Patterns of Associated Ideas

Patterns of Associated Ideas

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman argues that our brains try to conserve energy by operating on what he calls System 1. The part of our brain that is intuitive, automatic, and makes quick assessments of the world is System 1. It doesn’t require intense focus, it quickly scans our environment, and it simply ignores stimuli that are not crucially important to our survival or the task at hand. System 1 is our low-power resting mode, saving energy so that when we need to, we can activate System 2 for more important mental tasks.

 

Without our conscious recognition, System 1 builds mental mental models of the world that shape the narrative that we use to understand everything that happens around us. It develops simple association and expectations for things like when we eat, what we expect people to look like, and how we expect the world to react when we move through it. Kahneman writes, “as these links are formed and strengthened, the pattern of associated ideas comes to represent the structure of events in your life, and determines your interpretations of the present as well as your expectations of the future.”

 

It isn’t uncommon for people different people to watch the same TV show, read the same news article, or witness the same event and walk away with completely different interpretations. We might not like a TV show that everyone else loves. We might reach a vastly different conclusion from reading a news article about global warming, and we might interpret the actions or words of another person completely differently. Part of why we don’t all see things the same, Kahneman might argue, is because we have all trained our System 1 in unique ways. We have different patterns of associated ideas that we use to fit information into a comprehensive narrative.

 

If you never have interactions with people who are different than you are, then you might be surprised when people don’t behave the way you expect. When you have a limited background and experience, then your System 1 will develop a pattern of associated ideas that might not generalize to situations that are new for you. How you see and understand the world is in some ways automatic, determined by the pattern of associated ideas that your System 1 has built over the years. It is unique to you, and won’t fit perfectly with the associated ideas that other people develop.

 

We don’t have control over System 1. If we active our System 2, we can start  to influence what factors stand out to System 1, but under normal circumstances, System 1 will move along building the world that fits its experiences and expectations. This works if we want to move through the world on auto-pilot with few new experiences, but if we want to be more engaged in the world and want to better understand the variety of humanity that exists in the world, our System 1 on its own will never be enough, and it will continually let us down.
Associative Thinking

Associative Thinking

I had a few linguistics classes in college and I remember really enjoying studies about associative thinking, or priming, where one word would trigger thoughts about another related thing. If you read stop sign, and someone then asked you to name a color, you are likely to say red. Our minds hover around a set of words associated with a topic, and words further away from the topic probably won’t register as quickly. If you read jellyfish then your mind is going to be set up for more ocean words like water, seaweed, or Nemo. Words like cactus, x-ray, or eviction, would take an extra second for your brain to register because they don’t seem to belong with jellyfish. If you watch Family Feud, then you will get to see great examples of linguistic priming and associative thinking in process. The first person in a family will say their answer, and it will be hard for the rest of the family to jump into a different category to get the final item on the list.

 

Associative thinking is even more interesting and complicated than just linguistic priming. Daniel Kahneman writes about it in his book Thinking Fast and Slow:

 

“An idea that has been activated does not merely evoke one other idea. It activates many ideas, which in turn activate others. Furthermore, only a few of the activated ideas will register in consciousness; most of the work of associative thinking is silent, hidden from our conscious selves. The notion that we have limited access to the workings of our minds is difficult to accept because, naturally, it is alien to our experience, but it is true: you know far less about yourself than you feel you do.”

 

Associative thinking reveals a lot about our minds that we don’t have access to. This is why implicit association tests (IAT) have been used to measure things like racial bias in individuals and societies. Your conscious mind might know it is wrong to think of people of color as criminals, but your unconscious mind might implicitly connect words like crime, drugs, or violence to certain racial groups. Even though you can consciously overcome these biases, your immediate reaction to other people might be enough to show them that you don’t trust them and might reveal implicit fears or negative biases. A clenching fist, a narrowing gaze, or an almost imperceptible backing away from someone might not be conscious, but might be enough for someone to register a sense of unease.

