we make. It allows you to figure out what is going on, what you did, and why you did it along with illustrating the subjective and self-serving nature of most of your perception.

Again, while I did not agree with much of what the author said, we simply have a different opinions. I see and understand the world differently than them and that is fine. They do point out some of the legitimate problems with the subject of mindfulness and how it is being introduced to the western masses. While most of these challenges are the consequence of the people who are involved and have nothing at all to do with the mental skill of mindfulness, generating awareness of these problems is a very good thing to do because it can go a long way in helping people avoid the pitfalls.

I liked the article in-spite of the fact that I did not not agree with much of it. Obviously, I believe that I can provide some of the missing insight and to help clear-up the authors concerns, but I have no problem if the author never changes their opinion. That is because their article was worth reading and forced me to dig in a little on some of the ideas or beliefs that I have about mindfulness in order to figure out what it was that I was not aligned with. At the end of the day that may have been the author’s goal – I know that it is one of mine when I write – and since the piece was well written, it allowed me to think about the subject very quickly and without having to decipher a hidden message.

The Problem Of Titles – Capturing Your Attention Because Attention Is The 21st Century Currency

So that’s the problem of titles, they are tool that is used to grab and hook your attention by exploiting a gap in the social software contained in the brain of each human being. When used this way, they bypass the need for informed consent or conscious choice, and lead you on to a page or into a place you didn’t have any plan on going.

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This is an odd post because it quickly jumped the tracks and took off in a very different direction; not surprising, given that brains do that sort of thing when they are allowed to. The consequence is that this shorter post will be followed in a few days with the longer one that reflects the direction my brain took with it. The link to that post will appear in the comments once it becomes live.

At some point in the recent past I happened across an article titled “The Problem Of Mindfulness” that made my brain throw an error before taking over and getting me clicking on the link. The error it threw was analogous to a hissy fit that a 3 year old might throw when faced with a parent who is telling them to go to sleep or to eat their vegetables – they were being made to do something that they didn’t agree or want to do. It was the best attempt of a near half-century old brain to hone in on the fact that something about the real world was not aligned with the internal representation it held and that maybe the real world isn’t as real as everyone would like to belief. The declaration of “up with this I will not put” was made via an automatic hand and finger movement to cursor onto and left click the link.

The title of the article is powerful, which is the reason why it landed on me the way it did. It hooks the brain and triggers it to do things WITHOUT ever asking for permission. It is a form of manipulation, and while the ask the author is making is not a big one, on some level it is less than moral. My rational for making this declaration is that it is my brain and I therefore should have final say on what goes into it and what processes fire-up to deal with the world. I have a problem with anyone capturing any part of it without my permission or consent.

The title “The Problem Of Mindfulness” implies that there is a problem with mindfulness and unless you agree with the statement, the brain is going to handle the statement as though it is a question. This transforms the title into “what are the problems with mindfulness?” It is version of the logical fallacy known as begging the question – which occurs when an argument’s premise assume the truth of the conclusion, instead of supporting it. This is sort of like what happens when the question “when did you stop beating your wife?” is asked – it implies that you used to beat your wife, before it is established that you are even married. It is leading because the human brain automatically assumes to be true all of the things that are requirements for the statement to be true. Once these assumptions are made, they become “facts” unless they are immediately engaged and proven to be false.

I do not think there is any malice in what the author has done because when I read the article it is clear that they believe that “mindfulness” is being used in ways that are problematic. However, this does nothing to disabuse me of the notion that the title is having an effect on the reader’s brains that is automatic and unconscious. It is, in a way, the antithesis of mindfulness, hence the reason for my visceral reaction. Having spent thousands of hours meditating, it has become very clear to me that life is lived on autopilot for most people most of the time. I am not making a claim that the same is not true for me. My practice has only given me slightly more than zero control over what my brain is doing from moment to moment, and this affords to me only the occasional glimpse into the transient experience of being alive.

Begging the question, along with all of the logical fallacies and cognitive biases, are things that we can get a better handle on through logical means vs. experiential ones. BUT once we learn what they are and put the time in to learning how to notice them, the way they feel will eventually begin to surface. Each one of them and each one of us, will have a unique experience so I cannot say what begging the question will feel like for you. For me, it feels like manipulation or like someone is trying to sell me something, so it makes me feel queasy. But it has a tint of anger that I can best attribute to my modal-intensity being directed towards proving something that I know is not provable. Again, this is what it is like for me, how other people react to it will be different. The truth is though, most people will only react by assuming the unsupported premise is true and moving forward with whatever that belief causes them to think or do.

In fairness to all those who approach the world with good intention, two key things need to be stated. The first is that lying, dishonestly, and manipulation are very new things to our evolutionary path. Our species has had very little experience with them, so the hardware and default software we are running is the product of a world in which truth and honesty were the primary ways of operating. Advanced language that communicates abstract ideas is a necessary requirement for lying and subtle mind control to be possible. Then, in order to actually act this way, the incentive to do so would need to be much larger than the disincentive to. These factors date this type of behavior to the last 10000 years which is not nearly long enough for the brain to have adjusted to combat it.

