Three Major Revolutions

Three Major Revolutions

Yuval Noah Harari explains the evolution of humankind through three major revolutions in his book Sapiens. Harari takes a long view of humanity, trying to understand our very origins as a species and how we became who we are today. The three revolutions he identifies changed the course and direction of the evolution of humankind, and might lead to us becoming something unrecognizable in the future.
Harari writes, “the Cognitive Revolution kick-started history about 70,000 years ago. The Agricultural Revolution sped it up about 12,000 years ago. The Scientific Revolution, which got under way only 500 years ago, may well end history and start something completely different.”
This quick quote shows that the development of humans has been long and slow, but that recent changes have been dramatically quick in comparison. Human brains began to change dramatically during the Cognitive Revolution, but those changes did not spark instant societies and further tool use or manipulation of nature. 50,000 years of evolution took place before an Agricultural Revolution, which marked another change in human behavior, thinking, social structures, and life. What it meant to be human and the experience of living humans changed little in the 50,000 years between the Cognitive and Agricultural Revolutions, even though our minds were evolving dramatically.
But in the last 500 years, with the Scientific Revolution, the human experience has changed dramatically. It is possible that these dramatic changes and advances will continue, to the point where humans will no longer be recognizable as human when compared to the species that kicked off the Cognitive Revolution or the Agricultural Revolution. The Scientific Revolution put us on a new path that may end up with humans fusing with computers and machines to be human in a way, but not in a way that a human from 12,000 years would recognize.
Epistemic Vices & Self-Reflection

Epistemic Vices & Self-Reflection

“Not realizing that one’s epistemic vices are vices is a form of self-ignorance,” writes Quassim Cassam in his book Vices of the Mind.  A lack of self-awareness can cause someone to fail to recognize their vices.  In the book Cassam demonstrates how epistemic vices are harder to be aware of than other vices, and how recognition and awareness of our epistemic vices is sometimes not possible, directly as a result of our epistemic vices.
For most of us, our vices are probably things we are aware of. You know if you drink too much, eat too much ice-cream, and get in road rage flare-ups on a regular basis. It takes a rather large amount of self-ignorance to fail to recognize these major vices. But it is possible to miss some other vices, especially epistemic vices.
You might not realize that you are closed-minded, that you are guilty of wishful thinking on a regular basis, or even that you are arrogant. These types of behaviors and traits are harder to see and harder to pin down and recognize in ourselves. We live within the stories we tell ourselves, and from our point of view, our behavior is not vicious, but completely reasonable given our situations.
“Reflection on one’s epistemic vices,” writes Cassam, “is what fricker calls active critical reflection, but – and this is the key point – critical reflection requires the exercise of a range of epistemic virtues.”
To see and understand our personal epistemic vices requires that we have epistemic virtues. It takes a practiced skill to recognize when our thinking has crossed over into becoming an epistemic vice. We won’t recognize when our behavior and thinking has become obstructive if we don’t have a way of thinking about our thinking. If we are arrogant we certainly won’t think we need to improve our thinking, and if we are closed-minded we won’t be able to imagine a way to improve our thinking. These epistemic vices prevent us from having the epistemic virtues necessary to even see our epistemic vices.
This puts us in a difficult place where it seems that we are powerless to change our epistemic vices. If our vices prohibit active critical reflection, then we won’t see our errors in order to change them. The way we find out about our epistemic vices probably involves some sort of catastrophic failure where external factors force us to see our vices. A promotion we didn’t get, a divorce, or a costly gamble can force us to recognize our vices. They are not guarantees that we will finally be able to see our epistemic vices for what they are, but without having epistemic virtues, it is hard for us to otherwise come to see our epistemic vices on our own.
The Human Need for Certainty - Joe Abittan

The Human Need for Certainty

Throughout the book Risk Savvy, Gerd Gigerenzer discusses the challenges that people face with thinking statistically, assessing different probable outcomes, and understanding risk. Gigerenzer also discusses how important it is that people become risk literate, and how the future of humanity will require that people better understand risk and uncertainty. What this future requires, he explains, is fighting against aspects of human psychology that are common to all of us and form part of our core nature. One aspect in particular that Gigerenzer highlights as a problem for humans moving forward, is our need for certainty.

