Kahneman's Gossip Hope

Kahneman’s Hope

Daniel Kahneman opens his book on cognitive biases, thinking errors, and observed processes within the field of cognitive psychology in an interesting place. Thinking Fast and Slow begins with Kahneman praising gossip, and explaining his hope for the readers of his book. He does not hope that readers of his book will avoid gossip and stop talking about others behind their backs. He hopes readers will gossip better, and understand the thought processes, mental limitations of the human mind, and mental errors that go into all of our gossip.

 

Kahneman writes, “The hope for informed gossip is that there are distinctive patterns in the errors people make. Systematic errors are known as biases, and they recur predictably in particular circumstances.”

 

What he hopes for is that understanding how the brain works will help us all have better conversations at the water cooler, or at lunch with a colleague, or in the evening when we get home and want to vent to a spouse or parent or pet. Gossip can be a powerful tool in developing and shaping the norms of society, and if we are going to give gossip so much power, we should at least do our best to ensure that our gossiping is well informed, accurate, and that when we gossip we understand how our minds are reaching our gossipy conclusions.

 

Certainly Kahneman’s real hope is that writing about and explaining gossip in a way that more people can access than simply putting his ideas in academic journals will lead to fewer negative externalities in the world from biases, prejudices, and simple cognitive errors. However, for most people, Kahneman thinks the water cooler gossip forum is where his ideas and research will really impact people’s conversations.

 

The point is that the human mind doesn’t exactly work the way we tend to think it does. It feels as though we have one thought that rationally flows from another thought. That we are observant, considerate, and are willing to come to conclusions based on fact and observed reality. Through his research in the book, Kahneman shows us that our brains are predictable in the errors they make. They are not as rational as we believe, and our thoughts don’t flow coherently from one idea to the next. The observations we make are always incomplete relative to the full information of the reality around us, and our choices and actions are far more motivated by what we want to believe is true than is actually true in reality. Knowing all of this, Kahneman hopes, will make us more cognizant and reflective in our gossip, hopefully helping the world to be a slightly more accurate and enjoyable place to be.

Speakers are Eager to Impress

The last few days I have been writing about communication and asking what our communication is really all about if it is not just about facts and conveying information. When just talking to someone or communicating anything we seem to be including a lot of information that we are not even aware of. One of the things we are showing off in conversation is that we are someone who should be kept around, because we have useful insights and thoughts into the world around us.

 

In The Elephant in the Brain, Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler look at this point directly. They write, “Speakers are eager to impress listeners by saying new and useful things, but the facts themselves can be secondary. Instead, it’s more important for speakers to demonstrate that they have abilities that are attractive in an ally.”

 

In his episode of the Conversations with Tyler Podcast, Hanson describes it as showing off your backpack of skills and abilities. We want to show off that we know interesting facts so that people keep us around to hear more interesting facts in the future. We want to show how well connected we are with other allies so that people want to stick by us to get potential benefits from those insider connections. We also want to demonstrate that we are able to find out useful knowledge that might help someone else in the future. We might have just shared a simple or interesting fact about our experiences or something we learned, but it can demonstrate a lot more about us than we recognize.

 

Over time, we likely won’t remember where we heard information first. We likely won’t remember exactly who told us what, but we will remember who we have had good conversations with in the past, and people will remember that we had a lot of helpful things to say about a given topic. What we say in this moment doesn’t matter, as long as we develop a pattern of being helpful and insightful.

 

All of this is happening in our conversations without us realizing how much it is taking place. Conversation is natural, and we don’t want to seem like we are only engaging in conversation to get something useful from someone else, otherwise we won’t truly build any allies and friendships. The brain works better for us when it is not aware of its own motivations in this instance.

Where are the Greedy Listeners?

“If exchanging Information were the be-all and end-all of conversation, then we would expect people to be greedy listeners and stingy speakers. Instead, we typically find ourselves with the opposite attitude: eager to speak at ever opportunity.” Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write this in the book The Elephant in the Brain as they attempt to understand exactly what is going on with human communication. The obvious answer for why we communicate and dedicate so much of our brains to language, speaking, decoding sounds, and interpreting meaning from the sounds produced by human vocal cords is because our early ancestors gained an advantage when they could use language to communicate important messages. Saying, you go left and I go right is a lot better than grunting with hand gestures if you are trying to sneak up on a buffalo.

 

When we talk we convey a lot of direct messages. We can tell someone how much we love and care about them. We can explain to someone how their computer works and what they need to do to get their internet back. Directly talking to someone allows us to give them a recipe and enables us to learn about current world events. The strait forward answer for why we evolved language is because there is a lot of data out there in the world, and we needed a way to transmit the information we have gained from one head to another.

