Our Devious Minds

We now realize,” write Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in their book The Elephant in the Brain, “that our brains aren’t just hapless and quirky – they’re devious. They intentionally hide information from us, helping us fabricate plausible pro-social motives to act as cover stories for our less savory agendas. As Trivers puts it: “At ever single state [of processing information] from its biased arrival, to its biased encoding, to organizing it around false logic, to misremembering and then misrepresenting it to others – the mind continually acts to distort information flow in favor of the usual goal of appearing better than one really is.

 

Recently I have been pretty fascinated by the idea that our minds don’t do a good job of perceiving reality. The quote above shows many of the points where our minds build a false sense of reality for us and where our perceptions and understanding can go astray. It is tempting to believe that we observe and recognize an objective picture of the world, but there are simply too many points where our mental conceptualization of the world can deviate from an objective reality (if that objective reality ever even exists).

 

What I have taken away from discussions and books focused on the way we think and the mistakes our brain can make is that we cannot always trust our mind. We won’t always remember things correctly and we won’t always see things as clearly as we believe. What we believe to be best and correct about the world may not be accurate. In that sense, we should doubt our beliefs and the beliefs of others constantly. We should develop processes and systems for identifying information that is reasonable and question information that aligns with our prior beliefs as much as information that contradicts our prior beliefs. We should identify key principles that are most important to us, and focus on those, rather than focus on specific and particular instances that we try to understand by filling in answers from generalizations.

Curiosity and Asking Questions

I keep coming across people who encourage curiosity. The message is that if you want to do meaningful work, to end up in an interesting place, and to have an impact on the world, you should always be curious. Searching for answers, looking around to recognize what you don’t know, and constantly learning about more and more seems to be something that the most successful people do. Questions, the advice suggests, don’t lead to answers and ends, but rather to journeys and new pathways.

 

The idea of curiosity, questions, and learning as the path rather than the destination is echoed in Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit. He quotes Sam Keen by writing, “To be on a quest is nothing more or less than to become an asker of questions.” Questions drive our actions as we search for new answers and lessons. Questions take us to new places, both physically and mentally, and broaden our understanding of the complexity of the world.

 

This quote is comforting to me as someone who enjoys esoteric knowledge and learning. My family members frequently roll their eyes when I start a sentence with, “So I was listening to a podcast…” I love learning new things and connecting dots that are not obvious and that I had not previously considered. I have seen this journey in myself lead to a greater appreciation for people who see and think differently from myself. I have ventured into areas I thought I understood, only to be shown the nuances of decision-making and the challenges of truly understanding an area. Diving into topics that we all experience but don’t all know the background of has revealed biases and forces at work that are virtually imperceptible. Living a journey fueled by curiosity feels incredibly valuable, and is something I wish people would seek out more than we seek to win arguments.

Instant Problem Solver

We all have a part of ourselves that thinks it knows the answer to every problem out there. Not just our own problems, or the problems with the work we do, or the problems with our own families and relationships, but everyone’s problems. The truth is, however, we really don’t know nearly as much as this part of our brain believes and when we try to solve everyone’s problems, we really just create bigger traffic jams. In his book The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier names this part of our brain “The Advice Monster” and he explains what happens when we let the Advice Monster run our brains.

 

“When people start talking to you about the challenge at hand, what’s essential to remember is that what they’re laying out for you is rarely the actual problem. And when you start jumping in to fix things, things go off the rails in three ways: you work on the wrong problem; you do the work your team should be doing; and the work doesn’t get done.”

 

The bottom line is that when we jump into instant problem solver mode, we usually are not being as helpful as we imagine we are. Because we are approaching the other person’s issue with our limited knowledge of what we think their problem is, we focus in the wrong direction. Instant problem solver mode solves the problem we want to solve, and not the actual problem that the other person is facing.

 

The alternative that Bungay Stanier suggests is to spend more time listening to others and see what solutions they come up with before we decide that we know what their problems are and before we decide that we know how to fix them. The instant problem solver manages to find solutions that create more work for themselves and make their day to day life a little bit more difficult. When we resist the instant problem solver urge, we let the person or team we work with identify solutions they can implement for the problems they face. The individual grows and has an opportunity to adapt a new solution, and our time remains clear for additional problem solving.

Answers Versus Questions

I read Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit about a year ago, but I still struggle to adapt his main point into my daily life. What Bungay Stanier recommends is that we ask more questions in conversations, because questions get the other person thinking in a way that develops their thoughts more thoroughly. We like to give advice and tell people the answers we think they need to hear, but our answers often fail to help the other person. Our answers come from our perspective which is limited and does not truly capture and address he issue and concerns of the other person. Questions on the other hand, encourage the other person to think more critically about what they are going through and helps them identify the right answer to the right question.

 

One of the chapters in Bungay Stanier’s book begins with a quote from Nancy Willard, “Answers are closed rooms; and questions are open doors that invite us in.” In coaching, there are two important considerations when thinking about questions versus answers. The first is that an answer doesn’t really get the person we coach to think very deeply about their problem. The second is that an answer may not actually be addressing the right question. Questions on the other hand allow the person being coached to think through the actual challenges they face and steer the conversation in the direction they need it to go. When we provide an answer, we are saying that we fully understand the other person and exactly where they are in relation to their problem, something that is impossible because we can never perfectly know another person’s challenges.