 

I don’t know enough about the benefits of racial bias training to say if it is effective in counteracting these implicit associations or immediate and unconscious reactions. I don’t know just how truly bad it is that we harbor such implicit associations, but I think it is important that we recognize they are there. It is important to know how the brain works, and important that we think about how much thinking takes place behind the scenes, without us recognizing it. Self-awareness and knowledge about associative thinking can help us understand just how we behave and interact with others, so that hopefully we can bring our best selves to the conversations and interactions we have with people who are different from us.
Rich Representations of Things

Making Connections From Rich Representations of Things

On August 12th, Tyler Cowen released a podcast interview with Stanford Economics Professor Nicholas Bloom on his podcast Conversations with Tyler. In response to a question from Cowen about making adjustments in his life, Bloom said the following:

 

“For me, I really like to read broadly rather than deeply — sounds an odd thing to say. Every Monday, for example, or Sunday night, the National Bureau of Economic Research has this vast email of all the recent papers. I tend to try and scan every title and abstract. I read the papers. I like the Economist magazine. It’s good. It’s often been a source of ideas, actually.
We were talking before the call — I listen to your podcast. I actually listen to a lot of podcasts because I try and go out for a walk or a run for about an hour every day. I mostly listen to podcasts. [laughs] If I’m getting too tired, I have to switch to music. For me, that’s been helpful for coming up with new research ideas.” 

 

The quote from Bloom came back to mind this morning as I looked over a quote I highlighted in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow. Kahneman’s quote is about connections in the mind, and how having a rich set of connections can help us have better representations of the world. When people are asked questions about Michigan, research in Kahneman’s book shows, they have different responses depending on whether they remember that Detroit is in Michigan. People with more knowledge of the state think differently of it compared to people with minimal knowledge of Michigan. Kahneman writes,

 

“More intelligent individuals are more likely than others to have rich representations of most things. Intelligence is not only the ability to reason; it is also the ability to find relevant material in memory and to deploy attention when needed.” 

 

This idea relates to what Bloom said in the interview with Cowen. Bloom was asked about his productivity, and how he is able to keep up a high level of publications with co-authors across a wide range of academic institutions, geographic locations, and subjects. Bloom responded that he is developing rich representations of most things through broad, but not necessarily deep, investigations of a wide range of topics.

 

By taking in a wide range of information, Bloom is able to pick out the important connections between disparate topics. This gives him an ability to deploy attention where there is a lack of study on certain topics. By reading across many fields, he is able to look at current developments in economics, news, and society to find relevant material that can generate useful knowledge for the world of economics.

 

Not all of us are ever going to be economists, and not all of us will be in a place where we can publish academic articles on lots of topics. But all of us are asked by social media every day to offer our opinion on something. If we have a narrow and limited knowledge base, then our opinions and ideas are going to also be narrow and limited. If, however, we can work to broaden our horizons and work to focus our memory and attention on relevant material, then we can start to offer better opinions about the world, and we can start to move discussions forward in a better direction.
Friendships

Friendships

Friendships for children always seem so easy, but as we get older, friendships seem to grow more and more difficult. One reason for why it may be so difficult to keep friends as adults is that we are just so busy and have to manage all our resources. We have to keep track of our time, our money, keep-up the space where we live, fix and repair things that break with our cars, and replace worn-out items and consumer goods. We get used to thinking of things in terms of what we get from them, and it is easy for us to start thinking of our friends in the same way.

 

In Letters from a Stoic, Seneca writes, “one who is chosen for the sake of utility will be satisfactory only so long as he is useful.”

 

The problem for us is that friendships are about more than just utility. Having lots of friends just because you receive some benefit from their friendship leaves you with a series of superficial relationships, none of them robust enough or strong enough to actually provide you any real utility during a time of hardship. In this way, a utility approach to friends backfires. If you only remain friends with someone when they have something they can provide for you, then you won’t actually have a real friendship.

 

The reality is that friendships require work and effort. Seneca also quotes a philosopher named Attalus in writing, “It is more pleasant to make than to keep a friend, as it is more pleasant to the artist to paint than to have finished painting.” New friendships are exciting, spontaneous, and offer promise of new allies for future situations. Maintaining a friendship requires lugging around baggage and figuring out how to adjust as people, times, and places change. Friendship requires real effort to stay invested in the lives of others.