 

Simler and Hanson, however, believe that language and communication are doing something less obvious for us. One reason they believe more is going on than simply conveying messages is that we don’t hold people in debt for our communication. We don’t share an interesting or meaningful fact, and then expect the other person to communicate something meaningful to us. We may obtain information at a great cost – years of school, spending our time at the city counsel meeting, staying up late with influential people at a bar to get any tidbits they may drop – but we give that information away without demanding reciprocal payment.

 

A second piece of evidence against communication simply conveying messages has to do with how eager we are to talk. If we really were just communicating information, then we would be the most amazing listeners ever. After all, the whole reason someone was talking was to give us important information. We wouldn’t waste conversation space with meaningless talk about the weather, which we all experienced in the morning and could look outside to see. We would’t eagerly tell someone about what we saw on TV or about the funny thing our dog did. We would instead make sure we communicated valuable information and we would only do so reluctantly, particularly if someone else had given us valuable information which we had eagerly consumed.

 

The way we communicate doesn’t follow these expectations, and seems to be about something beyond just conveying information. Communication is about more than the message and more than what we have learned and can share about the world. Tomorrow’s post will dig further into this idea.

The Trouble with Labels

“The troubling thing about labels is that we very seldom have the exact same definitions for them,” Colin Wright writes in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be. I am disappointed by how frequently we use labels without giving them much thought. Labels are a necessity and a way to convey a lot of information without having to provide extensive background and definitions for every little thing. Labels are also things we use to signal something about ourselves and they are also something we use to make fun of other people and groups to which we don’t belong. If you are not aware of the labels you use, you are not aware of how frequently you are using them for signaling or just how insulting labels can be to the people you label.

 

Wright continues, “as soon as you decide to watch for them, you realize how many labels we use in every discussion, even beyond the exploratory ones. But it’s worth the effort if you really want to learn, understand, and communicate clearly.” When we use labels haphazardly, we end up talking about different things from our communication partner. My concept of any given label is going to be different from your concept of that label, and even if our ideas are just a little off, what I am saying may not make any sense to you at all. Our conversation could devolve into an argument where we are each trying to argue that something is or is not something else, not realizing that we are both arguing with a different set of definitions for the thing we are arguing about.

 

Beyond just confusing conversation, my biggest fear of labels is that they will become subtle digs and insults at our communication partners. We may throw in a label here or there that we don’t think our interlocutor will recognize, but that will be recognized by other people in our social group. This allows us to make subtle insults at individuals or groups and allows us to talk behind someone’s back, insulting them in a way where we feel superior because they did not even realize that we insulted them. This is typical of the types of arguments we see online, and it is something that has the ability to absolutely destroy productive conversation. It can ruin opportunities to learn and it actively drives us away from becoming a more cohesive society. Recognizing when use labels in this way will help us to have more clear and constructive conversations, and if we can help other people recognize how they use labels, then we can begin to have more productive and rational discussions about the direction our society should move.

Answers Versus Questions

I read Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit about a year ago, but I still struggle to adapt his main point into my daily life. What Bungay Stanier recommends is that we ask more questions in conversations, because questions get the other person thinking in a way that develops their thoughts more thoroughly. We like to give advice and tell people the answers we think they need to hear, but our answers often fail to help the other person. Our answers come from our perspective which is limited and does not truly capture and address he issue and concerns of the other person. Questions on the other hand, encourage the other person to think more critically about what they are going through and helps them identify the right answer to the right question.

 

One of the chapters in Bungay Stanier’s book begins with a quote from Nancy Willard, “Answers are closed rooms; and questions are open doors that invite us in.” In coaching, there are two important considerations when thinking about questions versus answers. The first is that an answer doesn’t really get the person we coach to think very deeply about their problem. The second is that an answer may not actually be addressing the right question. Questions on the other hand allow the person being coached to think through the actual challenges they face and steer the conversation in the direction they need it to go. When we provide an answer, we are saying that we fully understand the other person and exactly where they are in relation to their problem, something that is impossible because we can never perfectly know another person’s challenges.

 

Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler suggest that human conversation is a way for us to signal and display our knowledge and our mental toolkit. The real value in a conversation should come from the listening side, where we take in lots of new information for almost no real cost. But in reality, we all try to talk as much as possible in conversations (for the most part) and we want what we say to be interesting and important. When this creeps into coaching, then the coaching interaction is shifted where the main goal is not to help the other person but to show off. This is why our own answers are so damaging in coaching. We are assuming we understand exactly what issue the other person faces and pushing our assumption and recommendation onto them even if they did not ask for it. The worst part is that we may be answering the completely wrong question or providing advice that doesn’t actually fit the person or their situation out of a selfish desire to be impressive.

