Conforming to What We Think People Expect

Conforming to What We Think People Expect

This last election season was not a great one for political polls. The presidential election polls were off for the second straight presidential election, leaving many with doubts about the effectiveness of polling. Many state senatorial polls were also off, leading to expectations that were not met by the actual election outcomes. I spent a lot of time listing to the 538 Politics Podcast heading into the election and spent a good amount of time thinking about and reading about likely election outcomes. In the end, the election was within the expected range of the polling average, but toward a tail end, and it left many people asking why we spent so much time thinking about polling, setting our expectations in certain directions, and whether polls are a useful exercise at all.

 

The reality is that polls are important, and they reflect a part of our psychology that is always in action, even if we are not actively sampling American’s for their views.

 

Politicians are often criticized for changing their positions, but in reality, we all have fluid positions on everything regardless as to whether we are thinking about what clothes we like to wear, marginal tax rates, and whether current public health measures are effective or just for show. Politicians, like all of us, are eager to conform to majority, but they don’t always have perfect polling on what is the most preferred course of action or opinion. Our recent polling experiences show us how difficult it can be to figure out what the majority want. As Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler write in Nudge, “in part because people think that everyone has their eyes fixed on them, they conform to what they think people expect.”

 

The difference between most people and politicians is that politicians really do have more eyes on them than any average person. Their efforts to figure out what people expect is more visible, as are their changes in opinion or stated beliefs. But like politicians, most of us are trying to figure out what people expect of us, and most people are trying to match those expectations (at least in most areas). We are not actually in everyone else’s heads, but we can talk to them, observe the stickers they put on their cars, read their social media posts, and get an idea of what other people believe and what they think is cool. We can do our best to emulate that example, and the spotlight effect puts pressure on us to conform to that inferred identity, belief, or behavior.

 

We don’t actually know what everyone thinks and believes. We can all follow trends and fads (like the Paleo Diet) that we don’t really like, but that we think everyone else likes and expects us to follow. We are all trying to figure out what everyone else thinks, and find a way to go with the flow for most aspects of our lives. For most of us, we are not really being watched all the time while this process plays out. But for political figures, this process can be very public and highly scrutinized. So even though our polls have had some frustrating misses the last few presidential cycles, accurate and timely polling is important. And while we might not like the idea of a flip-flopping political figure, we probably all prefer a political figure who understands what their constituents want and expect, and polling can be a helpful way for them to better understand their constituents and better adjust to their views while representing them.
The Spotlight Effect

The Spotlight Effect

We are social creatures that crave connections with and acceptance from other people. We want to have many allies as we move through life and want to be seen as a valuable ally to others. In our minds, we magnify our actions, words, and behaviors, examining what we do and how we present ourselves to others to make sure we are winning as many allies as possible. However, this constant focus on ourselves and how we might appear to others creates an illusion known as the spotlight effect. We are so focused on how we are presented to others that we begin to feel as though everyone else really is watching us and really is paying attention to how we present ourselves.

 

The reality, for most of us, is that very few people really notice much about us. Our spouse and other members of our household probably notice the little details about us, whether we haven’t shaved for three days, whether we have worn the same shirt two days in a row, and whether something is really bothering us, but most other people probably don’t notice that much. The reality is that most of them are focused on themselves, falling into their own spotlight effect and not actually paying much attention to what we are doing.

 

Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein write about the spotlight effect in their book Nudge. They write, “One reason why people expend so much effort conforming to social norms and fashions is that they think that others are closely paying attention to what they are doing. … here’s a possibly comforting thought: they aren’t really paying as much attention to you as you think.”

 

People follow traditions, like wearing ties, that they dislike because they think everyone expects them to wear a tie and will be disappointed in them if they fail to wear one. This example of conformity bias mixed with the spotlight effect is relatively harmless, but the spotlight effect can have more severe consequences. People may believe their phones and social media posts are being watched by the police, they may worry that their colleagues will think of them as a cheapskate if their Secret Santa gift isn’t expensive and cool enough, and they may worry that other people on social media won’t find them authentic if they don’t angrily denounce the outrage of the day. These examples show how the spotlight effect can play into conspiratorial thinking, spending more money than one can really afford to spend, and engaging in signaling behaviors that might be beyond reasonable.