 

Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler suggest that human conversation is a way for us to signal and display our knowledge and our mental toolkit. The real value in a conversation should come from the listening side, where we take in lots of new information for almost no real cost. But in reality, we all try to talk as much as possible in conversations (for the most part) and we want what we say to be interesting and important. When this creeps into coaching, then the coaching interaction is shifted where the main goal is not to help the other person but to show off. This is why our own answers are so damaging in coaching. We are assuming we understand exactly what issue the other person faces and pushing our assumption and recommendation onto them even if they did not ask for it. The worst part is that we may be answering the completely wrong question or providing advice that doesn’t actually fit the person or their situation out of a selfish desire to be impressive.

 

Questions allow the individual to expand on their issue and better organize their thoughts. They can address the specific areas where they have challenges, and questions can guide them through the thinking process. It is hard to get used to asking questions more than providing answers, but in the long term, you allow the other person to find the right answer for themselves and their situation, and you allow them to grow and be a more self-aware individual.

Expressing Your Mind Through Writing

Writing is a great skill that helps open our own thoughts to ourselves and gives readers access to the mind of another person. When we are writing something, we take thoughts that are whirling around in our mind at a million miles per hour and give them shape and structure. We take those thoughts and organize them. We combine them and build logical steps between them, and we make sense of the sometimes random, sometimes disconnected, and sometimes vague thoughts that pass through our mind.

 

When we read, we get to peer behind the curtain at another person’s thoughts. Writing allows us to open a door into our mind for other people, to give them an idea of what is going on in our mind. Reading is a chance to think more deeply about something that another person has spent time organizing their thoughts around, and it is a chance to learn more about the universe from another person.

 

This is what Amanda Gefter loves about writing and reading. Gefter is a science journalist, but she did not set out to cover science initially. She knew she wanted to write, but writing about science seemed so dense, challenging, and in some sense far off, away from the world that she knew and could write about. But as she pursued science for her own hobby, she had opportunities to write about science that she never expected, and she began to see the importance of writing about science and serving as a door that could open complex physics to more people.

 

About writing, Gefter writes in her book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, “Writing, for me, was about muddling through ideas, turning them over, viewing them from every angle to see where they led, even if they only led back to themselves.” Gefter’s ideas are important because writing does not always need to be revelatory, novel, and ingenious. Sometimes writing can meander and not really take you any place. Sometimes writing can be circuitous and double back on itself. Writing helps the mind order itself, so even if your writing does not shape the world, it can still shape your mind. Even if you don’t plan on sharing your writing, getting thoughts down on the Word Doc or in a journal will help your mind.

 

Gefter continues, “My favorite stories and poems shined a spotlight on the writer’s thought process, exposing all of its cracks and contradictions. But the writing I did as a journalist was just the opposite. Its light revealed only the end products of thought, the conclusions.” Our writing can be a tool to help other people see our development of thoughts and ideas. It can help us show others that there are complex realities in this world that we ourselves are still working through. For Gefter, this was important to bring to the world of science, “Science journalism’s express goal was to hang over the writer’s mind a veil so opaque that the reader would mistake the writer’s thoughts about the world for the world itself—the world as seen from an impossible God’s-eye view, a paradigm of objectivity and at the same time a lie.” In the last part of the quote, Gefter criticizes science journalism for making everything seem as thought it has been solved and put together. When we approach science journalism from a point of finality, it makes it seem as though the science is not as riddled with challenges and contradictions as it truly is. Objectivity takes away the mystery and confusion of science and presents a fake reality. I believe that Gefter would argue that we need to show our thought process and honestly discuss what we do understand and what is still out there making scientists scratch their head. When we present science as just facts to remember and know, as if the puzzle of the universe has been solved, we turn people away, presenting science as just math and facts to memorize. Gefter would suggest that real science writing show people how to think critically and inquisitively about what they see around them, and invite them to think scientifically about the challenges still ahead of us.

 

The last part of Gefter’s quote that I will share is this, “For me, hiding the writer’s thoughts strips writing of its greatest gift: its ability to grant us access to other minds.” What we get when we write more openly about science, or any subject, is a greater dialogue between author and reader. Revealing our thought process, and taking the time to step back from objectivity at points, allows the reader to connect with us more thoroughly and see how our mind works. For a reader this process allows them to see the challenges in the area in which we write, and it gives them the chance to take the first step toward the debates and investigations taking place within our mind, and within a given field more broadly. How we do this will always depend on our subject, but I think the first step is to understand that people have different perspectives and that there is often no simple answer to anything. We can address other ideas and points of view, and we can provide evidence to support our own view. We cannot, however, simply present one point of view or one experiment in isolation and use our writing to say that we have found the one truth and the one answer, without demonstrating that other ways of thinking are possible.