Planning and Homelessness

Planning

Planning requires two things. It requires agency, believing that one can act and influence the future world that one inhabits and an ability to look forward and make predictions about future outcomes. Making predictions about the future has its own requirements – stability and causal reasoning. Luckily for most of us, we have relatively stable lives, impressive causal reasoning abilities, and agency in our lives to influence future outcomes. But that doesn’t mean that planning is easy or that it is something we always do.
We may fail to plan for a number of reasons. Some of those reasons may come from a lack of agency, some may come from uncertainty about the future, and some reasons may be a simple failure to think ahead. When we don’t plan, we don’t think about what our lives may be like in the future, what we would like our lives to be like, and what causal structures exist to help us reach that desired future or avoid an undesirable future. However, sometimes a failure to plan can also be a defense mechanism.
“At the very heart of planning,” writes Elliot Liebow in Tell Them Who I Am, “is the assumption that one has the power to control or influence the future. If one is truly powerless to influence events, planning makes little sense.” Without agency, planning leads to disappointment. If you make plans, even simple plans, but you cannot possibly take the actions necessary to execute those plans, then you will necessarily be let down. The imagined future you tried to plan for will not occur. Your desired states will not materialize. Liebow continues, “in the extreme case planning [is] to be actively avoided, for down that road lay failure and disappointment and still further confirmation of one’s own impotence.”
When plans fail it reflects either a lack of agency or an inability to predict the future. The failure of our plans means that we don’t control our surroundings, or that we do not have good causal reasoning skills, or that we do not have stable lives. None of these realities is comforting. The first reflects a lack of personal ability, the second a lack of mental capacity, and the third reflects a dangerous and tumultuous life. Improving our lives requires an ability to plan and execute. Failing to do so reflects inward failures or inadequacies. Rather than risk failure, the defense mechanism is to not plan at all. Not planning means we can deny that we have a lack of agency, that we lack causal reasoning skills, or that we have ended up in a place where our lives are unpredictable beyond our control. If people want to be able to plan their lives, they need control, need to be able to see into the future to predict desired outcomes, and need some level of stability in their lives.

Avoiding Complex Decisions & Maintaining Agency

Two central ideas to the book Nudge by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler are that people don’t like to make complex decisions and that people like to have agency. Unfortunately, these two ideas conflict with each other. If people don’t like to make complex decisions, then we should assume that they would like to have experts and better decision-makers make complex decisions on their behalf. But if people want to have agency in their lives, we should assume that they don’t want anyone to make decisions for them. The solution, according to Sunstein and Thaler, is libertarian paternalism, establishing systems and structures to support complex decision-making and designing choices to be more clear for individuals with gentle nudges toward the decisions that will lead to the outcomes the individual actually desires.

 

For Sunstein and Thaler, the important point is that libertarian paternalism, and nudges in general, maintain liberty. They write, “liberty is much greater when people are told, you can continue your behavior, so long as you pay for the social harm that it does, than when they are told, you must act exactly as the government says.”  People resent being told what to do and losing agency. When people resist direct orders, the objective of the orders may fail completely, or violence could erupt. Neither outcome is what government wanted with its direct order.

 

The solution is part reframing and part redirecting personal responsibility for negative externalities. The approach favored by Sunstein and Thaler allows individuals to continue making bad or harmful choices as long as they recognize and accept the costs of those choices. This isn’t appropriate in all situations (like drinking and driving), but it might be appropriate with regard to issues like carbon taxes on corporations, cigarette taxes, or national park entrance fees.  If we are able to pin the cost of externalities to specific individuals and behaviors, we can change the incentives that people have for harmful or over-consumptive behaviors. To reach the change we want, we will have to get people to change their behavior, make complex decisions, and maintain a sense of agency as they act in ways that will help us as a collective reach the goals we set.
The Environment of the Moment

The Environment of the Moment

“The main moral of priming research is that our thoughts and our behavior are influenced, much more than we know or want, by the environment of the moment. Many people find the priming results unbelievable, because they do not correspond to subjective experience. Many others find the results upsetting, because they threaten the subjective sense of agency and autonomy.”

 

Daniel Kahneman includes the above quote in his book Thinking Fast and Slow when recapping his chapter about anchoring effects. The quote highlights the surprising and conflicting reality of research on priming and anchoring effects. The research shows that our minds are not always honest with us, or at least are not capable of consciously recognizing everything taking place within them. Seemingly meaningless cues in our environment can influence a great deal of what takes place within our brains. We can become more defensive, likely to donate more to charity, and more prone to think certain thoughts by symbols, ideas, and concepts present in our environment.

 

We all accept that when we are hungry, when our allergies are overwhelming, and when we are frustrated from being cut-off on the freeway that our behaviors will be changed. We know these situations will make us less patient, more likely to glare at someone who didn’t mean to offend us, and more likely to grab a donut for breakfast because we are not in the mood for flavor-lacking oatmeal. But somehow, even though we know external events are influencing our internal thinking and decision-making, this still seems to be in our conscious control in one way or another. A hearty breakfast, a few allergy pills, and a few deep breaths to calm us down are all we need to get back to normal and be in control of our minds and behavior.