The second thing is that the best article in the world, or the best idea that has ever come to a human beings mind, is effectively worthless if no one reads it or it is never shared with anyone. A strong title is a simple way to get people to read the article or consume the idea. If the article is helpful and moves someone forward in their life, a case can be made for skipping the informed consent or free choice part of the equation and tricking someone into reading. I do not agree that the ends justify the means but some people might.

I have been told that my articles would get better traction is they were more controversial or if they were more inclined to cause outrage in some people. I agree, and I don’t care to journey down that road. It isn’t my goal to trigger either one of those things. My purpose is much closer to the opposite of them and could be summarized as trying to eliminate suffering by helping people create order in their lives. Whether or not this is a noble or worthwhile goal doesn’t factor into it. Nor does the desire to get hits or page views. While I would love all of these things to happen – to achieve a wide reach in terms of readership and impact, and to be considered a righteous person who played a role in the betterment of the lives of many people – if my ideas do not appeal to the many or do not stand on their own, that’s just how it goes. At the end of the day I have to live with myself and I have always found it difficult to sleep well when I have tricked someone into doing something that, while it may be in their best interest, was not something they would have willingly agreed to do.

So that’s the problem of titles, they are tool that is used to grab and hook your attention by exploiting a gap in the social software contained in the brain of each human being. When used this way, they bypass the need for informed consent or conscious choice, and lead you on to a page or into a place you didn’t have any plan on going. Those who lack the mindfulness to notice it happening, may not have the ability to then liberate their attention and redirect it back onto whatever matters the most or is most important to them.

Victim Language Is A Tool, Not A Symptom Of A Problem

Basically we’re trying to get them to reach a point were they see the situation as ridiculous and of their own making. They need to see it as ridiculous because intelligent people are not capable of continuing to exist in that type of situation. They need to see it as their own making because this allows them to keep the momentum and see that they have had the power and been using it the entire time.

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In the self-help / personal development world the idea of victim language is floated. Predatory listening techniques are used by many practitioners to identify and point out when someone’s language indicates that they are viewing themselves as having been victimized in a specific situation or life in general. On the surface of it, it does make a lot of sense to draw ones attention to the moments when their choice of language indicates a world view has them being powerless. This flows from the fact that those who have the power to control their life have the opportunity to influence their future.

These conversation are only superficially helpful because they lack the insight to actually empower the individual. But they feel like something very real to both parties. The instructor / coach feels good, given that they were successful at identifying a pattern of speech that they have been trainer to flag given that the human brain is programmed to release reward chemicals with every successful match. The participant / client feel good because they now have an answer to the question “why is my life like this?” KNOWING the answer to that type of question is rewarding because it closes an open loop that was syphoning off mental energy that results from uncertainty. In terms of a transaction, it is win:win. Both parties feel good and get sufficient value from it.

But it isn’t very helpful in terms of empowering either party.

I’m going to cast aside the instructor, they aren’t asking for help, and instead focus on the client / participant.

Their language is fine. It’s powerful and clearly communicates a world view. This world view is almost completely correct. When they say that they didn’t get the promotion because their boss doesn’t like them they are correct. When they say they can’t lose weight because chips and candy too good to refuse they are correct. No matter what they say, there is an abundance of truth in it. There’s no point in lying and telling them that they are wrong. They are in fact the victim.

This begs the question, if they are victim, who then is victimizing them?

Well, it’s their language, so they are. And this is the power of it. It is only through seeing themselves as the cause of everyting in their life that they will ever gain the ability to control this power and begin to use it to create the life that they want.

This is where I part ways with the coaches / instructors. The thrust of their approach is to tell their clients to stop using victim language and start using more powerful statements as though they are the cause of their own life. The problem I see with this is that their victim world view has a lot of momentum. This inertia will keep things going in that direction for a while making immediate / instantaneous change nearly impossible. To do the opposite, they will first have to come to a complete stop before starting to move in the other direction. Doing this requires a lot of attention and energy, which is unreasonable given the unproven nature of the technology their coach is asking them to trust.

Instead, we use the inertia to reduce the energy requirements needed to help them become the cause of their own life.

Basically we’re trying to get them to reach a point were they see the situation as ridiculous and of their own making. They need to see it as ridiculous because intelligent people are not capable of continuing to exist in that type of situation. They need to see it as their own making because this allows them to keep the momentum and see that they have had the power and been using it the entire time.

Here is how:

A) Get them to restate the victim statement.

B) Nod your head if face to face or give an ambiguous verbal agreement if remote

C) Repeat it back to them and get their confirmation that the statement is correct.

D) Ask them “so what?”

E) Listen to their answer and ask them “what then?”

F) Go back to c and repeat as many times as needed to get to some ridiculous place.

A helps you to calibrate your understanding with their world view. B allows them to be correct and it sustains the momentum of their world view. C give you the opportunity to show that you have listened and heard, and get clarification if it is needed. D forces them to look inside and spend more time thinking about their victimization. It also gets them to consider the consequences of the situation they are in. E projects them into the future. F begins the process again with a new starting point that is at some point in the future.