 

Questions allow the individual to expand on their issue and better organize their thoughts. They can address the specific areas where they have challenges, and questions can guide them through the thinking process. It is hard to get used to asking questions more than providing answers, but in the long term, you allow the other person to find the right answer for themselves and their situation, and you allow them to grow and be a more self-aware individual.

Kickstarting Conversations

When you are coaching someone professionally, meeting with a colleague or associate, or just hanging out with a spouse or friend, how do you really get around to having important conversations? In my life, I too frequently have quick chats about mundane topics like the weather that often don’t lead to something more interesting. Sometimes, I bring up the Don’t Panic Geocast (a fantastic geology podcast that I highly recommend) and get too deep into the science of a given weather patter or how that weather shapes some aspect of earth science. Some days and in some situations getting a conversation going is a challenge, and sometimes the conversation we get started is not the conversation that we both actually want to have. The question for us, when we want to have meaningful conversations, is how do we get a conversation going and avoid simply talking about a Podcast, TV show, or the weather?

 

In his book on how to be an effective coach and create habits that lead to meaningful coaching interactions, Michael Bungay Stanier offers a solution to the conversation initiation conundrum. He offers what he calls a Goldilocks Question that is just right to get a meaningful conversation flowing. He looks at this question specifically in the realm of coaching, but it can certainly be used across the board when conversation about sports teams has died out or when you don’t want to talk to the 17th person about that day’s weather. Bungay Stanier’s question is simply, “What’s on your mind?” which he describes as “An almost fail-safe way to start a chat that quickly turns into a real conversation.”

 

The power of this question, according to Bungay Stanier, is that “its a question that says, Let’s talk about the thing that matters most. It’s a question that dissolves ossified agendas, sidesteps small talk and defeats the default diagnosis.”

 

In a coaching relationship, it can feel like you need to be in control. That you need to direct the conversation and ask intimate probing questions that get the subject to connect new dots and make new discoveries. While asking more questions than speaking is a good thing, the coach does not really need to be in control. When you are helping someone else as a coach, you can use this question to give them a little more control of what is discussed, because they are the one who knows best what issue they are facing and need assistance on. Asking “what’s on your mind?” and not forcing a question toward a specific area will allow the conversation to center around the biggest item that needs to be talked through and ironed out. Rather than getting stuck in a rut with your coaching, this question requires you to be nimble and on your feet as conversations go where the subject needs them to go, not where you are comfortable with the conversation going.

 

In my life I have not been good at remembering this question. It is one that I hope I can return to and one that I hope can help me have deeper conversations with my wife, my uncle, and some of my friends.

Discussing Differences In Action

Author Colin Wright provides some useful advice for disagreements within relationships in his book, Some Thoughts About Relationships. In a section of the book, Wright focuses on our arguments and disagreements with our partners, and how we can have more constructive discussions instead of heated arguments. His advice requires some self-awareness and self-reflection in the moment, and shifts how we approach an argument.

“In practice, this means that instead of accusing or otherwise trying to put your partner on their guard, you ask them what’s going on from their perspective. Don’t interrupt, don’t offer any defense, just allow them to speak. Ask questions when they’re done, and with as little bias in your voice as possible. Request clarifying information and encourage them to provide it by delaying judgement. Speak calmly, clearly, and without talking down to them; condescension has no place in a discussion.”

Wright’s quote has a lot of practical and useful advice that is worth remembering. Many of his points are simple, but are not easy since they push against our typical reactions in any given disagreement. To follow his advice, it is important to be aware of how you are reacting in the moment, and to shift perspective, focus, and goals so that you are not trying to win an argument, but are instead trying to better understand your partner.

By not accusing the other person of some fault, we lower their defenses and allow them to be more relaxed and cognitively engaged in our discussion, as opposed to passionately entrenched against us. By asking for their perspective without interrupting we allow them to explain their thoughts, de-escalate the tension, and learn about their experience which we cannot argue against since their perspective, different from our own, determines the reality they experience. By delaying judgement and speaking honestly and openly, without bitterness or sarcasm, we show the other person that we do care about them, and we have an opportunity to share our point of view and experiences to hopefully create a constructive dialogue.

If we do not try to win an argument, and if we do not see our interactions with others as zero sum, we can have rational discussions and invite more positive conversation into our lives and relationships. It is challenging to change course and direction during an argument, and it is tempting to react emotionally and impulsively, but slowing our brain, remembering Wright’s advice, and acting rationally can be constructive for all involved.