 

“Humans appear to have a need for certainty, a motivation to hold onto something rather than to question it,” he writes. Whether it is our religion, our plans for retirement, or the brand of shoes we prefer, we have a need for certainty. We don’t want to question whether our religious, political, or social beliefs are correct. It is more comforting for us to adopt beliefs and be certain that we are correct. We don’t want to continuously re-evaluate our savings plans and open ourselves to the possibility that we are not doing enough to save for retirement. And we like to believe that we purchased the best running shoes, that we bough the most sustainable shoes for the planet, and that our shoe choices are the most popular. In all of these areas, ambiguity makes our decisions harder whereas a feeling of certainty gives us confidence and allows us to move through the world. In many ways, our need for certainty is simply a practicality. There are unlimited possibilities and decisions for us to make every day. Adopting certainty eliminates many possibilities and choices, simplifying our life and allowing us to move through the world without having to question every action of every second of every day.

 

But in the modern world, humans have to be more comfortable living with ambiguity and have to be able to give up certainty in some areas. “For the mature adult,” Gigerenzer writes, “a high need for certainty can be a dangerous thing.”  We live with risk and need to be able to adjust as we face new risks and uncertainties in our lives. We like to hold onto our beliefs and we are not comfortable questioning our decisions, but it can be necessary for us to do so in order to move forward and live in harmony in a changing world with new technologies, different demographics, and new uncertainties. A need for certainty can lead people to become dogmatic, to embrace apologetics when discounting science that demonstrates errors in thinking, and to ignore the realities of a changing world. One way or another, we have to find ways to be flexible and adjust our choices and plans according to risk, otherwise we are likely to make poor choices and be crushed when the world does not align itself with our beliefs and wishes.
Incentives for Environmentally Responsible Markets

Incentives for Environmentally Responsible Markets

When it comes to environmental issues, no single actor is completely to blame, and that means no single actor can make the necessary changes to prevent catastrophic climate change. This means we can’t put all the weight on governments to take actions to change the course of our climate future, and we can’t blame individual actors either. We have to think about economies, polities, and incentive structures.

 

In their book Nudge, economists Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler look at what this means for markets and regulation as we try to find sustainable paths. They write, “markets are a big part of this system, and for all their virtues, they face two problems that contribute to environmental problems. First, incentives are not properly aligned. If you engage in environmentally costly behavior next year, through consumption choices, you will probably pay nothing for the environmental harms that you inflict. This is what is often called a tragedy of the commons.”

 

One reason markets bear some of the blame and responsibility for the climate change crisis is because market incentives can produce externalities that are hard to correct. Climate change mitigation strategies, such as research and development of more fuel efficient vehicles and technologies, are expensive, and the costs of climate change are far off. Market actors, both consumers and producers, don’t have proper incentives to make the costly changes today that would reduce the future costs of continued climate change.

 

A heavy handed approach to our climate change crisis would be for governments to step in with dramatic regulation – eliminating fossil fuel vehicles, setting almost unattainably high energy efficiency standards for furnaces and dishwashers, and limiting air travel. Such an approach, however, might anger the population and ruin any support for climate mitigation measures, making the crisis even more dire. I don’t think many credible people really support heavy handed government action, even if they do favor regulation which comes close to being as extreme as the examples I mentioned. Sunstein and Thaler’s suggestion of improved incentives to address failures in markets and change behaviors has advantages over heavy handed regulation. The authors write, “incentive-based approaches are more efficient and more effective, and they also increase freedom of choice.”

 