 

But in the end, keeping a friend helps us better understand ourselves, helps us develop better understandings and connections with other people, and makes us more pleasant and thoughtful human beings. Keeping a friend requires that we think about more than just ourselves and what we get from a friendship. It requires that we think about what we can do for others, knowing that we might not get the same material benefits back from the other. This is why friendships are hard as you get further into your busy and hectic life, but the same challenges reveal why friendships are so valuable.
An Epidemic of Disconnection

An Epidemic of Disconnection

Over the last few years I have become increasingly aware of the importance of developing real senses of community and connection between everyone in our societies. Johann Hari’s book Chasing the Scream was one of the books that kickstarted these ideas in my mind. We are social creatures, and we create the worlds we live in together, through shared efforts and visions. As we have lost our shared visions and isolated our efforts, our communities have suffered, and people have responded with drugs, addiction, and further isolation. We have created an epidemic of disconnection, and we have been facing the consequences for the last several years.

 

In his book, Hari writes, “The places with the biggest opioid crises are also the places with the highest suicide rates and the highest antidepressant prescriptions—which help us to see that what is really going on is an epidemic of deep disconnection.”

 

Drug abuse, addiction, and overdose are common across the country, but are not evenly distributed. There are parts of our country where deaths of despair are a major concern and are so prevalent that among some demographics overall life expectancy is decreasing. People are facing incredible challenges, and don’t have the support systems and communities that they need to help them through their challenges. Drugs are a way to blunt the pain, to numb the constant worry, and to try turn off the part of the mind that only sees life as downward spiral. The epidemic of disconnection that we see in our country is self-reinforcing and threatens lives and communities.

 

We need to find more ways for people to belong, for people to matter, and for people to be engaged in creative endeavors in their community. Isolating ourselves with Netflix, gating off our communities, and building walls between ourselves, our property and the outside world of trouble will only exacerbate the epidemic of disconnection and further the inequalities which lead to our societal problems. We have to find more ways to invest in our communities, to do things together (even in a pandemic), and help encourage people to be responsible to each other and society. We cannot only be responsible to our own homes, families, and bank accounts. In order to combat the opioid crisis, we have to reconnect with people who feel disconnected and isolated, and help fill their lives in ways that opioids never will.
Addiction and Community

A Final Thought on Addiction and Community

In the afterword of his book Dreamland, author Sam Quinones includes a quote from an obituary written for a 24-year-old man who lived in Avon Lake, a town of about 24,000 people just west of Cleveland. The parents of the young man who died from addiction wrote in their son’s obituary, “They say it takes a community to raise a child. It takes a community to battle addiction.”

 

Everyone, including those of us who are not parents, know that it is true when we say it takes a community to raise a child. Historically, new parents have been in their early to mid twenties (this is changing now – possibly for these communal reasons), and with lower incomes in early stages of their careers and fewer immediate resources, new parents have relied on family members and friends to help with child rearing. As kids get older, they enter public schools, where everyone, parents and non-parents, contribute financially, typically through local property taxes. We know that it is hard to raise a kid on your own, and that it makes a big difference to live near family, to have close friends who are raising kids at the same time, and to have supports from work for the times when our kids are sick and need extra love and attention.

 

The quote from the parents in their son’s obituary, and all of Dreamland demonstrate that the same is true for how we should approach addiction. Asking someone to overcome addiction on their own is like asking a child to raise themselves. It can happen, but it doesn’t often turn out well. People battling addiction need supportive relationships in their lives. The family members and friends of people with addiction need help, because it can be challenging and taxing to help someone else stay sober and find meaning in life beyond addiction. We need communities where we can help each other, watch out for one-another, and provide support in times of need. Many of us have lost this along our way, as our culture has pushed us toward staying inside, watching TV in our own homes, and filling our lives with stuff rather than with the people we love and care about.

