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.
Anchoring Effects

Anchoring Effects

Anchoring effects were one of the psychological phenomenon that I found the most interesting in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow. In many situations in our lives, random numbers seem to be able to influence other numbers that we consciously think about, even when there is no reasonable connection between the random number we see, and the numbers we consciously use for another purpose. As Kahneman writes about anchoring effects, “It occurs when people consider a particular value for an unknown quantity before estimating that quantity.”

 

Several examples of anchoring effects are given in the book. In one instance, judges were asked to assess how much a night club should be fined for playing loud music long after the quite orders in the night club’s local town. Real life judges who have to make these legal decisions were presented with the name of the club and information about the violation of the noise ordinance. The fictitious club was named after the fictitious street that it was located along. In some instanced, the club name was something along the lines of 1500 First Street, and in other instances the club name was something like 10 First Street. Judges consistently assessed a higher fine to the club with the name 1500 First Street than the club with the name 10 First Street. Seemingly random and unimportant information, the numbers for the street address in the name of the club, had a real impact on the amount that judges on average thought the club should be fined.

 

In other examples of anchoring effects, Kahneman shows us that we come up with different guesses of how old Gandhi was when he died if we are asked if he was older than 35 or younger than 114. In another experiment, a random wheel spin influenced the guess people offered for the number of African nations in the UN. In all these examples, when we have to think of a number that we don’t know or that we can apply subjective judgment to, other random numbers can influence what numbers come to mind.

 

This can have real consequences in our lives when we are looking to buy something or make a donation or investment. Retailers may present us with high anchors in an effort to prime us to be willing to accept a higher price than we would otherwise pay for an item. If you walk into a sunglass shop and see two prominently displayed sunglasses with very high prices, you might not be as surprised by the high prices listed on other sunglasses, and might even consider slightly lower prices on other sunglasses as a good deal.

 

It is probably safe to say that sales prices in stores, credit card interest rates, and investment management fees are carefully crafted with anchoring effects in mind. Retailers want you to believe that a high price on an item is a fair price, and could be higher if they were not willing to offer you a deal. Credit card companies and investment brokers want you to believe the interest rates and management fees they charge are small, and might try to prime you with large numbers relative to the rates they quote you. We probably can’t completely overcome the power of anchoring effects, but if we know what to look for, we might be better at taking a step back and analyzing the rates and costs a little more objectively. If nothing else, we can pause and doubt ourselves a little more when we are sure we have found a great deal on a new purchase or investment.
Conscious and Unconscious Priming Effects

Conscious and Unconscious Priming Effects

“Another major advance in our understanding of memory was the discovery that priming is not restricted to concepts and words,” writes Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, “You cannot know this from conscious experience, of course, but you must accept the alien idea that your actions and your emotions can be primed by events of which you are not even aware.”

 

Yesterday I wrote about linguistic priming. How words can trigger thoughts in our mind, and set us up to think certain thoughts. I wrote about how ideas spread, like in the movie Inception from one thought or idea to another based on similarities and categories of things. I wrote about how important implicit associations can be, and how we have used them to measure racial bias and the harm that these biases could have in society. Today’s post continues on that trend, exploring the areas in our lives where priming may be taking place without our knowledge.

 

In his book, before the quote I shared at the start of this post, Kahneman describes our thoughts as behaving like ripples on a pond. A train of thought can be primed in one direction, and ripples from that priming can spread out across our mind. So when I used Inception earlier, I may have primed our minds to think about trains, since they feature so prominently in the movie, and if that is the case, it is no surprise that I used train of thought just a few sentences later. From this point forward, there are likely other metaphors and examples that I might use that are potentially primed by the movie Inception or by associations with trains. It is clear that I’m following priming effects if I directly reference my thinking staying on track or going off the rails, but it might be less obvious and clear how my thinking might relate to trains in the sentences to come, but as Kahneman’s quote suggested, my mind might be unconsciously primed for certain directions all from the casual mention of Inception from earlier.

