How To Describe a Norm

What inputs drive what types of behaviors in humans? This is a question I think about at an incredibly basic level all the time, but I don’t really hear much insightful discussion about this topic. We all like to believe we (and everyone else) is in complete conscious control of our thoughts, minds, and decisions, but we know that can’t be true. If you leave someone in a room with a plate of freshly baked cookies in front of them, they will almost invariably eat a cookie, even if they had woken up that day determined not to eat any cookies. If you deprive someone of sleep for a whole day while they travel across the country from Seattle to Orlando with multiple layovers and tired and cranky kids, you are bound to hear a few exasperated yells, even if that person was determined not to yell at their children (or anyone else). At  a certain point, the inputs that make their way into our mind have a big influence on the resulting behaviors that we see in the world.

 

Norms are one way that we establish certain inputs associated with certain behaviors. They help us regulate what kinds of behaviors are acceptable and desired. As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write in The Elephant in the Brain, “The essence of a norm then, lies not in the words we use to describe it, but in which behaviors get punish and what form the punishment takes.” Norms are guidelines for nudging peoples behaviors by changing the inputs into their mind.

 

We can applaud, ignore, or punish a behavior to change the likelihood of an action taking place again. If I send out a tweet with terrible insults, and that tweet is re-tweeted and I receive encouragement for speaking out against the people I insulted, I am receiving cues that suggest I should do more of that. If however, I see an old lady walking to the register at the grocery store, and I use my youthful speed to quickly jump in front of her, I am likely to receive angry looks and possibly be forced out of line if a big enough person sees me jump ahead of the little old lady. If the punishment in this situation is embarrassing enough, I likely won’t repeat this behavior the next time I am at the store.

 

Our minds and, consequently it seems, our brains, are changed by the norms we use. What is possible in our wold is shaped by how we know other people will respond to what we do. The agency we feel when we think about the world is constrained by the thoughts, looks, and actions of other people. We rarely talk about all the inputs that may change our thinking and decision-making, but it is clear that we operate in a space where many physical and non-physical things can shape what we do, believe, and think. The mind absorbs many inputs and we are not always at liberty to decide how we will respond to those inputs if we are constrained or encouraged by certain norms.

Sabotage Information

“Our minds are built to sabotage information in order to come out ahead in social games.” In The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about the ways in which we act out of our own self-interest without acknowledging it. We are more selfish, more deceptive, and less altruistic than we would like to admit, even to ourselves. To keep us feeling good about what we do, and to make it easier to put on a benevolent face, our brains seem to deliberately distort information to make us look like we are honest, open, and acting with the best of intentions for everyone.

 

“When big parts of our minds are unaware of how we try to violate social norms, it’s more difficult for others to detect and prosecute those violations. This also makes it harder for us to calculate optimal behaviors, but overall, the trade-off is worth it.” As someone who thinks critically about Stoicism and believes that self-reflection and awareness are keys to success and happiness, this is hard to take in. It suggests that self-awareness is a bigger burden for social success than blissful unawareness. Being deluded about our actions and behaviors, Simler and Hanson suggest, helps us be better political animals and helps us climb the social hierarchy to attain a better mate, more status, and more allies. Self-awareness, their idea suggests, makes us more aware of the lies we tell ourselves about who we are, what we do, and why we do it, and makes it harder for us to lie and get ahead.

 

“Of all the things we might be self-deceived about, the most important are our own motives.” Ultimately, however, I think we will be better off if we can understand why we, and everyone else, believe the things we do and behave the way we do. Turning inward and recognizing how often we hide our motives and deceive ourselves and others about our actions can help us overcome bias. We can start to be more intentional about our decisions and think more critically about what we want to work toward. We don’t have to hate humanity because we lie and hide parts of ourselves from even ourselves, but we can better move through the world if we actually know what is going on. Before we become angry over a news story, before we shell out thousands of dollars for new toys, and before we make overt displays of charity, we can ask ourselves if we are doing something for legitimate reasons, or just to deceive others and appear to be someone who cares deeply about an issue or item. Slowly, we can counteract the negative externalities associated with the brain’s faulty perceptions, and we can at least make our corner of the world a little better.

The Role of Gossip

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson have an interesting idea about gossip in their book The Elephant in the Brain. Instead of seeing gossip as some terrible moral failure on the part of human beings, the authors take a more deep and close look at gossip to try to understand just what is taking place. By understanding the role gossip plays, the authors are able to provide a more concrete reason for why we gossip.

