A Vicious Circle

A Vicious Circle

How did discrimination against black people in the United States become so bad? In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari argues that two competing desires, economic self-interest and a desire to see themselves as pious, just, and objective drove white slave owners to develop myths and excuses for the enslavement of black people. The myths created were powerful. Harari writes, “theologians argued that Africans descended from Ham, son of Noah, saddled by his father with a curse that his offspring would be slaves. Biologists argued that blacks are less intelligent than whites and their moral sense less developed. Doctors alleged that blacks live in filth and spread diseases – in other words, they are a source of pollution.”
 
 
These myths dominated the mindset of both white and black people with regards to race. They played on fear, used faulty evidence to justify white slave owners’ inherent self-interest, and allowed white slave owners to see themselves as benevolent, not as oppressive. Harari argues that these myths were so effective and persuasive that even when slavery officially ended, the influence of these myths lived on. While it was a huge change of events and culture to make slavery illegal, the power of myths found a way to live on.
 
 
“Notably,” Harari writes of British anti-slavery actions and subsequent American actions, “this was the first and only time in history that a large number of slaveholding societies voluntarily abolished slavery. But, even though the slaves were freed, racist myths that justified slavery persisted. Separation of the races was maintained by racist legislation and social custom. The result was a self-reinforcing cycle of cause and effect, a vicious circle.”
 
 
We celebrate the achievements of those who overturned and outlawed slavery in the Untied States, but we often fail to recognize how powerful the myths surrounding black inferiority were, and in many ways have continued to be to this day. It is a mistake to say that when slavery ended, that when blatantly racist legislation was repealed, that when a black man was elected president, the power of the myths which bolstered slavery and in some ways established our country dissipated. When myth creates the circumstances for a vicious circle, passively hoping that racism and inequality established by such myths will fade away is inadequate. The power of a myth must be replaced, Harari would argue, by another more powerful myth. Myths do not go away and cease to be influential on their own.
History and Culture

Culture and History

In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “The immense diversity of imagined realities that Sapiens invented, and the resulting diversity of behavior patterns, are the main components of what we call ‘cultures’. Once cultures appeared, they never ceased to change and develop, and these unstoppable alterations are what we call ‘history’.”
Across the globe humans have different ways of living, different ways of relating to each other, and different ways of understanding the universe. Harari would argue that many of  these differences stem from different realities invented at different times by different peoples across the globe. I would agree with him. We can argue over whether some differences are good or bad, whether some some differences are fair or unjust, and whether some differences reflect the nature of reality more or less accurately, but in the end, a great deal of what we call culture is more or less random, based on invented realities that fit the time.  History is the study of how these invented realities and associated customs and behaviors change.
I have written before about the fact that human rights do not exist. At least, and Harari would agree, they are not anything tangible that you could identify in the real world if you autopsied a human. Ultimately, human rights fall into the same category as spirits and the human soul. For many years humans investigated the human body, trying to find the soul, trying to weigh the soul as it left a dying human body, and trying to confirm that it was indeed a tangible thing. In the end, reasonable scientists had to conclude that the soul was an invented reality, not an objective reality, and human rights fall in the same category. They are an invention that we make real through institutions, customs, and behaviors. The idea of human rights helps us understand how we relate to each other and the systems and structures of governance that we have established in the United States. They have been helpful in organizing society and helping us develop, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they reflect a true reality about the universe, or that they always will serve humans well. They are a specific product of culture that has grown out of Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) societies.
Humans have not always had human rights, as we can see by studying and exploring history. Cultures, and the values that cultures cary, such as human rights, have altered through time. Harari argues that these changes are unstoppable, and that new invented realities are constantly arising to fit the new developments and needs of human beings. Much to the chagrin of those who lean toward conservatism, desiring a stasis rather than a progression, culture doesn’t stand still, the stories we invent about reality don’t stay the same. cultures move, invented realities morph, and history progresses. Ideas that serve us well in one cultural setting may not serve us well in the future, and may evolve into something entirely different.
Ignorance is Culpable