 

Across my writing I have always been fascinated by the idea that we are not in as much control over our minds as we believe. Thoughts think themselves, we don’t necessarily think our own thoughts. Our minds can be influenced by time, by caffeine levels, by whether someone smiled at us on our commute to work, or whether our sock is rubbing on our foot in a strange way. We don’t have to think of anything for it to directly register with our brain and influence where our mind goes. What thoughts pop into our head, and what ripples of ideas are primed across our mind are beyond our control and influenced by things we sometimes barely notice. Priming, according to Kahneman, can be direct, deliberate, and conscious, or it can be unconscious and oblique. The mind and how we think is more random and unpredictable than it feels, and sometimes more random than we would like to believe. This should change how we think of ourselves, how we think of others, and what information and knowledge we privilege and encourage. It should make us less certain that we are always behaving as we should, and less certain that we are as smart and savvy in all situations as we like to believe we are.
Blind to our blindness

Blind to Our Blindness

I remember the first time I watched the Gorilla Attentiveness Study, as a freshman in college, and to this day it is one of my favorite studies and examples of the ways in which our brains can let us down. Writing about the study in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman states, “The gorilla study illustrates two important facts about our minds: we can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness.” Kahneman uses the study to show that we can’t always trust what we see, or what we experience in the world more broadly. Our minds are limited in what they take in, especially when we are engaged with one task and our mind is filtering out the other noise and extra information in our environment.

 

Kahneman uses the study to support two major ideas that he presents in his book. The first is that our brains can only operate on the information they take in. Most of the time, our general perception of the world is guided by System 1, the term Kahneman uses to describe the automatic, fast, and intuitive functioning part of our brain. It is not literally a separate part and structure of the brain, but it does seem to be a system with specific functions that generally runs in the background as we go about our lives. That system filters out unimportant information in the world around us, like the feeling of our clothes on our skin, low level traffic noise outside our office, or a bee buzzing around at the edges of our peripheral outside a window. That data is ignored as unimportant, allowing us to instead engage System 2 on something more worthy of our attention.

 

System 2 is used by Kahneman to describe the attentive, energy demanding, logical part of our brain. The modules in the brain which allow us to write blog posts, to count basketball passes, and to thread string through a needle comprise what Kahneman describes as System 2. However, System 2 can only focus on a limited number of things at one time. That is why we can’t write blog posts on a subway and why we miss the gorilla. We have to ignore the noise in order to focus on the important things. What is worse, however, is that System 2 is  often dependent on information from System 1, and System 1 is subject to biases and blind spots and has a bad habit of using inferences to complete the full picture based on a limited set of information. System 1’s biases directly feed into the intense focus and logical thinking of System 2, which in turn causes us to reach faulty conclusions. And because the inferences from System 1 are usually pretty good, and do an adequate job completing the picture, our faulty conclusions appear sound to us.

 

Kahneman writes that we are blind to the obvious, meaning that we often miss important, crucial, and sometimes clearly important information simply because  we don’t look for it, don’t recognize it for what it is, or and fill in gaps with intuition. Quite often we are not even aware of the things we are blind to, we literally are blind in regard to our blind spots, making it harder to see how we could be wrong, where our cognitive biases and errors may be, and what could be done to make our thinking more accurate.

 

I try to remember this in my own life and to ask myself where I think I could be wrong. I try to be aware of instances where I am deliberately creating blind spots in my life, and I try at least marginally to push against such tendencies. It is important that we remember our biases and errors in thinking, and consider how our thinking is often built on blind spots and faulty conclusions. Doing so will help us be more generous when thinking of others, and will help us become better thinkers ourselves. It will help us pause when we reach a conclusion about an argument, think more broadly when we become upset, and shift away from System 1 biases to have more accurate and complete pictures of the world.
What we need for happiness

What We Need For Happiness

A challenge in our world today is to be content without the need for too many things. We are constantly bombarded with advertisements about things we could buy and about how happy we would be if we had more stuff. We attach material possessions to lifestyles and people, and in some ways we look toward things to define people. Advertisements and mental images work because we believe them, but they don’t truly reflect the reality of the world around us or what would make us happy.