 

This is why Sunstein and Thaler’s quote can be helpful and possibly comforting. It is useful to recognize that we overanalyze ourselves and focus too highly on everything we do and how we present ourselves. Understanding this can help us see that everyone is so focused on themselves that they don’t have a lot of mental capacity left for scrutinizing everyone else. Once we realize that others are not paying as much attention to us as we thought, we can scale back negative aspects of conformity and self scrutiny. We can dial back the spotlight effect, and hopefully make decisions and choices that better fit the person we are, not the person we try to convince everyone else that we are. There are positive aspects to the spotlight effect, but for many of us, we probably over stress ourselves worrying about what others think, and would benefit from recognizing that others don’t pay so much attention to us.
Focusing Illusion

Focusing Illusion

I wrote earlier about an experiment that Daniel Kahneman discusses in his book Thinking Fast and Slow where college students were asked to evaluate their life and asked to count the number of dates they had been on in the last month. When the question about dates came after the question about happiness, there was no correlation between the two answers. However, when the question about dating came before the question about happiness, those who had few dates tended to rank their overall happiness lower. Later in the book, Kahneman expands on ideas related to this finding and describes the focusing illusion.

 

Kahneman sums up the focusing illusion by writing, “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it.”

 

Our brains are limited. They can only hold so much information at one time. What you see is all there is, meaning that the things you directly observe become the reality that your mind works within. We use heuristics, make assumptions, and our thoughts are subject to biases. As a result, the things we pay attention to and think about become the center of our lives. They become more important in our minds than they really should be.

 

The dating and happiness questions help us see the machinery of the mind and help us understand how the brain works. The inner machinery of the mind really does overweight things that we happen to be thinking about. Having more or fewer dates is an important worry for college students, but making students think about their dating life before or after a question about overall happiness shouldn’t really influence the degree to which students rate their overall happiness. However, if the mind is forced to think about dating, it becomes a more important factor in the mind and begins to blend into other considerations.

 

I have seen this happen in my own life. Objectively, I have had a great life. I was raised by a great family in a safe neighborhood in the United States. But at times I was certainly one of those college students whose subjective rating of life was unreasonably influenced by things that shouldn’t have mattered very much. Whether it was not having enough dates, watching the University’s basketball team lose, or having an angry customer at the restaurant I worked at, I can look back and recognize times when I had a negative outlook on life that stemmed from small negative events that I focused on too deeply. I still do this today, but being aware of the focusing illusion and understanding that what you see is all there is has helped me to avoid focusing too deeply and giving too much important to events or opinions that shouldn’t dominate my outlook on life.
The Happiness of the Moment

The Happiness of the Moment

In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes, “remember that neither the future nor the past pains thee, but only the present.” He also writes, “if though holdest to this, expecting nothing, fearing nothing, but satisfied with thy present activity according to nature, and with heroic truth in every word and sound which though utterest, though wilt live happy.”

 

Aurelius is a foundational Stoic thinker. A key part of stoicism is remaining in the present moment, focused on where you are now, what you are doing now, and how you can best use your current time. Worrying about what will happen in the future and feeling regretful of what has happened in the past only distracts from the present moment, bringing anxiety to situations that on their own do not cause any negativity in our lives.

 

The stoics, it turns out, were largely correct about finding happiness in the present moment. Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking Fast and Slow, writes, “Our emotional state is largely determined y what we attend to, and we are normally focused on our current activity and immediate environment. There are exceptions, where the quality of subjective experience is dominated by recurrent thoughts rather than by the events of the moment.”

 

Happiness is generally an emotion we feel when we are present. By refocusing our mind on our present activity and finding constructive and useful outlets for our attention, we can find happiness, even if our past has been a nightmare or if we are afraid of what will come in the future. It is important to learn lessons from the past and important to plan for the future to be successful and maximize our opportunities to meaningfully engage in the world, but when we spend all our time allowing recurrent thoughts to dominate our mind, we will diminish our overall happiness. If we constantly think about something embarrassing from the past, if we are always worried about an upcoming deadline, or if we only think forward to vacations and what we would rather be doing, then we won’t be happy in the moment. We won’t make the most of our current situation, and we won’t be content where we are. By focusing on the present and attending to a single present task or activity (even if it is just our breath), then we can root ourselves to our current state, and allow the regret and fears from our past and future to begin to melt away.
Self-Control Depletion, Continued

Self-Control Depletion, Continued

“The evidence is persuasive,” writes Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow, “activities that impose high demands on System 2 require self-control, and the exertion of self-control is depleting and unpleasant. Unlike cognitive load, ego depletion is at least in part a loss of motivation.”