One of the characteristics of people who view themselves as victims is that they rarely spend much time thinking about the long term ramifications of the situation. People either tell them that they need to do something different or they simply agree with them that they are victims. These amount to “I’m solving your problem” or “shut up, I don’t want to listen to you”. The third option is to assume that they are the experts of their own life and to genuinely be curious about how they think the situation will play out. Keep digging in and uncovering whatever lies below the surface. And then go deeper and see what’s below that. At some point it will become ridiculous and they’ll see that they have create the world they presently live in. Once they get here, applaud them for the power they have in making the world the way they did and invite them to consider what it is that they really want to use that power for.

Keep in mind that anyone who has done the dialectic about their challenges has already drawn the conclusion that THEY have caused the world to be the way it is and that they alone have victimized their own life.

It will take a little practice and role playing to get the conversational flow down, but you’ll be surprised at just how quickly you’ll get good at helping them see their role as victim and villain. You’ll also be shocked to notice the lack of introspection or how little actual though they have put into understanding the situation. Generally speaking, once someone has seen that they are the victim they stop thinking about it and start repeating and refining the victim script. It usually doesn’t have a second act, and if it does, rarely a third. By the forth cycle through their house of cards has collapsed.

This approach has the possibility of being effective, more than the traditional approaches of agreeing that someone has been victimized by others, which gives them a pass because it externalizes the source of the problems meaning that they do not have the capability to fix the situation, or pointing out their use of victim language and coaching them to substitute these patterns for more empowering one, which continues the externalization of the source of them being wrong, simply because it makes them responsible for drawing any judgments about who is the cause of the events that are happening in their own life, and the deep dive in terms of the possible future outcomes forces them to make huge generalizations in order to support or validate their assumptions which they will easily perceive as being incorrect.

The key to this approach is that they get to maintain ownership of everything, which is valuable in two ways. The first is that by seeing oneself as the cause of an outcome, they automatically accept responsibility for being the cause of an alternative outcome. The second reason has to do with the cognitive bias called the fundamental attribution error, which holds that a person is going to view their own actions in situational terms and the actions of other people in characterological terms. This tendency results in a reduction of solution option sets when a person views other people as being the cause of an outcome because they view the other persons actions as being a consequence of their lack of abilities or an abundance of malice. But when they view themselves as being the cause, they immediately see the situation as having played a causal role and can easily be moved towards generating solutions that are solely based on changing it. They have the capacity to do this so there is a much better chance of them surfacing a solution that they are willing to implement.

This is a version of a double bind – something that leads a person to two mutually exclusive outcomes – although the ridiculous nature of the final outcome does serve to dissipate the emotional distress. Narratively, when done effectively, the person has to choose between being correct, but unintelligent and locked into a life time of suffering, or having been the cause of their situation and holding the power to do something about it. While the second option is less palatable in so far as it requires that they put the effort into making their own life better, it is usually much more appealing to anyone who is actually open to change than admitting to another human being that they are willing to continue to do the very thing that is causing their life to be crappy enough to ask you for help in fixing.

My favoring of this approach stems from the fact that I have never seen someone respond well to being told that they are being victimized by an external entity. The usual outcome of this is a state of learned helplessness that serves only to inhibit action. The other option is only marginally more effective at engendering a sense of personal power. But even when doing this, it tends to take a very long time because they need to mindfully create a new process of guarding their “I am” statements, which is a valuable skill on its own, but for our purposes, serves as an intermediary step. When quick change is desired or needed, a more direct attack of the problem makes more sense than learning how to do something that will stop them from doing the thing that is causing the undesired outcome.

Most people have a conditioned threshold level of effort that they are willing to spend in order to move past a negative experience. Since those with a high threshold tend to be the very people who fix or create the life they want to live, coaches and trainers will never find themselves having to help simplify the approach for these clients because the client will simply do whatever work is needed to implement and execute the perfect solution. For everyone else, their desired outcome is more often achieved through methods that rely on the expenditure of the least amount of effort.

To this end, forcing their brain into a double bind-like choice between having to reconcile the continuation of making stupid choices or choosing to see themselves as having been the one who made those choices and therefore is free to put in the work to make different ones, has only one possible outcome when dealing with someone who is actually willing to change. They see themselves as the cause, they accept that they have made the decision on some level to view themselves as the victim, and they put in the marginal amount of effort that is required to do something else.

NOTE: those who are unwilling to change will be easy to identify because they will ask other people to explain what is going on, they will not take the time and put in the effort to answer the “so what” questions, they will have reasons that they believe for why they are actually the victim of the actions of an external player, and they will be more than willing to endure the negative side of the double bind – there will be no cognitive dissonance associated with existing in a world that has them act in a way that will prevent them from getting what they claim they want. My advice is to exit yourself from the life of these people. Do NOT take them on as clients and do not believe a word they say when it comes to their belief that they know you will be able to help them. You cannot help them because they do not want help, they want someone to do the work for them. This makes it unworkable because people fix their own lives by taking the actions that move their life towards the things that will make it better and away from the things that are making it worse. Anyone who shifts the responsibility of any aspect of this onto another person is not ready for change and is very likely looking for someone else to blame when things do not go well.