 

In Letters to a Stoic, Seneca writes, “the Stoic also can carry his goods unimpaired through cities that have been burned to ashes; for he is self-sufficient. Such are the bounds which he sets to his own happiness.”  The quote is part of a larger passage about finding happiness in oneself and in the world around us rather than in our things or specific items that we might want. Stoic philosophy, as Seneca describes, encourages us to avoid the desire for stuff, because stuff can be taken away from us, burned down, or never attained in the first place.

 

What we need for happiness, Seneca suggests, is simply our mental faculties. An awareness of and appreciation for life that isn’t dependent on what we own, the quality of our clothes, or price tag of our car. Unlike the way of thought that we tend to fall into in America, where we associate being a lawyer with owning a sports car, associate being a runner with owning an expensive GPS watch, and associate being a hipster with owning expensive glasses, stoicism encourages happiness through relationships, and an appreciation of simple, yet wondrous moments of life. Indeed, having lots of stuff can take the wonder out of life and fill it with the stress of managing finances, space, and security of possessions.
Time

Think More About Your Time

A little over a year ago I took a job that had a long commute, a little over 30 miles one way, 60+ miles daily for the round trip. Mornings were usually pretty quick, because I would be out of the house early for a work out and would beat a lot of traffic, but afternoons were often brutal for me, with a minimum 45 minute drive home. If there was an accident on the freeway, it easily became and hour and half drive home in the afternoon. The time I spent by myself in the car, listening to podcasts, occasionally calling a friend, or maybe listening to some music made me think about just how important the good use of ones time is. Each day, I spent at least one hour and fifteen minutes in a car by myself. I had to dress professionally, which meant that I had to have gym bag packed with slacks, a belt, a dress shirt, and from time to time a tie. In the mornings I woke up early to write and blog, and then I was out of the house quickly to get to the gym on time. I had to rush through work-outs and a post-work shower to make sure I had enough time to change into my business clothes for the remainder of the drive to work. After work, I felt a pressure to get out the door as quick as possible and get across the 30 miles of road to my house, minimizing the time I was on the road and the chance I would get caught in a traffic jam from an accident. In the evening I had to spend at least 30 minutes prepping my lunch for the next day and making sure I had all my clothes set in my gym bag and ready to go. As it turns out, I’m not great at this, and I frequently forget my lunch or to pack my shoes when I am on a time crunch and will need to have a bunch of stuff ready and with me.

 

I was feeling first hand, until the pandemic started and I shifted to working from home, what it is like to not have enough time. I have heard on a few podcasts (I searched but couldn’t find where exactly) that the word time is the most frequently used word in the English language. It is the one thing that we always have, but never have enough of. It is the one thing we can never get more of, and it is important that we use it well. However, as I look around at the people in my life, I see that we rarely think of how we use our time as critically as we should. As Seneca wrote to his friend in Letters From a Stoic, “Nothing, Lucilius, is ours, except time. We were entrusted by nature with the ownership of this single thing, so fleeting and slippery that anyone who will can oust us from possession.”

 

We can lose our possession of time if another person takes our life. We can lose our ability to use our time if someone creates some major obstacle for us that we have to climb through (like working through identity theft). And on top of that we can squander our time in a meaningless way (like by commuting long distances by ourselves in our cars).

 

My recent experiences have forced me to re-think how I have used time, experienced time, and what it means to be aware of time. When we think about our time, we can change our approach to our day and re-shape our habits, routines, and activities so that we don’t waste our time and let it slip through our fingers without control. I know I am lucky to be in a place to make changes in my life to adjust how I spend my time, and I know not everyone has the same privileges to adjust their lives in relation to time, but for those of us who can, I think it is important that we think more about our time. We should make adjustments to give time back to our lives by spending more time with loved ones or with meaningful activities that engage us with others and build a sense of community. We should avoid long commutes, we should focus on spending our time doing things that help improve our communities, and we should not be willing to trade too much of our time for money, if we are in a position to say no to the extra money we get for the time we give up.

The Process of Writing

I listen to lots of podcasts and have a handful of authors whose output I follow fairly closely. Those authors frequently discuss the importance of writing, their process, and what they gain from trying to write each day. One thing is clear from these authors, the process of writing helps with the process of thinking.

 

At the end of his book When Dan Pink writes, “the product or writing – this book – contains more answers than questions. But the process of writing is the opposite. Writing is an act of discovering what you think and what you believe.”