 

This is a tough time to find new connections and community as we work to prevent the rapid spread of a new virus, but we should be thinking forward nonetheless to a time where we can better connect with those around us and find new ways to live in community with those who matter. It might just save the life of someone we know whose struggle with addiction has been hidden from us.
More on Isolation and Addiction

More on Isolation and Addiction

I previously wrote about pain medicine ideas that Sam Quinones presents in his book Dreamland. He is critical of the idea that we can take a pill to alleviate chronic pain without making substantial changes in our lives to address the root cause of our pain. Even if we can’t completely stop chronic pain by changing our habits, our environment, and our lifestyles, Quinones shares information which suggests that our experience of pain is connected to many parts of our lives, and that we can change how we think about and relate to pain, even if we cannot eliminate it completely. This is a holistic approach to pain and pain management that Quinones thinks is a crucial piece for understanding our nation’s current opioid epidemic.

 

Chronic pain and its mismanagement is a common route to opioid addiction. Quinones views opioid addictions similarly to how he views chronic pain. In his book he writes, “Chronic pain was probably best treated not by one pill but holistically. In the same way, the antidote to heroin wasn’t so much Naloxone; it was community.”

 

Naloxone is a drug that helps prevent opioid overdoses by binding to opioid receptors in the body to block the effect of opioids like heroin. This drug has helped save thousands of lives, but on its own it won’t stop addiction. Quinones argues that a big problem with addiction is the way in which we hide it from others, whether it is addiction to drugs, gambling, or something else, we don’t allow anyone to know about our addiction. Without talking about addiction, without acknowledging that it has had impacts on our families and lives, and without having meaningful connections with others, we languish in our isolation and addiction.

 

The argument that Quinones makes in his book is that we need more community. We need more things in our lives where we interact meaningfully with others. We need to find more ways to be in service to other people, to work together for meaningful causes, and to have greater social connections with the people around us. By developing meaningful relationships with others, we provide community for everyone, and that helps push back against the forces that drive toward isolation and drive many of us toward substance addiction. Community provides us the space to discuss our challenges, our addictions, and our discontents, and hopefully gives us the chance to build constructive spaces in which we can connect and find solutions to problems that we cannot find in isolation.
Isolation and Addiction

Isolation and Addiction

American’s are isolated, and it’s not just because we have all been asked to work from home, stay inside, and intentionally distance ourselves from others to prevent the exponential transmission of COVID-19. We have been isolated for a while, so much so that former Surgeon General of the United States, Vivek Murthy, recently published a book about loneliness and the importance of human connection. Loneliness and isolation are new problems that we are starting to look at in new ways. In his book Dreamland, Sam Quinones connects isolation and addiction in ways that change the discussion we have about addiction and our values as Americans.

 

Quinones is critical of how our society interacts today, or rather how our society doesn’t interact. He writes, “the most selfish drug [opioids] fed on atomized communities. Isolation was now as endemic to wealthy suburbs as to the Rust Belt, and had been building for years. It was true about much of a country where the streets were barren on summer evenings and kids no longer played Kick the Can as parents watched from porches. That dreamland has been lost and replaced, all too often, finally, by empty streets of bigger, nicer houses hiding addiction that each family kept secret.”

 

To atomize means to convert into very fine particles or droplets, and is used by Quinones to show that we have separated our communities into individual, isolated nuclear units. We hide inside our houses, rarely venturing outside to just be outside. We drive to our suburbs, stop at the mailbox from our car, park in our garages, and rarely spend any time outside. If we do get out, we are in our private backyard where we cannot be seen. We have cut out everyone else, leaving us with just ourselves in our ever larger houses filled with ever more things for our individual enjoyment.

 

Quinones argues that this lifestyle has been brought on by our own selfishness. We want our own stuff, we want to show it off, and it holds more value today than it did in the past. Consequently, we are also more jealous of those who have more than us, and more guarded of our things. We lock out other to protect our stuff, but in the process we locked out a crucial part of our humanity: our connections and community.

 

Community shows us that there is more to life than just our desires. Isolation and addiction are linked because when we withdraw from community, when we focus only inward on what we want, our purpose of helping others and interacting with others disappears. Quinones believes that a lack of interaction with others fueled the opioid crisis. We hid addiction in our homes, withdrew from community, and and took away the joys and connections that made us human. We left ourselves vulnerable to pain killing addictions, and took away the best tools to cure the epidemic we now face.