The final part of all of this has to do with the fact that being a victim of the actions of other people is not the same thing as being the victim of your own actions. Not all victims are the same, although everyone is, to some degree, a victim of their own decision making or their unwillingness to make a decision.

This is where the power comes from. At some level, each one of us could have done something different and if we had, we would have experienced a different outcome. Even when we truly are the victims and suffer at the hands of another person, we could have done something different at some point along the way and there is a very good chance that we could have changed course when we realized that things were starting to go badly. This is why the cycling through the questions is so important. The client will need to realize a few things before they will gain access to a different and more deliberate future.

At some point along the way, when they realized that things were starting to go or were actually bad, they did not act. This was their decision and even if another person victimized them afterward, it was only because the client made the decision to remain in that position. Yes, the other person is responsible for their action, but this does not relinquish the client from their own responsibility in the situation. They contributed to the situation that the other person took advantage of.

By cycling through the questions until a ridiculous end point is reached, the double bind is created that will cause the client to consider the fact that there is something very silly about how the whole thing is going to pan out assuming the present situation remains as it is. This will force them to reconcile the fact that they KNOW the future before it happens and are therefore choosing to let this happen by choosing to do nothing about it. If they do not like how things are right now and they really do not like how things will become if they continue along on the same course, they will obviously need to do something different or else they are completely responsible for the outcome. No one else in the situation will bare any responsibility for what happens.

Notice how, at no point in this, are they being told that they are wrong. They are not being judged by you (the trainer / coach) in anyway, which will put some distance between them and the notion of external victimization. They are being moved to the point of making their own decisions and value judgments about what is going on and are completely free to accept everything as fine and allow it to continue. If the concept of victimization exists at all, it will only be in terms of their own actions and decisions leading them to a predetermined or predicted outcome. No one else will hold any responsibility in it and if they view the possible outcome as bad or undesirable, they are free to do something different to change it.

The benefit to this approach stems from the fact that self-discovery and independent learning play a disproportionately large role in terms of shaping future actions than anything that was taught or learned via a proxy. Understanding is the much younger sibling to realization, so someone who realizes that they have made the decisions that led them to this moment in time is at a distinct advantage over someone who understands this concept. The truth of the matter is that most people will resist and do the opposite of what they are told, so the actions of a well-intentioned coach who bypasses self-discovery in favor of telling the client what is going on will statistically do more harm than good.

Not everyone wants the things that they say they want, so it’s also very important to take the time to allow the person to make this call on their own. The only way this can happen is when there is full disclosure. By helping the client surface the most likely outcome if they continue their course of action, you are helping to free them from the future, if that is what they want, or to become content with their future, if it is what they choose. Again, we are not in a position to say anything about right and wrong, nor are we qualified to make the call on what is appropriate or inappropriate for their future. It is their life and they are the experts of it. Our job is to help them gain clarity on what is going on, why it is happening, who is causing it to happen, and what the future outcomes will be if they continue to operate in the same way. If they still want help after everything has been uncovered, our job is to help them figure out what they want and to help them determine a path that they will take towards it.

Victim language is important only in so far as it helps them to see who the actual villain is, themselves, and to realize that it has been their own decisions that have caused the outcomes that they do not like. It is only when someone accepts that they are both victim and villain in their own life that they will be able to see themselves as being the cause of whatever eventual future they live into. Leverage this view of victim-hood to help them gain the power of becoming a benevolent villain in their own life.

Soon Certain and Salient – The Science and My Experience

This is athletes and is not most people. The results are a function of “athlete” as a verb as opposed to a noun. Most people will act like an athlete from time to time insofar as they can be very driven and work very hard, but an athlete is single-minded about what it is they want to achieve and they are single-minded about the willingness to do whatever it takes to move forward and achieve the goal.

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A few weeks ago I was talking to an old co-worker friend from the fitness industry. We were just spit balling back and forth about who the best clients were to get. When I asked him what exactly he meant by the best clients, is it the ones who get the best results, is it the ones who are the most fun to train, is it the ones that are the easiest to train? He replied with “that is a good question, what I’m really asking is your opinion and your experience with clients who get the best results for who they are, and you know right off the get-go that it is going to be an easy experience for both people.” So for the trainer is it going to be fairly straight forward and for them as the client it is going to be very simple. It is going to be hard work, without a doubt, but it is going to be simple hard work. They are going to do what they have to do, they are going to do it as well as they can, and they are going to do it exactly as it is outlined.

Fundamentally, this is the type of question that I love answering because it draws on a lot of my experience in terms of the work that I have done in a variety of different fields along with my academic background in psychology. At its core is the question “why do people do the things that they do?”