 

I have heard this a lot. That writing is something that helps take nebulous thoughts and organize them together. That writing is not taking the thoughts one already has and putting them down on paper, but that writing pulls disparate pieces that we didn’t always realize we were thinking, and combines them in a logical and coherent manner. We discover through research and close assessment of our mind what we think, and present that to the world.

 

For me, writing is a way to connect with the books that I read. It is a chance for me to revisit them and remember the lessons I learned and think again about the pieces of books that I thought were most important when I originally read them. For me, writing is as much re-discovery as it is discovery. I don’t pretend  that my writing is genuine and unique inspirations from my own mind, but rather reflections on why I found what someone else said to be important.

 

Generally, I believe that Pink is correct. I also think that writing is more than just a discovery of our thoughts, but a creation of our thoughts. Give students an assignment to write from a particular point of view, and even if they previously did not hold such a point of view, afterward they are likely to adopt that point of view. This is not so much idea and belief discovery, but belief formation. Part of our brains are rationalizing the words we put on the page, so to defend ourselves for writing those words. We may create new thoughts through writing just as we may discover thoughts and ideas that had already been bouncing through our mind. What is clear, however, is that writing forces the brain to be more considerate of the ideas that fly through it, and to create narrative and coherence between those ideas, organizing thought in new and more profound ways.

More on Temporal Landmarks

According to Daniel Pink in his book When, temporal landmarks can come in two varieties, social and personal. Social temporal landmarks are the dates that everyone shares in common while personal landmarks are the significant dates in our own lives such as birthdays, anniversaries, and dates of significant life events. Studies presented in Pink’s book show that both types of landmarks can serve as helpful anchors for jumping off points. Students are more likely to go to the gym on a Monday, at the start of a semester, or on the day after their birthday than on other random days.

 

Pink describes the anchoring effect this way, “This new period offers a chance to start again by relegating our old selves to the past. It disconnects us from that past self’s mistakes and imperfections, and leaves us confident about our new, superior selves. Fortified by that confidence, we behave better than we have in the past and strive with enhanced fervor to achieve our aspirations.”

 

In the physical world, we can make changes that literally do shut a door on one aspect of our lives. We can move to a new city, we can sell all of our TVs and gaming consoles, we chop down a tree and pave over the place where it used to be. These changes can have physical manifestations that designate something new, something different, and prevent us from continuing on as we always have. Temporal landmarks are not physical and permanent in the same way, but can still serve a similar function for us. They break apart a continuous stream of time and allow us to make distinctions between ourselves now and who we have been in the past.

 

Pink also argues that part of the strength of temporal landmarks is in the way they allow us to reflect and think about who we are, what we have historically been or done, and what our aspirations are for our futures. He writes, “Temporal landmarks slow our thinking, allowing us to deliberate at a higher level and make better decisions.”

 

My example of making a physical world change to change our behaviors is an example of taking a deliberate step to help us make better decisions. Temporal changes don’t necessarily create a physical barrier which changes our behavior, but they do give us a mental stopping point at which we can pause and consider how and why we do something. Rather than continuing on auto-pilot these landmarks make us pause and consider whether we are going in the right direction, whether we are regressing back toward a place we don’t want to be, or whether we can change course and achieve what we want. In many ways, without actually being a physical barrier, these temporal landmarks operate in the same way. Simply because they are not tangible doesn’t make them any more real in the ways we think about our lives, the changes we experience throughout life, and how we make decisions.

The Case for Doubting Oneself

Our actions always make more sense to us than they do to others. To us, what we do and why we do the things we do fit in with an internal narrative that is always running through our head and playing out in our lives. We understand the world in a way that is logically coherent based on our experiences and perceptions of the world.

 

The problem for each of us, however, is that our experiences, perspectives, and perceptions are woefully inadequate to actually understand the way the world operates. In Letters from a Stoic, Seneca includes a short piece that explains how we should think about our thinking given these inadequacies of our mind:

 

“Crates, they say, … noticed a young man walking by himself, and asked him what he was doing all alone. I am communing with myself, replied the youth. Pray be careful, then, said Crates, and take good heed; you are communing with a bad man!”