 

Yesterday I wrote about our misconceptions regarding individual self-control. I wrote about how important it is to structure our environment accordingly for productivity and self-restraint. We are influenced by far more factors in our environment than we like to admit, and we don’t have as much self-control over our behaviors as we believe we do. Being intentional with our environment, shaping the systems, structures, and institutions around us, will enable us to move through life without needing unreasonable (or unattainable) self-control and motivation.

 

Today’s quote from Kahneman gets more detailed with self-control, ego depletion, and our experience of focus, attention, and mental effort. Cognitive load, as mentioned in the quote, is the effort put on our thinking processes. Remembering a 7 digit number is a light cognitive load, while holding 7 digits in your mind and adding one digit to each number to get a new number is a higher cognitive load. At a certain point under cognitive load, our mind simply can’t hold any more information and can’t continue to accurately do more mental weight-lifting. This is the point where ego depletion sets in if we continue to try to push through and maintain the hard work.

 

The more we engage System 2, the part of our brain needed for focus activities and complex problem solving, the quicker we lose motivation for mentally taxing activities. This is the ego depletion that Kahneman writes about. Our brains in theory can keep going, we could keep reading, writing, plugging away at a spreadsheet, but our brains start to get tired, and our motivation to focus and push through with continued mental effort fades. If we continue to exercise self-control, preventing ourselves from a diversion, such as playing a video game, then we are slowly going to wear ourselves out, and we will be more likely to get a cookie, have a drink, or binge watch a whole TV series once we do stop.

 

Just as our brains are not able to continually hold more and more information without making mistakes, our brains are not able to continually do more and more deep work without reaching a breaking point. As Cal Newport writes in his book Deep Work, for most people who are serious about doing their best work, the limit is roughly 4 hours of intense deep work per day. The mind, even a well trained mind, will get tired and lose the motivation to keep pushing through more deep work without making dangerous mistakes and becoming less productive in the long run. We have to keep in mind the twin forces of cognitive load and ego depletion, and focus on doing the right work at the right time, before our cognitive load is overwhelming and before our self-control has been depleted. We can do great work, but we have to be intentional about how we do our deep work, and we have to set up our environment to minimize the pull of distractions and the need for self-control.
Stimuli, Attention, and What We Notice

Stimuli, Attention, and What We Notice

“Wherever you direct your gaze, you will meet with something that might stand out from the rest, if the context in which you read it were not equally notable,” writes Seneca in Letters From a Stoic.

 

Quite a while back I listened to a podcast interview with the founder of a music streaming service called Focus At Will. The company is different from other streaming services such as Spotify or Pandora in that they don’t provide stations that have your favorite songs from top artists. Instead, they have stations with altered songs and selected tunes that they believe will help you stay on focus. The idea is that our brains are easily distracted by the human voice, by instruments that mimic the human voice, and by lots of changes in our background. Each time we hear a voice, we are distracted for a fraction of second as our brain figures out whether we need to pay attention to that voice or not. And when the sound in the background changes suddenly, like when a song ends, when a car honks its horn, or when a branch snaps, our brains perk up and focus on our surroundings for a second to figure out if we are in danger. Eliminate these background noises and provide a consistent noise, the company argues, and people will be able to focus.

 

Seneca’s quote from above reminded me of Focus At Will and the theories behind their streaming. In particular, one of their stations really aligns with the ideas that Seneca lays out in the quote, but from an audio rather than visual perspective. Focus At Will has a station designed for people with ADHD. Based on neurological studies, they argue that people with ADHD have brains that are too sensitive to background noises. For most of us, when a colleague sneezes from two offices over, the sound is detected by our ears and transmitted to our brain which subconsciously decides the noise was unimportant. Consequentially we don’t even notice the noise because it gets stuck with the unconscious brain, never elevated to the level of conscious awareness. For an individual with ADHD, however, their brain is more sensitive to a sneeze from down the hall, and they consciously recognize that noise and are distracted as they think through whether they need to respond to the stimuli or not. This happens with more than just sneezes, and can be hugely distracting for the individual as they are constantly working through stimuli that are easily ignored and unnoticed for most of us.