 

It is harder to accept that our minds, moods, generosity, behavior towards others, and stated beliefs could be impacted just as easily by factors that we don’t even notice. We see some type of split between being short with someone because we are hungry, and being short with someone because an advertisement on our way to work primed us to be more selfish. We don’t believe that we will donate more to charity when the charity asks for a $500 dollar donation rather than a $50 dollar donation. In each of these situations our conscious and rational brain produces an explanation for our behavior that is based on observations the conscious mind can make. We are not aware of the primes and anchors impacting our behavior, so consciously we don’t believe they have any impact on us at all.

 

Nevertheless, research shows that our minds are not as independent and controllable as we subjectively believe. Kahneman’s quote shows that traditional understandings of free-will fall down when faced by research on priming and anchoring effects. We don’t like to admit that random and seemingly innocuous cues in the environment of the moment shape us because doing so threatens the narratives and stories we want to believe about who we are, why we do the things we do, and how our society is built. It is scary, possibly upsetting, and violates basic understandings of who we are, but it is accurate and important to accept if we want to behave and perform better in our lives.
Seeing Agents

Seeing Agents

As I got about half-way through my undergraduate degree, a key thought process in my brain began to change. It was an intentional change on my part, and one that took quite a lot of effort. After several years I was able to stop seeing agency in things that were not alive. I was able to get away from the mindset of everything happens for a reason and I started to accept that some things were random, some things were only imbued with meaning by me, and potentially everything in the universe is the result of physical laws of nature.

 

Today I don’t believe that the table at which I write has any emotional experience of me using it to type out a blog post. I don’t think my car actually knows if I drive it today, and I don’t think that it has some preference deep inside to be driven. I don’t believe that the house I am about to move out of will actually be sad (or happy) to see me leave. But there was a time in my life where a piece of me may have believed such things. I certainly knew the houses, stuffed animals, and cars were not alive, but somewhere deep inside I was assigning agency to inanimate objects, imbuing them with emotions, thoughts, and desires of their own.

 

It is more than just cartoons that made me think the way I did about inanimate objects, and that is why it took several years late in my undergraduate degree to begin changing the way I thought about the world. I was seeing agents where there were none, and it was hard to remove agency from things that I had animated in my own mind. Research presented in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow helps explain what was happening inside my mind:

 

“The perception of intention and emotion is irresistible; only people afflicted by autism do not experience it. All this is entirely in your mind of course. Your mind is ready and even eager to identify agents, assign them personality traits and specific intentions, and view their actions as expressing individual propensities. Here again, the evidence is that we are born prepared to make intentional attributions…” 

 

Kahneman describes a study in which participants watch geometric shapes chase each other around on a screen. People see random shapes and assign meaning, intention, and agency to the two dimensional objects. We create a story that justifies the behavior we intuit from them and gives them life. Our mind is geared to see agents where there are none, probably to help us understand other people, to be able to reflect on our own emotions, and to become better social beings. Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens discusses how the cognitive revolution may have brought about this ability in our minds, by giving us the capacity for imagination, and the capacity to create narratives and stories to foster social cohesion and shared meaning.

 

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter much if you name your car and view it as having agency, you might even treat it better if you do. However, this can spill over into other aspects of our lives in problematic ways. We can become too attached to material objects, unable to let go of clutter and stuff. As Kahneman continues, and as I’ll write about tomorrow, this is also likely part of why we see the world so often through religious eyes, and conflicting religious beliefs and values have certainly been at the root of much violence and death in human existence, even if religion has given us community and social mission. Seeing agents where they do not exist is an interesting part of our humanity, and it can help us gel together, or can serve as the base for out-casting others and bringing violence upon them. Its not easy to overcome, but I think it is necessary if we are to have accurate beliefs about the world and advance as a global community.
Thoughts on Personal Responsibility

Complex and Conflicting Thoughts on Personal Responsibility

I’m really hesitant to criticize others for not taking sufficient personal responsibility for the ways they live and the outcomes of their lives. A lot of factors influence whether you are economically successful or whether you are fit and healthy. Some things we seem to have a lot of control over, but many things are matters of chance and circumstance. Placing too much blame on the individual doesn’t seem fair, yet at the same time, there is clearly an element of personal responsibility involved. I’m not sure where I land on how we should think about this division.

 

What is clear, however, is that there can be negative consequences when we take away people’s agency in their decision-making and life outcomes, and when we erode the authority of those who are reasonably critical of negative lifestyles and ways of thinking and being, we can put ourselves and societies in vulnerable positions.

 

Sam Quinones writes about these tensions in his book Dreamland and he highlights how patient responsibility and physician authority devolved between the 1980’s and twenty-teens as a quick fix, there’s-a-drug-for-that mindset took hold of the American healthcare system. He writes, “…patients were getting used to demanding drugs for treatment. They did not, however, have to accept the idea that they might, say, eat better and exercise more, and that this might help them lose weight and feel better. Doctors, of course, couldn’t insist. As the defenestration of the physician’s authority and clinical experience was under way, patients didn’t have to take accountability for their own behavior.”