Ignorance is Culpable

We are responsible for our vices and deserve blame for them. We are sometimes responsible for acquiring our vices and are almost always responsible for eliminating our vices. However, sometimes our vices prevent us from being able to recognize that we possess vices and from taking the necessary steps to eliminate them. However, blind-spots induced by our vices do not absolve us from our culpability, they only make it worse.
Quassim Cassam references former President Donald Trump to demonstrate how we become more culpable for our vices when they create blind-spots in our lives. Cassam writes:
“Few would be tempted to regard the cruel person’s ignorance of his own cruelty as non-culpable on the grounds that it is the result of his cruelty. If the only thing preventing one from knowing one’s vices is those very vices then one’s ignorance is culpable. It is on this basis that Trump’s ignorance of his epistemic incompetence can still be deemed culpable. It is no excuse that he is so incompetent that he can’t get the measure of his incompetence. That only makes it worse.”
The blind-spots induced by our vices may inhibit us from actually recognizing how our vices shape the ways in which we act, think about the world, and behave. Cassam demonstrates this throughout his book as he investigates epistemic vices, those vices which hinder knowledge. If we fail to recognize how little we actually know about the world and can’t be bothered to learn anything, then we will never actually see how little we know. Arrogance, closed-mindedness, and intellectual laziness will prevent us from actually seeing that our thinking is vicious, and that our thinking is limiting our knowledge.
However, we cannot then say that our vices are not our fault. Arguing that we couldn’t have changed and couldn’t have improved our thinking because our vices were in the way simply demonstrates how vicious our thinking is. Instead of removing the culpability of the vice, Cassam argues, this line of thinking simply doubles down on the cost of the vice, making us even more revision responsible for our vice.  Ultimately, we are culpable for our vices and for our ignorance about our vices.
Revision Responsibility

Revision Responsibility

My last post was about acquisition responsibility, the idea of whether we are responsible for having acquired vices that we may have. The idea is tackled in Quassim Cassam’s book Vices of the Mind where Cassam looks closely at epistemic vices – vices which obstruct knowledge. Cassam writes that we can’t always be acquisition responsible for our vices. We cannot necessarily be blamed for acquiring prejudices if we were indoctrinated into a culture that emphasizes those prejudices. Nor can we be responsible for acquiring epistemic vices like closed-mindedness or gullibility. These are traits and ways of thinking that just happen and that take effort and practice to escape.
While we may not be acquisition responsible for epistemic vices then, we may still be revision responsible for our vices. Cassam writes the following:
“If a person has the ability to modify their character traits, attitudes, or ways of thinking then they still have control over them, and because of that, can be responsible for them. This form of responsibility is revision responsibility since the focus is on what the subject can and can’t change or revise. In principle, one can be revision responsible for a vice which one is not acquisition responsible.”
We can still think of someone as being blameworthy for epistemic vices even if we can’t blame them for originally acquiring the vice according to Cassam’s argument. The question comes down to whether a vice is within the control of an individual. So someone who is gullible, prone to wishful thinking, or arrogant can be revision responsible for their vices. They can always make a change to be less gullible, to think more accurately about good and bad outcomes, and to be more humble. Making these changes would improve rather than hinder knowledge, eliminating their epistemic vices.
The idea of revision responsibility can still be a challenging question. An individual indoctrinated by the Taliban is the example Cassam uses to identify someone with epistemic vices for which they are not acquisition responsible, but it is hard to say that individual is revision responsible for their vices as well. Escaping those vices may put their life at risk. It is hard to know what exactly is within ones control to change, especially if we think that we are not a single coherent individual and that we are the product of the multitude of experiences our brain absorbs over time. Nevertheless, as a society and culture we can identify vices and virtues and find ways to encourage and discourage them appropriately. This can be the pressure to push people to make changes, and viewing people as having control over their vices can encourage people to actually make changes. We don’t have to assign blame based on acquisition responsibility, but we can still do so based on revision responsibility, and we can still use ideas of control to encourage more virtuous behavior.
Collective Conservatism

Collective Conservatism

Groupthink is one of the most dangerous phenomenon that our world faces today. Families, companies, and governments can all find themselves stuck in groupthink, unable to adapt to a world that no longer fits the model and expectations that drive traditional thinking. When everyone has the same thought processes and members of the group discount the same information while adopting a uniform perspective, the world of possibilities becomes limited.