 

They write, “Among laypeople, gossip gets a pretty bad rap. But anthropologists see it differently. Gossip–talking about people behind their backs, often focusing on their flaws or misdeeds–is a feature of every society ever studied. And while it can often be mean-spirited and hurtful, gossip is also an important process for curtailing bad behavior, especially among powerful people.”

 

Some discussions are hard to have out in the open. It is hard to go around openly asking people if the president’s behavior is crossing a line and is inappropriate. It is hard to openly ask the office if a co-worker’s clothing is unacceptable, and it is hard to openly ask the world if someone else is trying to do something just to show off. If we are on the wrong side in these situations, we can look really bad ourselves, and we can be very embarrassed if our opinions and ideas are rejected by the rest of the group.

 

Instead of putting ourselves out in a vulnerable place, gossip allows us to test the waters. We can quietly get a sense of other people’s opinions and ideas without actually revealing our thoughts and ideas completely. We can start to moderate our ideas and opinions and update our model of what is and is not acceptable, tolerable, or popular at a given time. Gossip lets us connect with others in a way that broad publicity does not. It can encourage social bonding between small groups within larger groups and it can help enforce the norms that our culture develops. These can all be positive and negative aspects of gossip, but it happens because we live in a complex and confusing world where we develop opinions socially as opposed to just individually. Sometimes, we need some cover to develop opinions that align with our social group to reduce our vulnerability to attack and isolation.

Language, Rules, Punishment

I studied Spanish during my undergraduate degree and I frequently listen to John McWhorter’s podcast Lexicon Valley. I enjoy thinking about language and I’m sometimes fascinated by the fact that sounds produced by one person can impact so much about the world. The language we have developed can shape so much of how we act and behave and how the world is structured around us.

 

In a short passage Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson reflect on humans, the societies we have built, and the roles we have evolved into over thousands of years in their book The Elephant in the Brain. “We are social animals who use language to decide on rules that the whole group must follow, and we use the threat of collective punishment to enforce these rules against even the strongest individuals. And although many rules vary from group to group, there are some – like those prohibiting rape and murder – that are universal to all human cultures.” 

 

Their quote really describes the state that humans have evolved into, but I think it is interesting to consider the role of language in this evolution. A species without a complex language likely would not have been able to develop the complex system of rules that we have adopted. So many of our rules are written down in statutes, laws, and regulations. Without them, following a collective set of rules and developing shared norms and punishments would be next to impossible. Even with a standard written language, we spend tons of time debating the meaning of the language we use to codify rules, and slight changes in understandings of language can change the outcomes that manifest in the real world.

 

Human societies have existed with rules and norms without written language, but the written word allowed us to build corporations, to organize criminal justice systems, and to develop social contracts that hold everything in place. Our language can boost the strongest and most brash demagogues, but it can also provide the spark to organize resistance and topple that same tyrant. Language allows us to take universal understandings of right and wrong and build outward, to create a system of fairness and justice that we can all operate within. Without our language, and without the evolution of our brain to allow for language, we might be doing just fine as small hunter-gatherer tribes, but we certainly would not be able to thrive in huge social societies with collective rules.

Designed to Act on Hidden Motives

The human brain evolved in a social and political context. As our species developed, it mattered who you were close allies with, who you were opposed to, and who you cooperated with to survive. You needed to build up your social support to survive each day, but you also needed to build up your status so that your offspring and their offspring could survive and reproduce. Genetic survival and continuation of your genes and family depended on you being able to operate and survive in coordination with others in a world that didn’t have enough food, shelter, mates, and resources for everyone to survive all the time.

 

As our species expanded, our brains got bigger, took up more of our energy, made us smarter, and helped us further develop our social, political, tribal societies. In order to do well in these tribes, we had to be good at helping others in a way that furthered others’ trust in us and encouraged reciprocation. We had to appear to be helping others while at the heart of what we did, we wanted to ensure our survival and the survival of our children.

 

This idea is at the heart of The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson. We evolved to be self-interested and self-serving, but in a deceptive way that is hard to notice. The authors write, “Here is the thesis we’ll be exploring in this book: We, human beings, are a species that’s not only capable of acting on hidden motives–we’re designed to do it. Our brains are built to act in our self-interest while at the same time trying hard not to appear selfish in front of other people.”