To some extent, regulation looks at a problem and asks what the most effective way to stop the problem is if everyone is acting rational. An incentives-based approach asks what behaviors need to be changed, and what existing forces encourage the negative behaviors and discourage changes toward better behaviors. Taxes, independent certifications, and public shaming can be useful incentives to get individuals, groups, and companies to make changes. I predict that in 10-15 years people who are not yet driving electric cars will start to be shamed for continuing to drive inefficient gas guzzlers (unfortunately this probably means people with low incomes will be shamed for not being able to afford a new car). In the US, we have tried to introduce taxes on carbon output, but have not been successful. Taxing energy consumption in terms of carbon output changes the incentives companies have with regard to negative environmental externalities form energy and resource consumption. And independent certification boards, like the one behind the EnergyStar label, can continue to play an important role in encouraging technological development of more efficient appliances. The incentives approach might seem less direct, slower, and less certain to work, but in many areas, not just climate change, we need broad public support to make changes, especially when the costs are high up front. This requires that we understand incentives and think about ways to change incentive structures. Nudges such as the ones I mentioned may work better than full government intervention if people are not acting fully rational, which is usually the case for most of us. Nudges can get us to change behaviors while believing that we are making choices for ourselves, rather than having choices forced on us by an outside authority.
Default Choices

More On Default Choices

In many decision situation there is a default choice. Many online forms already have a bubble selected as you scroll through, there are many opt-out clauses in hospital disclosures, and when you go to sign-up for a social media platform there are pre-set security and information sharing agreements and settings. These defaults can matter a lot, and sometimes they matter much more to someone other than the recipient of the default. As Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein write in Nudge, “note that not all defaults are selected to make the chooser’s life easier or better.”

 

Default selections are nudges because they shape the easiest choice path, what Sunstein and Thaler refer to as the path of least resistance. When a default has already been selected, the chooser doesn’t have to make a decision. Their non-decision still results in a choice being selected. The default is often the most popular option, even if it isn’t the best choice for anyone, because there is some cost to switching away. The cost is usually only time and effort, and normally a minimal amount of time and effort, but still, it is a cost that people won’t pay.

 

“If, for a given choice,” write Sunstein and Thaler, “there is a default option – an option that will obtain if the chooser does nothing – then we can expect a large number of people to end up with that option, whether or not it is good for them.”

 

Most of us probably agree that it isn’t in our best interest to allow Facebook to gather massive amounts of information about us to be sold to advertisers and political campaigns. However, the default settings for Facebook require us to opt-out of having our data sold. The process for finding the settings and opting out of targeted advertisements and having our data sold is hard to find, and the exact spot in the settings menu changes periodically. We lose time trying to find the right spots to check to get out of the default, and we can become frustrated if we can’t find the settings we are looking for. As a result, many people never change away from the data sharing default.

 

The Facebook example is a fairly nefarious use of defaults, but using defaults as nudges can be positive for individuals and societies as well. In 2019 the state I live in, Nevada, approved a new law which allows people to register to vote when completing anything they need at the DMV. By default, individuals over 18 who are eligible to vote are asked if they would like to register or update their registration. People don’t have to ask to update their voter registration, they don’t have to track down a website to update voter information, and they don’t have to hope someone approaches them in a parking lot with voter registration forms, it is a default option while doing regular paperwork at the DMV. Many states have a similar process with becoming an organ donor, where registering as an organ donor is the default option when applying for a state issued identification, requiring people to opt out of organ donor programs rather than opt in. States and countries with such systems have far more organ donors than states that don’t include people by default.

 

The path of least resistance created by nudges is important to consider. It can be a helpful way to encourage people to make decisions that are good for them and for society. At the same time, defaults can take advantage of laziness or forgetfulness. When we are not directly informed of the defaults that are being applied to us, we can end up in situations like the Facebook data sharing example above. As a result, questions about the default choice are often contentious, especially when a company’s business model requires a default that is not in the best interest of most people, or when a selected default can have political or moral dimensions.
Conforming to What We Think People Expect

Conforming to What We Think People Expect

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Sunk-Cost Fallacy

Every time I pick the wrong line at the grocery store I am reminded of the sunk-cost fallacy. There are times I will be stuck in line, see another line moving more quickly, and debate internally if I should jump to the other line or just wait it out in the line I’m already in. Once I remember the sunk-cost fallacy, however, the internal debate shifts and I let go of any feeling that I need to remain in the current line.

 

My grocery store example is a comical take on the sunk-cost fallacy, but in real life, this cognitive error can have huge consequences. Daniel Kahneman describes it this way, “The decision to invest additional resources in a losing account, when better investments are available, is known as the sunk-cost fallacy, a costly mistake that is observed in decisions large and small.”