 

In Nudge, authors Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler write about a particular element that is common when groupthink takes hold, collective conservatism. While discussing groups that follow tradition the authors write,

 

“We can see here why many groups fall prey to what is known as collective conservatism: the tendency of groups to stick to established patterns even as new needs arise. Once a practice (like wearing ties) has become established, it is likely to be perpetuated, even if there is no particular basis for it.”

 

In a family household, collective conservatism might take the form of a specific way to fold towels. Perhaps towels had to be folded a certain way to fit a space in a previous house, and the tradition has continued even though towels no longer need to be folded just right for the space. Nothing is really lost by folding towels just so, but it might be time consuming to make sure they are folded in order to fit a constraint that no longer exists.

 

Within companies and governments, however, collective conservatism can be more consequential than the time and effort involved in folding towels. A company that cannot adjust supply chains, cannot adjust a business model in response to competition, and that cannot improve workspaces to meet new employee expectations is likely to be overtaken by a start-up that is more in tune with new social, technological, and cultural business trends. For a government, failures to adjust for technological change and employee motivations are also risks, as are changes in international relations, social needs, and more. Being stuck in a mindset that cannot see the changes and cannot be more responsive can be dangerous because peoples actual lives and needed services and supports could be in jeopardy. Collective conservatism feels safe to those who are in decision-making roles and who know what worked in the past. However, collective conservatism is a form of group think that can lead to inept operations and strategies that can be economically costly and have negative impacts in peoples’ real lives.
The Power of Inertia - Joe Abittan

The Power of Inertia

For Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, inertia plays a critical role in the idea of using nudges to influence people toward making good decisions. Particularly in regard to default choices, inertia matters a lot. People accept defaults, and making any change, whether it is trivial, important, time consuming, or very simple, is stubbornly resisted by many people. Think about how likely you are to change your desktop background, to change your phone’s ringtone, to order something new at your usual Tuesday night restaurant, to fix the broken windshield visor in your car, or to change your weekend morning routine.

 

Once people develop a status quo, once a default has been set, the power of inertia sets in. Sunstein and Thaler in Nudge write, “First, never underestimate the power of inertia. Second, that power can be harnessed.”

 

Harnessing the power of inertia can be sinister, but for Sunstein and Thaler, that is not the point. When a company offers you a free three month trial if you use a credit card to sign-up, they are counting on making money off your inertia. However, when a state organ donation program auto-enrolls every who applies for a drivers license, they are counting on inertia to help save lives. Inertia can be leveraged not just to make money off lazy and forgetful people, but to help make life simpler, easier, and even longer for people. In our individual lives we can harness inertia to build a workout routine, to stop buying cookies at the store, and to eat an apple during our 15 minute break every morning. For public officials, inertia can be harnessed when public programs make it easy for people to register to vote, to automatically receive social services, and to pay taxes.

 

Companies who count of people forgetting to cancel a subscription after a free trial and companies who expect that people won’t spend time shopping for alternatives once they sign up for monthly services give the power of inertia a bad reputation. They make it hard for public agencies and elected officials to credibly discuss programs designed to take advantage of or at least acknowledge people’s inability to escape inertia. But this should be a serious discussion in public policy. It is important to think about whether people will make changes in their lives to adopt measures that will help them be more safe, live healthier, and cooperate better. When we see a clear preference in how we want people to interact, we should discuss ways to help people behave as we wish they would, if we can recognize a particular decision is what people would chose for themselves if they were to make the effort of choosing anything at all. We don’t have to eliminate choices or bar people from behave otherwise, but we can use nudges, defaults, and the power of inertia to help people make and stick with better choices.
Can We Avoid Cognitive Errors?

Can We Avoid Cognitive Errors?

Daniel Kahneman is not very hopeful when it comes to our ability to avoid cognitive errors. Toward the end of his book Thinking Fast and Slow, a book all about cognitive errors, predictable biases, and situations in which we can recognize such biases and thinking errors, Kahneman isn’t so sure there is much we can actually do in our lives to improve our thinking.

 

Regarding his own thinking, Kahneman writes, “little can be achieved without considerable effort. As I know from experience, System 1 is not readily educable. Except for some effects that I attribute mostly to age, my intuitive thinking is just as prone to overconfidence, extreme predictions, and the planning fallacy as it was before I made a study of these issues.”