When Are We Happy?

“During any given day people are typically least happy while commuting and most happy while canoodling,” writes Dan Pink in his book When. I currently have a long commute, and I have found that a long drive makes me more irritable, makes me feel more rushed in general, and really does lower the quality of my day. I’m working to make changes so that my commute is reduced, and it has me thinking about how I spend my time in general.

 

I like to be busy and active, but often end up working on things individually. I spend a good amount of time listening to podcasts by myself while doing dishes, cleaning my car, and putting away laundry. These things beat TV, but still don’t bring me a lot of deep value.

 

As Pink’s quote above suggests, we are more happy when doing things with other people. We like to do social things, to interact with friends and family, and to be around others. The time when we are by ourselves – isolated from the world, not engaging in deep ways with other people – is when we are at our lowest. In our daily lives we should consider what we are doing in isolation and what we are doing as a social group, and shift toward the latter.

 

I remember hearing Tyler Cowen on a podcast say that joining a social group that meets once a month is equivalent in terms of happiness production as doubling one’s income. If this is accurate, then we should shift our jobs so that we don’t take careers (or stay in careers) where we are pushed toward isolation (in terms of commute or other factors) and ultimately have our time wasted instead. We should try to find ways to open more time for ourselves, and then we should try to fill that time by participating in social endeavors. If Cowen is correct, starting new clubs and participating in groups will not just increase our happiness, but the happiness of others who can join in.

 

We shouldn’t necessarily just pursue a life of continuous canoodling, but we can pursue a life of real world connections by limiting our isolationism. It is hard, especially if one lives in a sprawling suburb, to maintain good connections, but by being intentional about our time and lifestyle, we can slowly shift ourselves back to a more communal lifestyle. Some of us are lucky enough to decide we don’t want to keep the job that forces us into a miserable commute, and some of us are lucky enough to be able to move to different cities or parts of town where the traffic isn’t so bad. The research from Pink on happiness, and Cowen’s thoughts on social connection suggest that a cut in pay may make us much more happy if it frees our time and allows us to connect with others. Prioritizing social connections over cash might be the best thing for our happiness.

City Strengths

Cities are incredible organizational units that human beings organically developed long before larger political boundaries and units could be conceived. Cities were the first forms of collaborative human living for our ancestors, before we could think of nations or states. But even though the idea of cities is ancient, they are still dynamic and evolving. In an age where everything is online, where virtual human connections are common, and where goods, services, and products can be obtained from almost any couch in the United States, cities are nevertheless growing. Despite video chat and meet-up software, companies still like to have private offices and there still seems to be value in face to face communication and interaction. Cities, it seems, are here to stay in our globalized and digital world.

 

In The New Localism authors Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak lay out a vision of new structures of governance that hinge on the flexibility, adaptability, and inventiveness of cities. The authors explain why they think cities are natural and fitting leaders to manage globalization and help drive solutions to the problems that face the entire globe.

 

“The ability of local communities in the United States to become effective problem solvers should not come as a surprise. Cities and towns developed in the absence of any intentional federal urban policy during most of the nation’s history. Historically, city building was more of a bottom-up and relatively chaotic enterprise, involving builders and investors, merchants and workers, civic associations, immigration and immigrant entrepreneurs, and local government. It was never the result of a top-down policy so much as it was a self-organizing market and civic practice.”

 

Top down solutions to problems in the United States have not been super successful in recent years. The most pressing problems we face as a planet don’t have a structure that allows them to be addressed in a top down manner. Cities, however, operate best by adjusting to local pressures, demands, and opportunities. In a bottom-up way, cities are well positioned to respond to the challenges the world faces and to develop new technologies, new trends, and new organizational structures that can respond to threats. The chaotic and constantly evolving nature of cities can lead them to be administratively hard to wrangle and can make many of their decisions appear non-rational, but it also allows them to adapt and coalesce around shared goals that can drive the innovation that the planet needs for progress.