Definitions

In his book Becoming Who We Need To Be, author Colin Wright has a chapter about freedom versus security. The ideas we have for freedom and security run against each other and are sometimes very contradictory. One of the things that Wright described, which really stood out to me, about the conflicts between freedom and security is the difference in the definitions and the terms we attach to our ideas of freedom and security. Wright wrote, “What makes this discussion, and many discussions, all the more difficult to have is that opposing sides are often using different definitions of the words in question, and resultantly we might think we’re talking about the same thing, when in fact we’re merely speaking past each other.”

 

What really stood out about his idea is that it applies in almost any public debate we have. Across the United States we use a lot of different words to say and mean the same thing. Our country has a lot of variation in what words we use depending on where we find ourselves and what the culture has grasped onto. In our political lives, we do the same thing based on our political beliefs. Someone who is in favor of expanding access to abortion services is likely to use the term fetus while someone who does not believe that anyone should ever have an abortion is more likely to say unborn child or baby. In the abortion debate, it is clear to see that both sides are using different words to stir up different emotional responses.

 

In other cases, our varying use of definitions in political contexts can be more subtle, nuanced, and confusing. A lot of internet sub-cultures exist and have specific ways of referring to groups of people, to the positive outcomes they want to see, or the negative things that are going on around them. In some ways using the right definition for an uncommon word is unnecessary but shows that you are part of the inside crowd and that you are on the right side (or at least understand one side) of the discussion. If you are not aware of these definitions, there is a good chance you could use a term in a way that seems reasonable to you, but that reveals that you don’t know what the inside group is talking about and that you don’t actually think they way they do about a given issue.

 

When we have conversations, we should work to be very clear about the definitions we use for specific terms. We should be aware of times when our definition of a word is an insider’s definition from a subgroup of the population. We might be using a definition that is only used by some Twitter group, a definition that is only used by people who have studied a topic in college, or a definition that is only used by either Republicans or Democrats. For us to be effective communicators and to make sure we don’t isolate people around us (or ourselves) we have to recognize how these definitions work and how certain words will either bring people into our discussion by signaling we are part of their tribe, or will push people away by signaling that we don’t agree with their beliefs.

Learning to Think In Silence

I listen to a lot of podcasts. When I am driving, cooking, cleaning, doing yard work, and any time I have a task to do around the house I like to have a podcast going. I love listening to interesting conversations, discussions about new scientific ideas, and stories about things I never thought of. Podcasts are great, but something I recognize is that I tend to fill all of my time with some sort of medium produced by another person.

 

My wife and I often watch movies at the end of the day, I put on a podcast when I do dishes so that I don’t have to stand at the sink in silence, I read when I eat or take a lunch break, when I am in line at the grocery store I instinctively pull out my phone to scroll through something. In all of these situations, I could engage with whats in front of me or let my mind wander, but instead, I normally choose to put something in my mind. Cal Newport calls this an inability to deal with isolation. Colin Wright calls it a compulsive reflex and in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be writes, “But saturating these channels [social media] just for the sake of not having to deal with silence, of having to think our own thoughts and listen to our own internal monologue for a while, is part of the problem.”

 

I’m not great at dealing with silence and I am in some ways afraid of it. I grew up with a Gameboy and never had to live a moment without some type of entertainment. Whether it was driving around, going to the bathroom, or hanging out with Grandma, I always had a Gameboy to keep me entertained. Today, I am working on concentrating at work and focusing at the boring non-stimulating office environment. I am working on thinking more deeply about specific subjects and building my awareness of the world and stories I tell myself about the world. These are skills I need to develop that are quite atrophied because I grew up distracted and still feel and urge to flood myself with information and distraction through my phone and through media created by other people at all times.

 

It is important that we learn to step back and put devices, podcasts, TV, music, and Facetime in a planned time and space. It is important that we be able to live with ourselves in isolation, so that we can understand and recognize the thoughts we think and how we interpret and understand the world. If we don’t, we won’t be able to build deep focus, we will have trouble truly connecting with others, and life will rush past us in autopilot.