Now we know an awful lot about how the brain works, both in terms of the physiological things that occur, and in the fifty thousand foot view of what goes on in the brain and the way people think – so the neuroscience along with the psychology. There is a boundary separating these two things. The neuroscience deals with things on a cellular level while the psychology deals with more of a narrative understanding of what goes on. Regardless of the differences, a lot is known about both things.

There is not much difference between human beings. Genetically, we are all very close to identical and the physiological processes that run under the surface are exactly the same for all people. We are coded in more or less the same way, by and large we all have the same parts of the brain and they all work in exactly the same way. And it is that way with most mammals and most living things. Neurons work the same way, more or less. So given that there is so much similarity in terms of the neuroscience, on the cellular level, why are there different outcomes for different people? Why is it not the same outcome?

That is where the psychology comes in to play. And that is ultimately the question my friend was asking. Who are your favorite clients to work with from the point of view of the ones you know are going to do well, will follow instructions and just be really easy to work with? Well, as the conversation evolved he asked if my experience backed up what I know about psychology. And that is a fair question because my experience NEEDS to back it up because if experience does not back-up what you know about a science, your experience is wrong or the science is wrong, or you have done something new that was not previously known. But one would imagine, that with enough time, over the twenty years I have been working in the industry, I would have found my way into the mean in that the average experience that I have had with people would reflect the average person.

This is more or less been what I have discovered. Some people do not get very good results. They do not get any worse, but they never move toward their goal. The stated goal of losing a few pounds or gaining some muscle, or whatever the goal is that the person decides they want, I know that there will be some people who never move towards it. They will never get worse, which is a version of improvement given that decay is the natural processes as we get older, so that is good. But when they are not moving towards their goal and improving, they are not really getting what they want.

Then there are other clients who get average results, and finally there are the outliers on the other end, those who achieve their potential in the scientifically determined length of time – there is an optimal level of progress and there are a few clients who will hit this. This is ultimately what he was getting at. When someone sits down in front of me for the consultation, and they say “hey, I need your help in doing this thing,” who do I know is going to get the results, and what makes me sure they will? And what then does the science say about these people?

Well, I will work backwards. What does the science say about people who get results? Basically it says that the people who do this collection of things for this time duration at this frequency and for this period of time (in terms of weeks or months or years), will cause physiological changes to their body that are the reflection of the physiological stimulation and the nutritional intervention. So those who get results do those specific things as prescribed and they get these specific and predictable results. For example, they do this program four times a week, every week for three months while adjusting their diet in these ways and they will gain 5 pounds of muscle and drop 5 percent in body fat.

So if that is on the surface, do X, Y and Z in this way and get this outcome, why is it that some people choose to do X, Y and Z exactly as prescribed while others will not do it as prescribed? What is the difference between these people, and the individuals who find themselves in other groups?

The science and a lot of the research that they have done with people reveals that it all comes down to consequences. On first pass, this may seem silly because consequences are punishments and punishments are about reducing particular behavioral patterns or actions. Compare this to reward, which is about increasing behavioral patterns or actions that someone takes, which is ultimately what personal trainers are asking their clients to do.

Think back onto Pavlov’s dogs that salivated at the sound of the bell when they had learned that food was given right after the bell rang. They would start to get excited when they heard the bell because they learned that the bell meant food. The outcome to this was that the dogs began to display a behavior that was not related to the bell simply because they had been reward in the past and had conditioned the reward to the sound of the bell.

On the other side of it is punishment. Whenever a physical or psychological punishment is administered to a creature in close proximity to a particular action or behavior, the frequency of them displaying that action or behavior will be reduced and overtime it will be eliminated. Now the issue with punishment is that it is not very specific meaning that whatever action the nervous system of the animal determined was what led to the punishment will get suppressed. It is not a clearly defined or a concise understanding of what exactly caused the punishment. This means that any of the behaviors that occurred in close temporal proximity to the punishment might end-up being suppressed. This leads to a situation that allows for very little testing or refinement of the connection – since the punishment MIGHT have been caused by any one of these five actions, repeating one of them MIGHT lead to a punishment so it is best to not repeat ANY of them.

This is the opposite of rewards. Rewards tend to be much more specific because there is no risk associated with testing any of the potential actions. The animal is hell-bent on finding out what exactly it has to do in order to get more rewards and it very quickly tracks down that it was this particular behavior.

What does this have to do with success with personal training clients? It has to do with the fact that consequences have a much bigger role in determining who is going to be successful. Human beings are not like any other creature. We get to enjoy things that do not happen, we get to enjoy the benefits and cost of things that are just a matter of perception, so things that we imagine and that never occur. And while any other animal will learn to avoid doing the things that cause them harm or ill-health, a human being will continue to do them.

To this later point, alcohol is good. You should never ever feed alcohol to a dog, it is not fair as it cannot consent to drink. You should not do it. But whenever they have done it they have found that the dog will drink, it will suffer hangover like effects and it will never go near alcohol again. In fact, the dog will become conditioned to avoid alcohol through single-trial learning. When it comes to alcohol, it does not like it, it hates the feeling and it knows alcohol will cause the feeling so it does not touch it ever again. Human beings will continue to do things that cause pain or that simply do not work for them over and over again in spite of the fact that they causes problems. Consequences do not mean the same thing to human beings as they do to dogs. There is a one-to-one cause and effect relationship with the dog while the consequences with human beings are impacted by a perceptual relationship. This means that the cause and effect relationship manufactured by the human could connect absolutely anything to anything else.