 

Kahneman’s book is fantastic in part because of his humility. It would be easy to take a book on illusions, cognitive errors, biases, and predictable fallacies and use it to show how much smarter you are than everyone else who makes such thinking mistakes. However, Kahneman uses his own real life examples throughout the book to show how common and easy it is to fall into ways of thinking that don’t actually reflect reality. What is unfortunate though, is how hard it is to actually take what you learn from the book and apply it to your own life. If the author himself can hardly improve his own thinking, then those of us who read the book likely won’t make big changes in our thinking either.

 

“The upshot is that it is much easier to identify a minefield when you observe others wandering into it than when you are about to do so. Observers are less cognitively busy and more open to information than actors,” Kahneman continues. While we might not be able to improve our thinking simply by knowing about cognitive errors and being aware of predictable biases, we can at least recognize them in others. This can help us be more thoughtful when we critique or gossip about others (something we all do even if we claim we don’t).

 

Beyond improving the way we gossip or judge others, Kahneman’s research and his book are incredibly valuable for anyone who is in a design focused role. If you are creating a layout for a webpage, a seating arrangement at a restaurant, or the standard operating procedures for a company, you have an opportunity to design and develop a process and flow that takes cognitive errors and predictable biases into account. Because it is easier to observe others making mistakes than to observe those mistakes in ourselves, we can watch for situations where people are led astray, and help get them back on course. We can develop systems and structures that take our biases and cognitive errors into account, and minimize the damage they may do. We can set the world up to help guide us in a reasonable way through our cognitive errors and biases, but only if we know what to look for.
The Dominance of Loss Aversion - Joe Abittan

The Dominance of Loss Aversion

Loss aversion is a dominant force in many of our individual lives and in many of our societies. At this moment, I think it is one of the greatest barriers to change and growth that our entire world needs to overcome in order to move forward to address climate change, to create more equitable and cohesive societies, and to drive new innovations. Loss aversion has made us complacent, and we are feeling the cost of stagnation in our politics and in our general discontent, but at the same time we are paralyzed and unable to do anything about it. As Tyler Cowen wrote in The Complacent Class, “Americans are in fact working much harder than before to postpone change, or to avoid it altogether, and that is true whether we’re talking about corporate competition, changing residences or jobs, or building things. In an age when it is easier than ever before to dig in, the psychological resistance to change has become progressively stronger.”

 

My argument in this post is that much of the complacency and stagnation that Cowen has written about stems from loss aversion. In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes, “Loss aversion is a powerful conservative force that favors minimal changes from the status quo in the lives of both institutions and individuals.” Additional research in the book shows that the pain and fear of loss is generally at least two times greater for most people than the pleasure and excitement of gain. Before we make a bet, the payoff has to be at least twice what we could stand to lose. If we are offered $10 or a gamble for more money, we prefer the sure $10 over the gamble, until the payoff of the gamble far outweighs the possible loss of the guaranteed $10.

 

I believe this is at the heart of the trite saying that people become more “conservative” as they get older. The reality is that as people get older they acquire more wealth, are more likely to own a home, and secure their social standing. People are not “conservative” in some high-minded ideological sense of “conservativism,” they are self-interested and risk averse. They don’t want to risk losing their wealth, losing value on their home, or losing social status. To me, this more plausibly explains conservatism and complacency than do political ideology explanations or cultural decadence.

 

To me, Kahneman’s quote is supported by Cowen’s thoughts. Institutions are built and run by people. People within institutions, especially as the institutions have become well established, become risk averse. They don’t want to lose their job, their position as the office veteran who knows how to do everything, and their knowledge and authority in their field. As the potential for loss increases, people become increasingly likely to push back against change and risk, ensuring that we cannot lose what we have, but also forgoing changes that could greatly benefit all of us in the long run. Loss Aversion has come to dominate how we organize our societies, and how we relate to one another, at individual, social, and political levels in the United States.
Biased in Predictable Ways

Biased in Predictable Ways

“A judgment that is based on substitution will inevitably be biased in predictable ways,” writes Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. Kahneman uses an optical illusion to show how our minds can be tricked in specific way to lead us to an incorrect conclusion. The key take-away, is that we can understand and predict our biases and how those biases will lead to specific patterns of thinking. The human mind is complex and varied, but the errors it makes can be studied, understood, and predicted.

