Creatures of Logic

One of the things I am most fascinated by is the way in which our lives, our thoughts, and our decisions feel to us to be purely rational, but are clearly not as rational we think. Our minds are bounded by a limited amount of knowledge that we can ever have, a limited amount of information that we can hold in our head, and a host of biases, prejudices, and thinking vices that get in the way of rationality. We feel like we are in control of our minds, and our actions and decisions fit into a logically coherent, rational story that we tell ourselves, but much is missing from the picture of the world that we develop.

 

Usually I turn these considerations inward, but it can be helpful to turn this reality outward as well. Dale Carnegie does so in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People. In the context of criticizing other people, Carnegie writes, “When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity.”

 

The other day I wrote about criticism, and how it can often backfire when we want to criticize another person and change their behaviors. Carnegie notes the terrible consequences of criticizing people, ranging from quitting work that they might actually excel at all the way to committing suicide, and his quote above is a reminder that people are not logical automatons. Our motivations and sense of self matter to how we perform, what we do, and how we think. Adding mean-spirited criticism, even if well deserved, can be harmful. What is more, our criticism often serves to mostly prop ourselves up, and is more about how special we think we are, than about how poorly another person is performing or behaving.

 

Carnegie believes that we need to be more considerate of other people when dealing with them in any circumstance. His quote extends beyond moments of criticism to areas of motivation, quality relationships, social responsibilities, and individual health and well-being. We cannot simply look at others and heap and hold them purely responsible for the outcomes of their lives. People are not rational, and will not be able to perfectly sort out everything to identify the best possible decisions for their present and future lives. We must help them by remembering their bounded rationality and we must help develop structures that allows them to make the best decisions and perform at their best. People are going to make logical errors, but we can design society and the world they operate within so that they minimize the errors that they make and so that the negative externalities of their biases are also minimized.

Factionalized

“Whenever and issue becomes factionalized,” write Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in The Elephant in the Brain, “framed as Us against Them, we should expect to find ourselves behaving more like an apparatchik competing to show loyalty to our team.”

 

The human mind is exceptionally good at creating in-group and out-group perspectives. There are Ford Drivers versus Chevy Drivers. Raiders fans versus non-Raiders fans. Runners versus cross-fitters. Country folk versus urbanites. For whatever reason, we have a tendency to look for division across many areas of our lives, even when those areas are completely meaningless and inconsequential. Naturally, we assign good qualities to the groups that we belong to, and we start to assign all kinds of negative qualities and traits to the out-groups to which we don’t belong.

 

There is no meaningful difference between Ford and Chevy trucks, but talk to a guy who just bought a new truck and they will explain all about the positive qualities of their truck and people like them who buy their particular brand of truck. There is no way they could ever buy the other brand of truck and it is not a long jump for them to describe people who do buy other brands to be described as dumb, lazy, or lacking taste.

 

In politics we see this behavior the most clearly. When a president or party leader raises a particular item on the agenda and states that something is very important to them, the party loyalists (the apparatchiks) will instantly congeal to their opinion. The opposing party, meanwhile, will align themselves staunchly against the other party and their opinions. Any middle ground will get gobbled up by our in-grouping and out-grouping. This trickles down to the public and we don’t think deeply about issues, but simply recognize which line we are supposed to adopt to be on the correct team.

 

In the world of politics this can have disastrous consequences. In our personal lives, the stakes are not as high, but the consequences can still be ugly and should be pushed against. There is no reason to be pressured into feeling that you can or cannot eat something simply because people who are not like you also enjoy (or dislike) eating that thing. There is no reason our vehicle purchasing decision needs to be influenced by these meaningless groups that we create. We can take these pressures off our shoulders and try to be more connected with all people, not just with a small group that has something in common with ourselves. If we do better at recognizing these biases and pushing against them, then maybe we can build up to having more constructive relationships and build more cooperation into high stakes environments like politics.

Fitting In

Joe Dallesandro wrote a letter to James Harmon for his book, Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People who Know a Think or Two, and in his letter he reflected on the way that many people act and how we worry about what other people think of us. He writes, “In a way, it’s how most of us live our lives.  We wonder if other people find us worthy, find us smart, find us attractive, find us valuable.”
In this quote Dallesandro is speaking of the way that we judge other people, and how we constantly are judging ourselves.  We look at other people and make determinations about them based on their appearance. I am not sure where I heard this but on a podcast I remember listening to someone talk about our biases, and their main point was that we form biases and opinions within the first 15 seconds of looking at someone.  What Dallesandro is saying is that these biases change our behavior, even if we are not consciously aware of them, and that we try to mold our behavior according to these biases. In this way, our perspective of the world shapes us to act in a certain way.
Dallesandro is critical of our fears of what other people will think. He argues that we need to loose our judgment of other people, drop our fear of what others think, and focus on what makes us stronger and better people.  By becoming more self aware, we can begin to stop making judgements about other people and allow them to be happy with the person they are.  At the same time, increasing self awareness and not worrying about what others think of us will allow us to act in a more free manner, and to build deeper connections with a more diverse group of people.

A limited Perspective

“Our single perspective is so limited.” I highlighted this quote from Allison Vesterfelt’s book Packing Light back on January 10th. To me this quote speaks about how many different people there are on the planet with different backgrounds, experiences, advantages, and disadvantages. All of these people with all of their different histories create billions of different perspectives. This quote speaks to me because it is to easy for us to ignore others and fall into our own routine in our own bubble of a world and begin to feel as if we know everything and have it all figured out.

It is so hard at times to imagine the stress that other people are under, and how it shapes the way they see the world and their every day actions. I have always been a relatively fit individual, and lately for me I have begun to understand just how difficult it is to stay healthy, especially when one is working and has to take care of a family. In the past, my single perspective drew me to criticize out of shape people, but as I have worked at seeing other’s lives from their own perspectives and not just my own, I see how difficult it is to be active and exercise regularly.

I like this quote because it can extend to so many additional areas. I would call the situation above “using new perspectives to reduce body image bias” but new perspectives can also open doors and soften our attitudes towards people in thousands of other ways. Other examples from my life that I have recently been searching for new perspectives to help me be a more compassionate person include areas of religion and spirituality, wealth status versus immigration status, and even lighter areas such as arts and hobbies. By trying to approach each of these areas from new perspectives I become more engaging with people who view the world differently than I do, and this gives me a chance to learn. One positive and unexpected benefit is that it helps me to become a more interesting person. I can hold more conversations with people because I have taken the opportunity to step into their field of interest, either with them for the first time or with someone else previously, and can share my perspective while learning about theirs.