The science basically says that someone who shows up for consultation saying “I want to get better at X,” knowing exactly what they are seeking, is highly motivated, and they know exactly why they are doing it, will tend to get the results they are looking for. A perfect example of this class is an athlete. Athletes know exactly why they are doing what it is they are doing and are moving towards a goal. I am not going to say that they are pleasure-seeking but they are looking for something that they view as positive. They want to achieve the highest level of performance so they can increase the likelihood that they are going to win during competition. This is one group who, if they show-up in front of you, assuming you know the science to support optimal human performance and write and administer the program effectively, WILL hit their potential because they will follow the program almost perfectly. These people are seeking something. There is a huge reward in front of them and that is what they are moving towards.

This is athletes and is not most people. The results are a function of “athlete” as a verb as opposed to a noun. Most people will act like an athlete from time to time insofar as they can be very driven and work very hard, but an athlete is single-minded about what it is they want to achieve and they are single-minded about the willingness to do whatever it takes to move forward and achieve the goal.

Most people, in general, are moving away from something they do not like, which is not pleasure seeking. Human beings operate from a pain avoidance point of view when it comes to altering their physical health. The reason is fairly straight-forward, it is hard work. The easiest thing to do is nothing. Change is not doing nothing. Doing nothing is doing what we have automated, living the life that we are currently living. If we want to change our life this means we have to do something other than what is automatic, which is going to require effort. Since we know it requires effort there is a disincentive to doing it if for no other reason than this extra effort (but there are other reason too). Human beings do not really operate from the point of view of spending effort unless we absolutely need to. So we will spend energy to get pleasure, the athlete, and when it comes to everyone else who connects with a personal trainer, they will spend energy to avoid pain. This is the reason why we know someone is going to get great results when they show-up to a personal trainer with a clear idea of what it is they do not want. They are the ones who are more than likely going to do everything that is asked of them. The motivational currency of the non-athlete are consequences.

The science basically says when dealing with consequences, the consequences need to be soon, they need to be certain, and they need to be salient. If a consequence has, in the mind of the potential client, these three properties, they are going to agree to training and they are going to commit to doing what you asked them to do as hard as they can. They are going to do what it is needed to move themselves away from the consequences that are soon, certain, and salient. If the consequences do not possess one of those properties, there is a much lower likelihood of compliance to the requests that will be outlined in the program.

The “soon” is fairly straightforward. The consequence needs to be something that occurs in the very near future and the closer to now it will occur the better. Far away things may as well not be things at all because the brain really does not process things that are distant. Things that actually exist in the here and now or have greater immediacy are going to get a lot more effort and action taken towards their resolution or prevention.

Certain means the outcome needs to be inevitable and there is no possibility of an alternative outcome that is more pleasant or favorable. The reason for this is a cognitive bias called “the optimistic bias” which has a person believed the best case scenario in a situation when there are two alternatives presented. They are going to believe the best case and assume that is the one that will happen and move forward accordingly. This will happen even if there is only a 1% chance of the best case and a 99% chance of the negative or the worst case scenario. The optimistic bias has a person choose a 1% chance over a 99% chance. This defies logic but so do human beings. We are not logical operators so it is not surprising that we would do something that does not make a lot of logical sense. An inevitable consequence or one that is viewed as near certainty is going to be given a lot more weight than something that is viewed merely as a possibility.

Salience has to do with ones ability to visualize, imagine, consider, and bring to mind what the consequences are and what the ramifications will be upon their life. The more clearly a person is able to perceive the future outcome, the greater the level of salience and the more clearly their perception will be of the negative. This is very important because things that are hard to imagine may as well not be imagined at all. Something that is very clear to see, is very simple to imagine and a brain will work with it to a much larger degree. The specific reasons for this have to do with the amount of stimulation that an idea generates. Imagine you are looking at something very clearly and you are noticing everything about it. This is a huge stream of sensory data coming into your brain that it has to process and make sense of. The same thing is true with something that is very salient. You are able to imagine it clearly, able to feel the way it feels, see, hear and get a real sense of the negative outcome and this will generate a massive amount of data that your brain is going to process and operate on.

The more we pay attention to something and the higher our concentration is on what we are thinking about, the greater the cognitive ripple triggered by this stimulation. This larger amount of data will have a much larger impact on our mental processes. Anything that is salient, is clear, is easy to visualize, is easy to understand and experience will have a bigger wave of impact on the brain meaning that more of the will process it.

The end result? A much better understanding of the negative outcome will lead to much better change. This is what the science says, as long as the consequences are soon, certain, and salient, a human being is not going to have any difficulty dealing with them. They are going to treat it as important, pay their respect and take the action that is required in order to address it. However, if a consequence does not have all three of these, or is missing two of them, a person is not going to do anything about it.