 

We don’t like to admit that our minds are biased, and even if we are willing to admit a bias in our thinking, we are often even less willing to accept a negative conclusion about ourselves or our behavior resulting from such a bias. However, as Kahneman’s work shows, our biases are predictable and follow patterns. We know that we hold biases, and we know that certain biases can arise or be induced in certain settings. If we are going to accept these biases, then we must accept what they tell us about our brains and about the consequences of these biases, regardless whether they are trivial or have major implications in our lives and societies.

 

In a lot of ways, I think this describes the conflicts we are seeing in American society today. There are many situations where we are willing to admit that biases occur, but to admit and accept a bias implicates greater social phenomenon. Admitting a bias can make it hard to deny that larger social and societal changes may be necessary, and the costs of change can be too high for some to accept. This puts us in situations where many deny that bias exists, or live in contradiction where a bias is accepted, but a remedy to rectify the consequences of the bias is not accepted. A bias can be accepted, but the conclusion and recognition that biases are predictable and understandable can be rejected, despite the mental contradictions that arise.

 

As we have better understood how we behave and react to each other, we have studied more forms of bias in certain settings. We know that we are quick to form in-groups and out-groups. We know that we see some people as more threatening than others, and that we are likely to have very small reactions that we might not consciously be aware of, but that can nevertheless be perceived by others. Accepting and understanding these biases with an intention to change is difficult. It requires not just that one person adapt their behavior, but that many people change some aspect of their lives, often giving up material goods and resources or status. The reason there is so much anger and division in the United States today is because there are many people who are ready to accept these biases, to accept the science that Kahneman shows, and to make changes, while many others are not. Accepting the science of how the brain works and the biases that can be produced in the brain challenges our sense of self, reveals things about us that we would rather leave in the shadows, and might call for change that many of us don’t want to make, especially when a fiction that denies such biases helps propel our status.
Crowds Change Who We Are

Crowds Change Who We Are

When writing about being in crowds, Seneca states, “I never bring back home the same character that I took abroad with me.” He is writing about the ways that crowds change us. They change our behavior, they can stir-up emotions we work to keep at bay, and they can drive us to think in new ways. Crowds change who we are in a way that seems to be beyond our control.

 

“Certainly, the greater the mob with which we mingle, the greater the danger.” 

 

I remember first seriously thinking about crowds and our reactions to them during a psychology class in my undergraduate degree. We talked about people who don’t call the police when they see an act of violence, illegal activity, or someone in an emergency medical situation when they are in a crowd. When we are not clearly the person responsible for calling first responders, we seem to think that someone else will. If you do rush in to help, one of the best things you can do is point directly at another person and say, “you, call 9-1-1.”

 

In addition to this form of paralysis, crowds also change who we are by inciting great energy and action within us. Certainly on our own most of us would not throw something at a statue, even if the statue commemorated a deplorable figure from the past. We might see the statue and loath what it represents, but on our own, we are not likely to do anything about it. In a large crowd, however, our anger and energy seems to be released more easily, and whether it is chanting something we wouldn’t say on our own or tearing down a statue, we seem to be capable of things we normally couldn’t bring ourselves to do.

 

There are a lot of directions to go with the reality that we are not ourselves (or maybe more accurately the same version of ourselves) when we are within crowds. What I would like to consider is how this knowledge should shape the way we think about ourselves. Introspection and self-awareness is important, and part of that is an awareness that we are not exactly the people we tell ourselves we are. We can come to understand ourselves as being someone or some type of person in most of the settings in which we find ourselves, but crowds and unique circumstances can reveal that we are also other people. We are not a static entity that is consistent across space and time. We change in response to other people, in response to activities, and in response to success or threat. Strive to be the best version of who you can be, but remember, who you think you are is a myth, and the fact that crowds change who we are reveals that we don’t have the control over ourselves and our stories in the way that we like to believe we do. We can turn this recognition onto others as well, and see them as not a single static entity, but someone who can be influenced by forces beyond their control, and who can change for better or worse depending on the circumstances we (or society or life) put them in.