Cognitive Dissonance

I recent changed my mind about vaping. I have asthma and cigarette smoke really gives me terrible breathing problems so I have never smoked either traditional cigarettes or any type of vaping product. I have hated traditional cigarettes my whole life and as vaping has become a new hit, I have hated it as well. Since vaping really popped onto the scene, I considered it to be basically as evil as traditional cigarettes and didn’t make much of a distinction in my head between the two.

 

A recent podcast interview with Dr. David Abrahms on the Healthcare Policy Podcast changed my mind. Vaping products may be far less deadly than traditional burnt cigarettes. The addictive potential of nicotine is still there and there are certainly plenty of things in vaping products that we should not be putting into our lungs, but vaping products may have far fewer carcinogens than traditional cigarettes and appear as though they are far less deadly than traditional cigarettes. For the first time in history, we have a product which could completely displace traditional cigarettes and tobacco, and most importantly, save millions of lives. I still don’t like vaping and won’t ever do it myself, but I the new information has forced me to change the way I think about and respond to vaping.

 

As humans, we really are not very good at changing our mind. We are not very good at being receptive to information that conflicts with what we already think we believe or with what we want to believe. We become really good at rationalizing the beliefs we already hold or that we want to hold, and we discount any information that doesn’t fit the world view we would like to hold. Any argument or debate is basically meaningless because our beliefs often become part of who we are and become unchangeable as part of our identity.

 

Colin Wright addresses this in his book Becoming Who We Need to Be, “First, we seldom experience cognitive dissonance, which is the feeling of discomfort associated with being exposed to information that contradicts our existing beliefs. This dissonance is a vital component of changing our mind and adjusting our views, and without it, without feeling that we might be wrong about something and therefore it’s probably important to check our math and learn more about the subject we’ve been armchair-philosophizing about on Facebook, we stand little chance of ever tempering our extreme, unjustifiable views.”

 

My example of changing my views on vaping is a short version of experiencing cognitive dissonance and being able to adjust opinions in the face of data, even when it is data that doesn’t align with what I want to see in the world (which is no one ever smoking anything). My example is less profound than changing beliefs about economic systems, about political parties, or about favorite super heroes. At some point I’m not sure we ever really will change those beliefs, but I think it is important to be aware of the small times when we change our beliefs so that we can better monitor the beliefs we do hold and be more aware of the times when we may experience cognitive dissonance. Rather than hiding behind a rationalization of our beliefs and pretending that everything within our belief structure is perfectly coherent, we can accept that there are some parts we don’t have figured out or don’t have perfect scientific evidence to support. For some questions, like what religious belief do you hold or what would be the perfect super power if you could only pick one, you will never have the perfect answer that solves all of life’s mysteries. It is ok to accept that people have been debating these questions forever and to not expect that you will suddenly find the perfect answer that no one else could. Cognitive dissonance may be uncomfortable, but it is a necessary part of our lives today and we should embrace it rather than try to hide from or ignore it.

Attribution Bias

Our brains are pretty impressive pattern recognition machines. We take in a lot of information about the world around us, remember stories, pull information together to form new thoughts and insights, move through the world based on the information we take in, and we are able to predict the results of actions before they have occurred. Our brain evolved to help us navigate a complex, dangerous, and uncertain world.

 

Today however, while our world is arguably more complex and uncertain than ever, it might not be as dangerous on a general day to day basis. I’m pretty sure I won’t encounter any animals who may try to eat me when I sit at the park to read during my lunch break, I won’t need to distinguish between two types of berries to make sure I don’t eat the poison kind, and if the thunder storms scheduled for this evening drop golf ball sized hail, I won’t have to worry to much about where I will find safety and shelter. Nevertheless, my evolved brain is still going to approach the world as if it were the dangerous place it was when my ancestors were evolving their thought capacities, and that will throw some monkey-wrenches into my life and lead to me to see patterns that don’t really exist.

 

Colin Wright has a great quote about this in his book Becoming Who We Need to Be. He writes, “You ascribe meaning to that person’s actions through the lens of what’s called “attribution bias.” If you’re annoyed by their slow driving, that inferred meaning will probably not be generous to the other driver: they’re a bad person, they’re in the way, and they’re doing this because they’re stupid or incapable. That these assumptions about the situation are possibly incorrect – maybe they’re driving slowly because thy’re in deep thought about elephant tool usage – is irrelevant. Ascribing meaning to acts unto itself is impressive, even if we often fail to arrive at a correct, or fully correct understanding of the situation.”