 

We are going to make decisions and choices for where to invest our time, attention, and money that will turn out to be mistakes. At a certain point we have to realize when something is not working and walk away. Doing so, however, requires that we admit failure, that we cut our losses, and that we search for new opportunities. Admitting that we were wrong, giving up on losses, and searching for new avenues is difficult, and it is not uncommon for us to keep moving forward despite our failures, as if we just need to try harder and push more in order to find the success we desire. This is the base of the sunk-cost fallacy. When we have invested a lot of time, energy, and resources into something it is hard to walk away, even if we would be better off by doing so.

 

Pursuing a career path that clearly isn’t panning out and refusing to try a new different avenue is an example of sunk-cost fallacy. Movie studios that try to reinvent a character or story over and over with continued failure is another example. Sitting through the terrible movie the studio produced, rather than leaving the theater early, is also an example of the sunk-cost fallacy. In all of these instances, an investment has been made, and costly efforts to make the investment pay-off are undertaken, generally at a greater loss than would be incurred if we had made a change and walked away.

 

When you find yourself saying, “I have already spent so much money on XYZ, or I have already put so much effort into making XYZ work, and I don’t want to just let that all go to waste,” you are stuck in the middle of the sunk-cost fallacy. At this point, it is time to step back, look at other ways you could spend your money and time, and honestly evaluate what your priorities should be. Doing so, and remembering Kahneman’s quote, will help you begin to make the shift to a better use of your time, energy, and resources. It may be embarrassing and disappointing to admit that something is going in the wrong direction, but ultimately, you will end up in a better and more productive spot.
Can You Remember Your Prior Beliefs? - Joe Abittan

Can You Remember Your Prior Beliefs?

“A general limitation of the human mind,” writes Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, “is its imperfect ability to reconstruct past states of knowledge, or beliefs that have changed. Once you adopt a new view of the world (or any part of it), you immediately lose much of your ability to recall what you used to believe before your mind changed.”

 

What Kahneman is referring to with this quote is the difficulty we have in understanding how our thinking evolves and changes over time. To each of us, our thinking slowly adapts and revises itself, sometimes quite dramatically, but often very slowly. Our experience of our changing mind isn’t very reflective of these changes, unless we had a salient change that I would argue is tied in one way or another to an important aspect of our identity. For most changes in our mental approach, we generally don’t remember our prior beliefs and views, and we likely don’t remember a point at which our beliefs changed.

 

In the book Kahneman uses an example of two football teams with the same record playing each other. One team crushes the other, but before we knew the outcome, we didn’t have a strong sense of how the game would go. After watching a resounding victory, it is hard to remember that we once were so uncertain about the future outcome.

 

This tendency of the mind wouldn’t be much of a problem if it was restricted to our thinking about sports – unless we had a serious betting problem. However, this applies to our thinking on many more important topics such as family member marriages, career choices, political voting patterns, and consumer brand loyalty. At this moment, many Democrat voters in our nation probably don’t remember exactly what their opinions were on topics like free trade, immigration, or infectious disease policy prior to the 2016 election. If they do remember their stances on any of those issues, they probably don’t remember all the legal and moral arguments they expressed at that time. Their minds and opinions on the matter have probably shifted in response to President Trump’s policy positions, but it is probably hard for many to say exactly how or why their views have changed.

 

In a less charged example, imagine that you are back in high school, and for years you have really been into a certain brand of shoes. But, one day, you are bullied for liking that brand, or perhaps someone you really dislike is now sporting that same brand, and you want to do everything in your power to distance yourself from any association with the bullying or the person you don’t like. Ditching the shoes and forgetting that you ever liked that brand is an easy switch for our minds to make, and you never have to remember that you too wore those shoes.

 

The high school example is silly, but for me it helps put our brain’s failure to remember previous opinions and beliefs in context. Our brains evolved in a social context, and for our ancestors, navigating complex tribal social structures and hierarchies was complex and sometimes a matter of life and death (not just social media death for a few years in high school like today). Being able to ditch beliefs that no longer fit our needs was probably helpful for our ancestors, especially if it helped them fully commit to a new tribal leader’s strange quirks and new spiritual beliefs. Today, this behavior can cause us to form strange high school (or office) social cliques and can foment toxic political debates, but it may have served a more constructive role for our ancestors forming early human civilizations.