Now how does this line-up with my experience? Well, it aligns perfectly.

There are three prospective clients that will show up in front of me and I will know with certainty that they will buy training and get great value out of it by following the instructions and working hard to get the results they are seeking. In each of these three cases, they match on all three of soon, certain and salient. These three types of prospects are illness, recently dumped or single, and mothers of multiple children.

This begs the question, how are the variables of soon, certain and salient present in each of these groups?

Well if you think about illness, which is illness in the person themselves or the illness of someone they care about, it is very salient. If it is in themselves, the doctor has told them that they need to do something about their blood sugar, the extra body fat, or their blood pressure, or else they are going to die or they are going to get sick. Having the experience of the doctor telling them that sickness is inevitable unless they change course makes it very clear to them. The certainty is a doctor saying to them their blood pressure is 180 over 147, which is elevated. So unless there is a good reason for it and there tends not to be a very good reason for that, it is unhealthy and is causing a lot of unnecessary stress on the blood vessels and particularly on the brain. A blood pressure like that for a sustained period of time is setting oneself up for a stroke, a brain aneurysm or any number of really devastating neurological consequences. By ignoring high blood pressure, it is only a matter of time before an artery in your brain is going to explode, and when it bleeds out, it will cause severe intellectual mental impairments and it could actually kill you.

While we do not have any real concept of what it means to be not alive, because we have always been alive, we have an idea and a very negative sense of what it is like to be dead, and of what it would be like to be intellectually impaired because of a neurological trauma that was avoidable. A cancer diagnosis or a heart attack in a loved one has the same sort of quality. We see someone we care about who is sick, which makes for a very salient experience.

The certainty and soon is the doctor telling us that we are sick or destined for a health crisis when they show us a blood test that indicates an LDL level that is very high. These are understood by proxy if we see someone who is sick because this is a clear indication that it is really happening RIGHT NOW. That is a benefit, if you will, of illness. People see the consequences and they match all three of soon, certain and salient.

The second group, the recently dumped, is a weird one but it is absolutely true when someone becomes single, if they have not made the decision themselves, once they get past the grief associated with losing the relationship, they move towards a three to nine month period of getting revenge on their partner. They do not actually want their partner to suffer physically but that they want to send them a message that they screwed up dumping them, so they get after a physical transformation and taking care of the things that they put on the back burner. They take care of their health and they take care of their fitness. Maybe it is weight loss, maybe it is gaining strength to become more mobile and active in order to do things they have never done. Whatever it is, they do these so that at some point in the future they will be able to say to their ex-partner “yeah I’m doing all that stuff now, I look great, and it wasn’t me it was you. You broke up with me and now my life is so much better. You were the liability.”

Sure, this is a story that people are telling themselves, but since there is nothing at all wrong with getting into better shape, I am not going to tell them that they might want to go to therapy to understand the role they played in the demise of their relationship. With people, and particularly people who come looking for personal training advice, they do the work, they spend the time needed to figure themselves out and then come to realize that “yeah I played a role in the breakup. I was not being the best person I could be, I was not playing all out in the relationship and while I do not appreciate the fact that the relationship ended I do sort of understand that it was not working for me therefore could not possibly have been working for them.” But when it comes to those realizations, even when they arrive after spending six to nine months improving their health and fitness, it is all good. They will have a better life, they will be happier, they will be moving themselves forward and while they may not necessarily live longer they are going to enjoy a better health span and that is a big deal. While maybe it was not an absolutely necessary journey, they have done themselves and their future selves a huge favor by improving their health.

So how do the soon, certain, and salient apply here? Soon, the consequences are actually occurring. The person has been made single and is already living in the consequences. Certain, well it is the same thing, the thing has already happened and they are already living it. Whatever that is, they are right in the thick of it because they got dumped. Salient, the same thing as well, there is nothing as clear as living an experience.

The third group is mothers of multiple children. This one is tricky and it took me a little while to figure out but really when it comes down to it, the soon, certain and salient are all exactly the same thing as the recently dumped group.

I do not know what it is like to be a mother but a lot of the mothers I have worked with have all explained it in the same way: you would do anything to improve the quality and life experience of your child knowing that your child has no awareness of what you are doing, have done or will do. They do not say that it is thankless, but they do say the child is completely oblivious to the fact that you have done anything. All they know is that they had a need and Mommy took care of it and that is the end of it.

With one child the mother is going to be able to get back to life much sooner than when she has two or three children. Children are spaced out over particular length of time and while there is no set length of time required for the mind of a mother to determine that it is time to get back to doing stuff for themselves, they are going to hit that point later if they have more children. A person could spend ten years with their primary role being mother, looking after all of the needs of the child, making sure the child is not hungry or suffering in any way that they are able to help the child avoid. Ten years to live for something other than yourself is a very long time.

The soon, certain and salient in this case? The funny thing about this group is that these things are in the past. The person has lived the soon, it is not that the consequences are going to happen in the future, it is that they are happening and they have been happening. The certain, they have lived it. Salient, the same thing, they have lived it; it is very similar to the experience of being dumped in that it is not a thing that needs to be imagined about what might happen in the future, it is a thing that has been happening for a period of time.