 

We hide our hidden motives from everyone, including ourselves, as we go about the world, but if we look closely, we can find the motives in ourselves and others that more accurately describe our decisions and behaviors. We post a photo on Facebook telling ourselves and others that we want to keep our friends up to date with our new house projects, but a more plausible reason for posting on Facebook is simply that we wanted to show off and be socially applauded. We like to donate to charity in the spirit of helping those who are in need, but we often fail to ask where we could make a donation to help the most people, and we are good at finding ways of making our donation very visible so that everyone knows what we donated.

 

These hidden motives are not all bad, but they do exist and in many ways drive our behavior. We need to be aware of our hidden motives and our capability of acting on them. When we are honest with ourselves about why we do what we do, we can start to have more agency in our lives and the choices we make. We can start to see that much of what we do is purely status seeking behavior, and we can ask ourselves if it is truly worth it or if we can step back and let go of our hidden motives on a case by case basis. We can shape policy in a way that redirects externatilities from our hidden motives toward positive outcomes rather than toward negative self-serving outcomes. We don’t have to evolve away from hidden motives to meaningfully engage with the world, but we should recognize them and do our best to prevent negative hidden motivations from driving our emotions, behaviors, and decisions.

The Absurdity of Thinking We Know What is Happening in Another’s Mind

We make claims all the time about what other people are thinking and feeling and about the motivations, beliefs, and desires of others. We can maybe be right about some large things and the study of psychology has given us insight into a lot of patterns of the brain, but to think that we could ever really understand what is happening in the mind of another person is beyond nonsense.

 

This fallacy starts with our misunderstandings of our own brain and our own consciousness. We like to think that there is a single actor in our brain, observing the universe, directing our actions, and making sense of the world in an objective and rational manner. What everything seems to indicate, however, is that this experience of our consciousness does not align with reality. People often fail to act in a way that is in their rational best interest. We are driven by the stories that we tell ourselves, giving rise to prejudices and allowing us to be swayed by our self-interests. When meditating we see just how hard it is to focus on a single thought, even if we try our best to make our conscious mind think about our breath and not the candy jar on our co-workers desk. In all of these situations, our thoughts seem to be a bit beyond our control, a bit random, and heavily influenced by factors that we perceive or imagine even if they don’t exist.

 

When we look inward at our own mind we begin to see just how jumbled our own thoughts and consciousness can be. When we truly work to improve our mind, we can build our self-awareness, look at the world more objectively, and start to recognize patterns of our own thoughts and behaviors, but this is hard work and reveals a confusing set of contradictions within ourselves. Indeed, as Thich Nhat Hanh wrote in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness, “If you want to know your own mind, there is only one way: to observe and recognize everything about it. This must be done at all times, during your day-to-day life no less than during the hour of meditation.”

 

To know our mind is to recognize the times when our mind is not what we think or imagine it to be. And if we cannot even know our own mind without constant study and evaluation of what we are thinking and believing, then how can we ever claim to understand another person’s mind, even for a second? We can hide things from ourselves, fail to recognize the reality of the world around us and of ourselves, and we can develop false beliefs in our thinking. This is true for each one of us, and for everyone else around us. When we think of other people, of their desires, habits, actions, fears, and their general mindset in any given situation, we must remember that they are as complicated as we are, and that we cannot possibly understand what is happening in their mind.

 

When I think of this, when I read Hanh’s quote about self-awareness and how difficult it is to know ourselves, I remember to judge people less harshly, to slow my thinking down, and to first interrogate my own mind before assuming something about the mental state of another person. This is not easy to do, and it undoubtedly leads to a place where I think to myself, “well the world is hard and this person is influenced by many things and feels many fears and pressures, so their actions and behaviors can to some extent be deemed understandable.” This works well when I am confronted by a grumpy person in line at the bank or a jerk driving next to me on the freeway, but it is less that satisfying when thinking about people who commit serious crime (an area I don’t have solid thoughts on right now), or people who seem to antagonistically oppose beliefs that I find important and noble. What I can say is that remembering how challenging it is to know myself helps me be more empathetic with others and view what they say or do in a less attacking and critical light. In personal relationships and in the office this is a great skill to cultivate, because it stops me from assuming I know what is happening in another person’s mind, and reminds me that they may not even have their own thoughts fully understood.