 

We often find ourselves in situations that are random and try to ascribe a greater meaning to the situation or event we are in. At least in the United States, it is incredibly common to hear people say that everything happens for a reason, creating a story for themselves in which this moment of inconvenience is part of a larger story filled with lessons, staircases, detours, success, and failure that are all supposed to culminate in a larger narrative that will one day all make sense. The fact that this way of thinking is so prevalent suggests to me that the power of our pattern recognition focused brains is still in full swing even though we no longer need it to be as active in as many situations of our life. We don’t need every moment of our life to happen for a reason, and if we allow for randomness and eliminate the running narrative of our life, we don’t have to work through challenging apologetics to understand something negative.

 

Attribution bias as described by Wright shows us how wrong our brain can be about the world. It shows us that our brains have certain tendencies that elevate ourselves in thought over the rest of the world that doesn’t conform to our desires, interests, wishes, and preferences. It reveals that we are using parts of our brains that evolved to help our ancestors in ways that we now understand to be irrational. If we can see that the slow person driving in front of us with a political sticker that makes our blood boil is not all the terrible things we instantly think they are (that instead they are a 75 year-old grandfather driving in a new town trying to get to the hospital where his child is sick) then we can recognize that not everything in life has a meaning, or at least not the meaning that our narrow pattern recognizing brain wants to ascribe. Remembering this mental bias and making an effort to recognize this type of thinking and move in a more generous thought direction will help us move through the world with less friction, anger, and disappointment because we won’t develop false patterns that let us down when they fail to materialize in the outcomes we expected.

A Better Way to Debate and Argue

One thing I am not that great at is having meaningful discussions where I explain my thinking within a given area without bombarding my interlocutor with reasons why my point of view or conclusion is the best. I would like to be better at explaining the values that I consider important in a given area and what decisions I have made that lead me to adopt the world view that I have. What I usually end up doing, is arguing about a set of “facts” and debating at a high level something that can only be understood by examining the small details that build up to the final decision.

 

What I would like to develop is a skill that seems to be missing more and more in today’s discourse, especially around politics. While I don’t think it is anything new for people to respond to their counterparts in a debate with witty and sharp criticisms, there is a big difference between saying something snide in a face to face debate or critiquing an idea or person in a news paper and sending out tweets and posts that straw-man another person’s argument for your own audience while receiving instant feedback and applause for comments made in bad faith. This puts us in a place where we really don’t so much debate ideas, people, or politics, but we try to win arguments by putting down other people. We really don’t make any deep considerations about our thoughts, feelings, or ideas but instead grab onto what intuitively feels right (or what is counter the point of our adversary) and develop a narrative and set of facts around the thing that is convenient for us to believe.

 

Author Colin Wright is someone who also thinks this is a problem. In his book Becoming Who We Need To Be he writes, “We need to be capable of comparing the information and perspective that we have with that of other people. In order to combine the information we’ve collected in this way, we need to be capable of having valuable, productive discussions, rather than simply propagandizing at each other all the time.” It is valuable to work to cultivate a space where you can start at the bottom with your core values and beliefs and work your way up to the larger decisions that you have made. By better examining your values, you can better explain the way you think, and it is OK to express doubt or uncertainty about the exact nature of what is happening and the facts surrounding the situation while you are building your argument in this way. Being able to better share information and explain our ideas will help discourse be more meaningful and it will reduce the threat levels in our arguments and debates. There may be times for propagandizing each other, but in most of our conversations we would probably be better off if we could be more explanatory than inflammatory. A recommendation I would have when starting this process is to focus on what is in your own self-interest, and be aware of the times when the thing you believe just happens to align with what is in your own self-interest. If you find that your beliefs all match exactly with your self-interest, it may be worth being more critical of your views and asking if you are just developing beliefs to defend your self-interest, or if you truly do believe those things on merits beyond your own personal gain.