If a mother shows up saying “you know, I’ve decided that I want to get some training,” a switch has flipped in their head because they have come to make the decision that they are going to be investing in themselves for the first time in a very long time. There is an opportunity cost associated with doing it – the opportunity cost is taking time away from their children, which has been their focus for the last decade – so they do not end up sitting across from a trainer, asking for help with improving their fitness unless they have actually done the benefit cost analysis. They are willing to say the opportunity cost of continuing to ignore their future is too great so therefore they have to do something. They know what they are sacrificing – time with their children – so they are going to make the most of their time by following every instruction and by trying as hard as they can while they are working out before returning to their role of mother, which remains the main focus of their life.

The beauty about this group in particular is that they are there for themselves in the moment, and in the future. The recently dumped the people are excited but they are there for themselves in the future – the moment they get to show off to their ex. The same applies to their illness group, they are there to avoid something awful in the future. The mother group is there to create something good in the present moment and something in the future or to avoid something awful in the future. They are going to be fully present in the present moment because they need to spend time investing in themselves.

This is how my experience has lined up with the science. When the consequences have the property of being soon, certain and salient, action is much more likely than when they are far away, hard to imagine or unlikely. When the consequence have either occurred in the past, are currently occurring or are about to happen in the near future, there is a very good chance that a person will get great results because they are going to follow the advice that is given. Since professional personal trainers only dispense advice that is scientifically valid, it is very easy to come up with the prescription that helps these people. Do this set of things in this way for this length of time with this frequency over time and you will get these results, and that is really all there is to it. Anyone else who shows up and is sitting in front of you but is there having no relationship to the consequences – there is no soon, certain and salient in what they are talking about – the chances of success are much lower.

Now there are other people who will get great results. Maybe they love working out or maybe they are really powerful at working hard to achieve a future benefit or to avoid a future cost that is not very well defined in their mind. I have worked with people who are not athletes and do not belong to one of the three groups outlined above and who do not have a clear and vibrant picture of the consequences, but who get after it like there is nothing else in their life that is more important. However, the possibility of someone doing the necessary work without the soon, certain and salient being checked off is dramatically lower.

After thinking about it for a few moments, my friends experience did support what I was saying.

Now the objective of this post is to explain that whenever you are doing a consultation or just having a conversation with someone, I do not think it is wise for you to try and point out the consequences of their actions and the inevitable future that they are moving into order to trigger an emotional response and to then capture them in a training program. There is nothing wrong with telling them the truth and helping them see that the destination if they continue down the path they are on is not a very great place to be. That is a fine thing to do, just so long as you do not immediately capture them in a training program for that reason. They will need to spend some time with the information that has been revealed in order for their brain to fully reorganize and understand that “oh my God I’m actually cruising towards bad health and an eventual health crisis, and I should probably do something to make sure that it doesn’t go down like that.”

Triggering these thoughts and emotions in someone and then selling to them without giving them the time to process and integrate that information, can only lead to someone dealing with the consequences of a rash decision as opposed to anything else. Whenever you are having a conversation with someone who is sitting in front of you, unless they are spontaneously hitting on the three soon, certain, and salient in terms of the consequences, or they are an athlete, do not try to trigger the negatives about what could happen if they stay the course and do not try to trigger the positives of what could happen if they change course. Simply talk with them and try to figure out why they decided to have a conversation with you. If they are able to come up with the reasons why they are there and you are not able to convince yourself that these reason are not really something that they spent much time thinking about or that they are not ready to deal with, they are probably ready for training so sell it to them. But if they do not have a clear reason why they are there or a soon, certain or salient in terms of the consequences of them continuing to live the life the way they are living it, it behooves you to just have a conversation to help them figure out the reason why they are there. If they do not know and you still sell to them that then becomes the thing that was done to them.

You will have manipulated them into buying something they did not want.

But on the other hand if you help them unpack exactly why they are there and really help them dig in on their motivations and all of the other things, and they are crystal clear that “yes this is what I want and I want it for these reasons,” sell them the training because they are not going to be upset at you for it. They are going to thank you for it because you will be aligned with them as a partner and help them move towards their goals.

When someone comes and sits down in front of me and says “hey I am looking for your help,” and I am able to track in and find out the soon, certain and salient in terms of the consequences they are hoping to avoid, or if the person is an athlete, or if they are a member of one of the three groups – someone who has seen or is experiencing illness, someone who is recently single, or a mother who has decided to focus some of her time on herself for a change – it is a sure thing. It is not going to be easy money, it is going to be work but they are going to more than willing to put the effort in and the partnership is going to be a win-win.

Strong Opinions, Loosely Held

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strong opinions, loosely held is good advice for everyone.

Affective Forecasting – Post Revisited Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Affective Forecasting – Post Revisited Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Truth And Media Bias

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So this is what we are left with:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The truth does not matter when it can be ignored.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The truth does not matter when it can be ignored.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a Trudeau quote.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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