 

The solution that most of us would jump to would be to put an individual with ADHD in a completely noise and stimuli reduced environment. The solution of Focus at Will, in line with Seneca’s quote, is to raise the context of other noises to be equally as notable as the disruptions. The streaming service has a station that can be almost overwhelming to individuals without ADHD. There is a flurry of sound (in a musical way – not just random noise) that is somewhere in the neighborhood of heavy metal, demolition derbies, or construction sites. The solution is to raise the level of noise and distraction so that everything is operating at a high distraction level, so that no notable sound stand out.

 

Personally, I listen to stations like the Chilled Cow Lofi Hip Hop Radio Station when I need to focus on important work. But the idea of what stands-out, what we focus on, what we notice among a sea of stimuli is fascinating. Our brains can be overwhelmed by stimuli, and at the same time, an abundance of stimuli can also bring our attention and focus into a single point, drowning out other stimuli. This is just one more example of how reality isn’t. Our brains construct and create the reality we experience, and how we see the world around us is context dependent, with the level of stimuli playing a role in what we observe and experience.
A Craving for More

A Craving for More

There are two traits of humans which were great for ensuring our survival as a species tens of thousands of years ago that combine today in ways that don’t always have good consequences for our lives. The first is that we are highly adaptable. We can adjust our lives and our focus to survive in such extremes as the isolation of zero-gravity space-station environments or in the unimaginable density of Kowloon Walled City. We are geared toward adaptation for survival in many unique, diverse, and challenging circumstances. The second trait, which once complemented but perhaps now is more of a problem given our adaptability, is that we become bored. We are not content to sleep for 20 hours a day like a lion, and as social creatures we are compelled to engage with others in a pursuit of construction and growth.

 

The dangerous result of these two traits is a constant craving for more. We adapt to the lives we have, become bored, and desire more. It is hard to be content and feel as though our lives are enough. We could always have more stuff and bigger and better things. We could always do something different, something new and exciting, and interact with different people. While we might be able to survive in a small space with few items and few of the modern technologies that we take for granted today, once we have those things, we quickly begin looking around at what else we could have, what other things we could use, and what could be better about the time and space we occupy.

 

Our pursuit of more is in the spirit of ensuring our survival and improving our lives, at least evolutionary there is reason to believe that this is where the pursuit of more originates. But, rather than actually making our lives happier, richer, and more fulfilling, the pursuit of more can leave us feeling hollow and insufficient. As Seneca wrote about indulgences in Letters From a Stoic, “you will only learn from such things to crave still greater.”

 

So while we may recognize that having wealth, money, and stuff isn’t necessary for our happiness, our brain is pushing against that reality. Our brain becomes accustomed to the nice things we have, and starts to look for more, even if we thought we were content with the lives we have. It is important to be aware of how these two separate positive impulses (adaptability and boredom)  that evolved with us humans combine in a way that can be quite negative today. It is important that we recognize and think about how grateful we are for the things we have, and that we consider whether we really need more, bigger, better, and newer things, or if we are just being driven toward an impulse for change. By pushing back against these two impulses when we have reached a reasonable level of success and security, we can do more with our lives to have a positive impact for the whole world, rather than just doing things that will give us more stuff. We can still channel our ambition, but we can do so wisely, in a way that is as likely to benefit all of society, and not just benefit our own lives until we get bored again.

Focus on the Few Major Items

Cal Newport writes, “in many cases, contributions to an outcome are not evenly distributed,” in his book Deep Work. Across many different domains, several of which Newport mentions in his book, we find an 80/20 split emerge terms of relationships between important things. Newport states that 80% of computer program crashes are caused by just 20% of the known bugs, and in other areas of science and society, we see similar 80/20 splits.

 

Newport believes that this 80/20 split also applies to the goals in our lives, and considers how we should approach our lives is we believe that 80% of our outcomes will be based on 20% of what we do. He writes, “many different activities can  contribute to your achieving these goals. The law of the vital few, however, reminds us that the most important 20 percent or so of these activities provide the bulk of the benefit.”

 

We do a lot of different things throughout the day, but a lot of what we do is relatively short and doesn’t have a really large impact on the outcome of our life. There are really just a handful of things that we actually do that really make a big difference. Exercising, fighting off the desire to eat pie for breakfast, engaging with some type of productive hobby, and doing something meaningful with our family have large impacts on the outcomes we see in life. The millions of small things we do, pick out socks, play cards, scroll through social media, and drive to work, fill in the rest. They might be important in some way, but they are not the key factors that determine the outcomes of our lives.