Testing Our Assumptions

As I have worked on self awareness and worked to be a more understanding person capable of seeing the world from multiple perspectives, I have become more aware of my first impressions and snap judgments of other people. An important first step in becoming a more integrated person is recognizing the impulse thoughts we have about others and understanding where those thoughts come from.  Colin Wright in his book Considerations addresses this idea and drives it to an even deeper level. He examines the structure of the brain and out thoughts to understand why we have developed these impulse thoughts, and he challenges everyone to recognize and push back against these often times hidden beliefs (emphasis mine):

 

“Testing our assumptions is an excellent way to see the potential in things and people we wouldn’t otherwise stop to notice.  A person with a black plastic trash bag could be a lot of things, and it’s worth considering more than just your first impression if you intend to be an active participant in your environment, rather than just a passive experiencer.”

 

When I first started working on mindfulness and recognizing my thoughts about others, including my immediate reactions, I constantly felt discouraged by my negative reaction to people of other races or who appeared to be homeless or in poverty.  I would scold myself for having a negative initial judgement, and then worry that my initial thoughts bled over to my outward attitude and behavior.  What Wright explains in his book is that these types of instant reactions are evolutionary left overs from a time when we needed to make assumptions about our environment and react quickly to avoid wild animals that could kill and eat us.  Our quick reactions, memory, and pattern recognition saved our ancestors, but now those same traits get in our way.  The best approach to improve our behavior is to recognize these thoughts and accept that we make poor initial judgments. Once we identify our behavior we can work to challenge and change our reactions.

 

I am particularly struck by the last part of Wright’s quote.  It shows that in order to be fully integrated with our environment and to find real meaning through our impact in the world we must challenge our beliefs to push ourselves to grow and have stronger interactions and relationships with everyone in society. The more we challenge our knee-jerk reactions and the more we push ourselves to be involved with those who we normally would not interact with, the more we will be able to connect with the world. Those new connections will shape us and push us to a point where we no longer need to worry about a negative emotion being noticed by people who are different from us.

The Power of Our Environment

While discussing the influence of small cues on our thought process, Richard Wiseman in his book 59 Seconds reflects on several studies that show how our environment can shape our thoughts and actions.  Wiseman explains the impact of small cues and the affect known as priming.  Priming involves triggers that lead to particular actions or thoughts becoming more prevalent or likely to occur.  A sneeze is a primer for someone to say bless you, the word hot is a primer for the word dog, and the Family Feud tv show is an experiment in priming with a cue or phrase priming responses from contestants.

 

Wiseman explains ways in which many situations in our lives can be impacted by primers, “Put people in front of a computer wallpaper showing dollar symbols, and they behave in a more selfish and unfriendly way, giving less money to charity and sitting farther away from others.  Give interviewers a cup of iced coffee, and unknowingly they rate interviewees as colder and less pleasant.  Add a faint smell of cleaning fluid to the air, and people tidy up more thoroughly.  Put a briefcase on a table during a meeting and people become more competitive.  The evidence points to a little counting for a lot.”

 

I find the idea of priming and our environment as very interesting since subtleties can have such a big impact on our actions.  I think most people can understand the situation where you are trying to cut back on sweets, yet in the office break room you see a pink box, and suddenly sugary foods are the only thing you can focus on.  These small cues seem to have a large impact on our behavior, and they seem to put decisions and actions beyond our control.
Changing our behavior is difficult, and the study by Wiseman shows that there are ways in which we can use priming for positive results. We can manipulate our environment to produce specific changes in our behavior, and help us act in ways we would like.  I am currently working through Dave Ramsey’s book on household money management and financial freedom, The Total Money Makeover, and one thing that Ramsey mentions is the myth that we only need a greater will power to change our actions and to achieve the goals we want.  What Ramsey explains, and what Wiseman’s research backs up, is that we are all motivated to make smart decisions (in this case financially) but we do not have systems in place to help us do so.  In the case of priming, we could say that our environment is set up to make it easy for us to go into debt and spend money, especially since our culture and environment lacks primers that lead us to save money and work on budgeting.

 

I think that it is worth the effort to study and practice simple priming methods that may help one create an environment that stimulates the desired lifestyle, actions, or thoughts that one is hoping to produce.  Understanding that small cues in our environment can have a big impact on our minds can help us feel better about ourselves when we have trouble reaching a goal, and can give us easy first steps to reach the goals we set out for.