Remember Your Bubble

A huge challenge for our world today is the way we get stuck in our own echo-chambers and fact bubbles. The world is a large and incredibly complex place. We never truly know that much about any one thing. We might be an expert in our field of study, we might be an expert in the area we work in, and we might have a hobby that has made us an unofficial expert in a random thing, but we can never truly know everything there is about a subject or topic. As a result, we rely on a body of knowledge that is incomplete to make assumptions to form a belief about the world.

 

Colin Wright writes about these fact bubbles in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be, “We also find ourselves stuck inside fact bubbles which reinforce our existing ideologies, and which fail to provide us with full context, with complete, accurate information, and which leave us, as a result, holding worldviews that are not based on accurate representations of what’s happening.” This is not a new problem in human history, but it feels like it is a more acute problem today than it has been in the past. We have more access to information today than any humans before us, but the overwhelming tidal wave of information that we can focus on puts us in a position where we have to make choices about the information we take in. We can build a world for ourselves in which our worldview is always reinforced, and never seriously challenged. We can create a world in which all of our problems are blamed on some “other” who we must vilify in order to improve things. We advocate for specific ways that we think the world should organize itself because it is what we see, what we know, and what is familiar for us.

 

These bubbles however, are incredibly limited and our singular perspective does not accurately represent the complete range of experiences and possibilities for the human condition. As a response to these bubbles, many people advocate for stepping outside our groups and tribes to understand the worldviews and ideas of others. I do not think this is realistic advice.

 

The world is busy and we only have a limited amount of time and attention to direct toward any given thing. Trying to take in information that we can understand and identify is in many ways a by product of long work hours, long commutes, too much information to know where to focus, and a world that seems to place unlimited demands on our thoughts and actions. Rather than trying to jam in more time reading things that challenge us or listening to news that might spike our blood pressure, I instead advocate for more self-awareness. Recognize how frequently we act and are inspired by a story that makes us look like the hero. Acknowledge the times when you select something to read because it looks like it will already fit in with what you want to believe. Be aware that your perspective on the world is incomplete and that the information you absorb is limited and filtered to present the world a certain way. We likely won’t be eliminating bubbles from our lives any time soon, but we can at least acknowledge their existence and recognize that we don’t have the certainty we would like about the information that helps us know what is really happening in the world.
Conversations

Paying Attention to our Conversations

In our general lives, conversation is interesting. What is interesting, however, is often how uninteresting our conversation actually is. When we talk to each other we never really have a full conversation with lots of data, with great background context, or with a lot of acknowledgement of other people’s thoughts or experiences. A lot of time in our conversations we more or less just ramble on about something or other about which we have vaguely formed ideas.

 

When I think about the general conversations I have at work, most seem to fit the model I described above. I started a new job recently and I have not had that many opportunities to really engage with my colleagues to understand their histories, thoughts, and opinions. Most of our interactions are relatively surface level, which means we are never really getting into the weeds of life or anything important. Colin Wright described this in his book Becoming Who We Need to Be. He writes, “Without access or context, we can only deliver empty words or lackluster, heartfelt but misguided opinions. And unfortunately, that could accurately describe many of our conversations.” For me, I feel that many of my conversations truly are like this. I either end up not fully knowing much about my conversation partner or the subject at hand and that leads to me feeling out of the loop in the conversation and unable to provide any useful or interesting input to the conversation.

 

I don’t think we need to include footnotes in every conversation referencing where our thoughts and ideas come from, and I don’t think we necessarily need to provide everyone with or request from everyone a perfect biographical story for them before we ever have a conversation. I do think, however, that we need to build new spaces and opportunities to have deeper conversations with people. We can spend more time talking with someone about the forces that have driven their life and who they are, rather than talking about whether a sports team won a game, whether its really hot or cold outside, or about what happened on a TV show. We can spend some time thinking about the kinds of questions which would elicit interesting answers or conversation from ourselves and then try to turn those questions back on the people we would otherwise have surface level, context-free conversations with. By being interested in others, we can start to work toward more intentional and meaningful conversations.

 

Wright continues, “We don’t always hold ourselves to the highest of standards when it comes to conversations, and considering that a good deal of what we believe is derived from these interactions, it’s unfortunate that we don’t have a better mechanism for ensuring we’re not reinforcing unbacked opinions or false facts, causally and probably unintentionally.”