 

The point here is not that the youth is actually a bad person, but it is that the narrative and story within our own heads is misleading. It makes judgments and assumptions based on limited, often biased information and creates stories that it claims to be true. We are tricked into believing the falsehoods of our own mind, and if we give our mind too much trust, it can lead us astray.  The advice from Crates conveyed by Seneca is to recognize that our minds are not wholly trustworthy, and to be careful when we are consumed by our own thoughts.

 

In my own life, I have found it to be helpful, but at times almost paralyzing to recognize how little information my mind actually has when it is making decisions and reaching conclusions. I find that I often doubt why I feel a certain way about another person or an event, and that I often pause to consider the information my mind is acting on before I do something, even when my actions or the outcomes are trivial. Occasionally this puts me in a place where I feel that I cannot take action, because I cannot entirely support my reason for doing or believing (or wanting to believe) something. On the whole, however, I feel that it does make me a more considerate person. I recognize times when I want to be outraged at something, just to signal to others how virtuous of a person I am that something outrages me. I often find that I want to complain about others, just to raise my own status, and I try my best to pull back from those urges. These are positive notes stemming from my self-awareness induced hesitation, but my hesitation also leads to situations where I am not as outspoken or decisive as I should be. As an example, I should probably be more outspoken about the importance of climate change legislation or science in general. I am not as willing to take a visible stand in an effort to say that, regardless of policy or party/identity, the behavior and language of our president is unbecoming of the nation’s chief executive and unacceptable in our public discourse (ever here is another example of me hesitating to be as direct as I think I should be).

 

A recognition that the mind cannot possibly observe, analyze, and act on every piece of information available is powerful in being a more thoughtful and considerate person, but it can be paralyzing in negative ways. When we pause to think while others impulsively act, we give away some of the power we gain through self-awareness. The bombastic who dominate conversation through impulsive outbursts have an advantage in controlling the narrative when we hesitate to be more thoughtful in our discourse. We would all rather be the rationally calm individual in our lives, but it feels that the ignorantly loud person will always dominate the conversation when we choose this approach. I think we should nevertheless strive for greater self-awareness and calmness in our thinking, and as a society we need to do a better job of recognizing the importance of these skills, so we can be better at socially rewarding individuals who can control their impulses.

To See Our Own Face

Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet is exactly what the title suggests. It is a disquieting look at the world around us, making us think, question the every-day, and second guess what it is we believe and accept. Pessoa dealt with sever depression, and writes about his challenges with depression in stark and honest terms. He pulls apart experience in a way that is unique to him, and makes us question the experiential sums of the filaments of reality that we perceive.

 

Included in the book’s translation by Margaret Jull Costa, is a short piece about seeing ourselves in the mirror: “Man should not be able to see his own face. Nothing is more terrible than that. Nature gave him the gift of being unable to see either his face or into his own eyes. 
    He could only see his own face in the waters of rivers and lakes. Even the posture he had to adopt to do so was symbolic. He had to bend down, to lower himself, in order to suffer the ignominy of seeing his own face.
    The creator of the mirror poisoned the human soul.”

 

We easily become self-obsessed in our world today. We can spend hours looking at just pictures of ourselves if we wanted to. We have so many ways to capture our image and post it where we want. We can place mirrors and reflective surfaces throughout our world, to constantly look at ourselves and dress up the outside answer to the question, “Who am I?”

 

In Pessoa’s mind, we were never supposed to look at ourselves from the outside to try to answer and define that question. His quote shows that he believes we ourselves cannot provide an answer to the outside question of who we are, and that it should be publicly shameful to try. To turn inward, to become self-obsessed is a curse. To remain ignorant of the self, to be focused outside oneself and to exist as part of the social group of others to which we belong is where the human mind was supposed to be. The mirror split us and our definition of self from that collection, and poisoned the mind by forcing us to always consider ourselves first. Our ancestors from whom we evolved could not look back at themselves with a clear view of who they were and wanted to be as an individual. It is only with human created technology that we can focus the light back at ourselves, and take control to define ourselves as the outward image that is presented to the rest of the world.