 

I’m usually hesitant to say that the problem is people’s lack of accountability, because how often do we really control how much exercise we can get when many of us live in places where walking is difficult because our streets are not safe, or are not well designed for pedestrian use, or because half the year it is dark early and we get lots of snowfall? How often do we not know what kinds of exercises we should do, and how often do we have people who are only critical of our current state rather than supportive and encouraging? How often have we had a bad break and poor advice on how to get back, only leading to a further defeat, deflating our sense of self worth? In addition to all this, how often have we seen people use the personal responsibility argument in bad faith? To justify not helping others or to rationalize their greed or excessive self-aggrandizement?

 

But at the same time, as Quinones shows, responsibility is important. We need to think about what we can and should be doing to help improve our own lives, without hoping for an easy fix in the form of a miracle pill. We can’t just throw out the opinions of experts and devalue their authority because they are willing to say things that are discomforting for us, but are likely correct in terms of how we can make our lives better. Somehow we need to work together to build a society that recognizes the barriers and challenges that we face toward becoming the successful and healthy people that we want to be, but encourages us to still work hard and overcome obstacles by taking responsibility for our actions and (at least some percentage of) our outcomes. I don’t know what this looks like exactly, and I’m not sure where the line falls between personal responsibility and outside factors, but I am willing to have an honest discussion about it and about what it all means for how we relate to each other.

Leadership: Act Accordingly

Fred Kiel addresses leadership throughout his book Return on Character and he constantly relates leadership and decision making back to our character development. Kiel focuses on self-awareness and the ability humans have to recognize their decision making and their environment and to grow and change within those frameworks.  Kiel writes, “We aren’t born great leaders, after all; we become great leaders by training ourselves to think and act accordingly.” In this quote he is directly explaining the importance of reflection along our journey to ensure that we are growing in the right direction to help us become great leaders.

 

Kiel’s quote reminds me of Colin Write’s book Act Accordingly and a post I wrote last September. In my post regarding acting accordingly I wrote about the importance of self-awareness and recognizing why we make the decisions we make. That careful consideration requires a dose of self-awareness to help us see not just why we make decisions by why we think the way we do about decisions and how those decisions fit into a framework that we create to explain who we are.

 

When we focus on leadership we must develop a way of thinking about our actions that is in accord with the vision we have for ourselves. If we lack self-awareness then the vision we have for ourselves will not be aligned with what we ultimately want to achieve.  This means we could be bogged down in self-interest and that we may be more focused on our own success than the success of those arounds us, diminishing the quality of our leadership.  Thinking critically of our actions as a leader will help us create habits based on integrity that can guide us and those who are around us to maximize our moral character, building it into our decision making framework.  We can continually grow into this role through practice, and our actions can actually help others learn to develop into leaders of high character as well.

Act Accordingly

I recently read Colin Wright’s book Act Accordingly which he begins with the following quote: “You have exactly one life in which to do everything you will ever do. Act accordingly.”

I love the idea of acting accordingly that Wright lays out in the beginning of his book.  He acknowledges that acting accordingly and understanding that we only live once will manifest differently in our lives depending on the type of person we are.  The way we chose to spend our time on this planet and the decisions we make while we are here are shaped by an infinite number of factors, but keeping Wright’s quote in mind helps us see the importance of maximizing the decisions we make.

Wright continues and ends the introduction of his book by writing, “Far more than jus a phrase, acting accordingly is a framework for decision-making that places importance where it belongs: on you and how you spend your time within the context of your life.”

I believe that the first step to living a life where one acts accordingly is a dose of self awareness. Thinking about how to act accordingly and then evaluating your life and the decisions you make will start to build that self awareness.  This is a process that requires honesty, and you must be able to step back and evaluate your choices and actions in different areas.  Choosing to spend time watching television or being distracted by social media may not be the best way to act accordingly, but if you are not practicing self awareness, you may not realize how much time you are spending with those activities.

The area I have struggled with lately is balancing my time to make decisions that will allow me to live a life that is full and enriching.  Constantly moving, interacting, and thinking can be very taxing, and after a full day of work and a lot of time spent reading, it is very tempting to turn off the mind with a tv program at the end of the day. What compounds the difficulties for me is being in a relationship and finding time to be with my significant other while still engaging in all of the activities that interest me.

I think that Wright would solve my problem by encouraging me to follow the ideas that I have had for starting my own company. By creating my own venture I would become my own boss and could build a more flexible lifestyle for myself. This would open up the world to me to create an environment and routine that allows me to maximize my decisions and still create time with my fiancé, focused on her desires, and being close with her.  This is a large step, and for many it would not be the right decision.  I think there is value from being in a secure position, and I think one can still maximize their choices. What it may require is taking control of those small moments where constant dings and alerts keep us distracted by social media or useless television.