Businesses and Healthcare Solutions

Businesses and Solving Healthcare Problems

We often overlook businesses when we think about the problems in American healthcare and how we can fix the issues that plague our system. But about half of all American’s receive their health insurance as a benefit provided by their employer. Businesses purchase and provide health insurance for millions of Americans, and must think about employers and the plans they offer when we think about the problems in the American healthcare system.

 

Everyone will tell you that healthcare is complicated. We know that insurance is hard, getting to a doctor can be hard, understanding what you have to pay is hard, and trying to guess what kind of plan you need for the next year is hard. All of this makes the solutions to our healthcare problems hard, but for a majority of Americans, the person who is shaping the structure in which they will make these decisions and figure out what is available to them is someone at their job. And for a lot of those Americans, the person at their job is probably in HR, and their main goal is not to find a great healthcare solution for the employees, but to just not get yelled at by the CEO for raising health insurance coverage costs and to avoid being yelled at by unhappy employees. Nevertheless, businesses can step up and play a role in making changes for the positive in the American healthcare system.

 

Dave Chase in his book The Opioid Crisis Wake-UP Call writes, “The opioid crisis is a complicated issue over 30 years in the making. But companies have played a major role in creating and sustaining the crisis. And a vanguard of employers are realizing that they have a major role to play in solving it, and that the solutions fall well beyond what the government alone can do.”

 

Companies, since they control the healthcare of half of Americans, can start making real changes to the care available to people. Employers who set up their own plans can make primary care access, physical therapy, and nutrition services virtually free to their employees. By providing a greater selection of preventative services, they can improve employee well-being and reduce the likelihood that an employee will deal with chronic pain and develop an opioid addiction. This is an over-simplified example of what companies can do, but it is important that we realize that the employer is a major player in the fight to improve the American healthcare system, and if we don’t step up to demand better from our employers, we won’t see the changes we want.
The First Value of Deep Work

The First Value of Deep Work

“Deep work is not some nostalgic affectation of writers and early-twentieth-century Philosophers,” writes Cal Newport in his book Deep Work. “It’s instead a skill that has great value today.”

 

A tension that I think a lot of us face (I know its true for me) is that we are pulled in two different directions when it comes to media and information. The news cycle moves so fast today that it feels hard to keep on top of whats happening in the world. We all want to feel connected and feel like we are in the know, and we like being the person at the water-cooler who has the latest information about some nationwide or global event. We have a drive to constantly stay on top of what is happening right now.

 

Pulling against this urge is the desire to know interesting things and to consume media that is thoughtful, thorough, and interesting. It is one thing to know what is happening in the world right now, but it is an entirely different thing to truly understand the context and antecedents that gave rise to the current news cycle.

 

The first desire we have is to know new things about the world, the second desire is to truly understand the world. One desire encourages shallow quick headlines, while the other desire encourages deep thoughtful engagement. It is very challenging to do both.

 

Cal Newport’s suggestion is to shoot for the latter. Learning and engaging with complex topics requires real focus and deep work. The value from the second will far outlast the first. The first value of deep work that Newport shares in his book reads, “We have an information economy that’s dependent on complex systems that change rapidly. … To remain valuable in our economy, therefore, you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things.”

 

Staying on top of the news simply requires that we flutter around on Twitter, absentmindedly distracting ourselves and taking in a few headlines and quotes without thinking critically about how it all links together and exactly why people are reaching the conclusions they reach. This is does not develop the skills that are necessary for quick learning, even thought it is a quick way to sort through information.

 

Learning complex things quickly requires that we be able to engage in deep work and focus on the most important items. Failing to build these skills and abilities means that you won’t be able to truly master changing technologies and markets. You will be left behind reading headlines about changes, without actually understanding changes and adapting to them. Deep work is valuable because learning and critical thinking are both becoming more valuable, and both require deep work in order to be done well and timely. The answer then to how we should handle the tension I mentioned above is to more or less abandon the headlines and give up on staying on top of the news. We might look a little uninformed to others about current world events, but we will have a better background and understanding of what is shaping the world today than the others around us, and we will be able to learn the important lessons faster.