 

What we should do, Newport argues, is think about those handful of thing that really make a difference. We should prioritize those moments, and make sure they have our full focus and attention, so that we maximize the areas that truly matter. We can then divert our energy away from the things which don’t matter, cut out any unnecessary clutter in our routines, and do our best at managing the big factors which have the biggest influence on the outcomes we see in life.
Wired for Distraction

Wired for Distraction

“Once you’re wired for distraction, you crave it,” writes Cal Newport in his book Deep Work.

 

Our technology today is not built nor designed to provide us with the best space for focus, it is not intended to provide us the maximum possible value, and it is not sold to us to truly enhance our lives. A lot of our technology today is intended to keep us engaged, to grab our attention, and to earn someone else a few bucks. What we get are curated distractions, constantly renewing streams of information that we pretend keeps us in the know, keeps us entertained, and provides us value. Even though our devices have this negative downside, we lie to ourselves about our need for our technology, and we are not honest about how much we rely on technology as a distraction to save us from a few minutes of boredom.

 

I find myself constantly checking Strava, just to see if anyone new has liked my run. I don’t like watching dishes without watching a YouTube video on my phone, and I don’t like cooking without listening to a podcast. Just like everyone else it seems, I’m hardly able to wait in line at the grocery store without pulling my phone out to just click around for the five minutes I might have to wait.

 

The problem with all of these habits is that it trains my mind to be distracted and constantly entertained with something flashy, new, and interesting.

 

Cal Newport, throughout Deep Work, returns to an idea, “The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained.” If we are not training ourselves to focus, and instead train ourselves to be distracted, we will never be able to do deep work, and will never be able to concentrate on things that matter when it matters. “efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction.”

 

Boredom and not having something stimulating for our brain has been seen as terrible. Being stuck in traffic, waiting at the doctor’s office, and having to vacuum the floor are all times when our minds used to be stuck in a state of boredom, but now can be in a state of distraction. All of our distractions train our minds to be dependent on interesting information and stimuli. Newport describes the problem this way:

 

“If every moment of potential boredom in your life – say having to wait five minutes in line or sit alone in a restaurant until a friend arrives – is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired to a point where … it’s not ready for deep work–even if you regularly schedule time to practice this concentration.”

 

If we want to be successful, do meaningful things with our careers, and engage with interesting and meaningful ideas and topics, we have to find ways to put down our phones and learn to concentrate through boredom. It isn’t easy and it isn’t fun, but it can help our mind adjust so we are not distracted and oblivious to the world around us. It can help our minds be prepared to do meaningful work when the time comes.
What do you pay attention to?

What Do You Pay Attention To?

“Your world is the outcome of what you pay attention to,” writes Cal Newport in his book Deep Work. Newport builds on ideas by Winifred Gallagher in her book Rapt in which she discusses where her attention landed and how she tried to approach life and thinking after a difficult cancer diagnosis. What Gallagher found, and what Newport build’s on in the context of focused attention and work, is the importance of what we think about and pay attention to as we move through our lives. Newport includes the following quote from Gallagher in his book:

 

“Like fingers pointing to the moon, other diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioral economics to family counseling, similarly suggest that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non [an essential condition; a thing that is absolutely necessary] of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.” 

 

Newport explains that many of us make a mistake in thinking about what is important to us and what will bring us happiness. We assume that our context is everything, that we need a big house, a fancy title, a promotion, and a dream spouse to be happy. However, Gallagher’s book suggest that what we really need to feel happy is a shift in attention, away from the big things and desires, and toward the small positive things we enjoy in our life everyday, from a cup of coffee to a nightcap, and the small victories and enjoyable parts of each day. Appreciation and recognition of these small moments can mean more to us in the long run than the big fancy dream goals that we may one day reach.

 

We think it is the big context that matters, but as Newport writes, “Our brains instead construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to. Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow has a phrase for this, “What you see is all there is.” What you look at, what you think about, and what you encounter in your life is what your world will become. If you only look at your life and see the negative aspects of where you are, then your world will be awful. If, however, you can look at where you are and see good things around you, then your world will be better. This is what Gallagher learned while battling her cancer diagnosis, and this is what Newport incorporates into a life of focus. Dialing in on the important and positive aspects of life help us avoid feeling that we are not doing enough, are not good enough, and don’t have enough to live a happy and meaningful life.