Misperceptions of Violence

Misperceptions of Violence

In general, I am very interested in our misperceptions. We constantly go about making judgments of the world, making decisions, and developing a general sense of how the world operates based on what we pay close attention to, what we hear on a regular basis, and all the information that makes its way into our orbit. But there is only so much that we can pay close attention to and various factors will influence what information comes our way. This means that our perceptions of the world are subject to bias and noise. We may be very interested in one topic and become an expert in that narrow topic. A co-worker may constantly talk about a subject they are fascinated by, so we may pick up certain ideas from their conversations. Newspaper headlines may shape the way we think about certain topics, even if we never read the whole story.
Violence is one such area where we may have misperceptions of reality due to bias and noise. News stories are biased toward the exciting and unusual events that take place. No one wants to listen to a story about how an improved traffic calming near a school reduced car collisions and improved pedestrian safety. News outlets know this and instead cover the instances when there is a traffic accident in a school zone. Social media channels are similarly fueled by the surprising and emotional things that people have to share. Once again, people are likely to react more strongly to a story about a robbery at a shopping center near a school than a story about how improved lighting and a night time security guard at the shopping center reduced crime in the area by 10%. As Steven Pinker writes in The Better Angels of Our Nature, “no matter how small the percentage of violent deaths may be, in absolute numbers there will always be enough of them to fill the evening news, so people’s impressions of violence will be disconnected from the actual proportions.”
Misperceptions of violence, along with other misperceptions about the world, matter. People make decisions about public policy, make personal choices, and interact with each others in society in different based on their perceptions. Thinking of violence specifically, we make different decisions about where to invest government funds, how long to incarcerate criminals, and how many police officers to hire depending on our perceptions of crime. We chose which schools to send our kids to, where to go out for dinner, and where to live based whether we think violence is prevelent in a given area. We shop at certain businesses, smile at or look away from strangers, and exercise indoors our outside to some degree depending on our perceptions of violence relative to safety. Misperceptions in these areas can lead to discrimination, inequality, over- and under-policing, and over- and under-investment. Failing to accurately understand levels of violence can have real world consequences that can lead to wasted and misallocated resources and unfair treatment for some communities, particularly in societies with long histories of racial or economic injustice.
We pay attention to the flashing lights of police vehicles, remember news stories about gruesome murders, and react strongly to stories of violence on social media – thereby boosting the visibility of those stories – and as a result we feel like we are living in a dangerous world. We don’t remember all the times a family member went running at 6 in the morning and didn’t get mugged. We don’t remember all the daily commutes to work without seeing a police chase, we don’t remember the days where the national news and our social media channels were not dominated by stories of violent crime. We perceive that the world is getting less safe, that crimes are increasing, and that we must take steps to better secure ourselves and our property. However, this is a misperception. Despite fluctuations from year to year (I will note that crime rates have increased since 2020, however it is unclear if this is a new trend or random fluctuation) humanity world wide has become less violent and has been trending toward reduced violence for a very, very long time. In The Better Angels of Our Nature Pinker argues that we would experience a different world if our perceptions of violence matched reality.

Evolutionary Success & Individual Experience

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari shares examples of how evolutionary success for an entire species doesn’t always mean positive things for individuals within the species. His conclusion, and the evidence of evolutionary success for humans, livestock animals, and other species, is similar to the Repugnant Conclusion, an idea common in ethical psychology. As a quick summary, the Repugnant Conclusion can be thought of in the following way. Imagine our planet has 10 billion people living, and all 10 billion people would score their happiness at a 7. If you summed up the total happiness of the planet you would get 70 billion. But imagine that our world could support the lives of 100 billion people, but only if each person had a miserable life and rated their happiness level as 1 – just barely worth living rather than not living. If you summed up the total happiness of all 100 billion people, you get 100 billion, an increase of 30 billion in terms of total happiness over the planet with 10 billion fairly happy people.
Hardly any of us would want to live in the planet where there were more living people, but almost all of them were unhappy, with lives they considered only barely worth living. But evolution doesn’t really care about happiness. Evolution seems to just care about whether lives are barely worth living, and whether genes are being passed along. Yuval Noah Harari would argue that throughout history numerous species have successfully evolved through strategies that seem to follow the Repugnant Conclusion.
When we imagine evolution, we tend to think of everything getting better. Humans, plants, and animals evolve to become bigger, faster, stronger, and better able to survive. Surely, we imagine, that means that each individual has a better life and experience than the individuals that came before it. After all, each successive generation, per evolutionary pressure, should be a better fit for survival than its predecessors. Unfortunately, we can evolve in the direction of the Repugnant Conclusion, with fitness for survival having nothing to do with actual individual level fitness and happiness. Greater numbers of individuals may be able to survive if they are all a little less happy, require a little less in terms of resources, and can better manage being crammed into a tight space. Harari writes, “this discrepancy between evolutionary success and individual suffering is perhaps the most important lesson we can draw from the Agricultural Revolution.”
When we think about evolution, Harari argues that, “we have to consider how evolutionary success translates into individual experience.” Today, there are far more chickens alive than at any other point in history. By evolutionary standards, chickens have done great. They continuously pass their genes along and even have another species invested in the continued survival and population growth of chickens. However, individual chickens have miserable lives, often confined to cages they cannot move around in or stand-up in. Their lives are also very short, very congested, and their deaths can be brutal. The individual experience for a chicken is about as bad as it could be, but the species as a whole is booming. Harari argues that similar things have happened in Human Evolution. We might not all be trapped in cages, but we have had changes in our species that have made the individual lives of humans worse while propelling the survival and continued evolutionary success of the species forward. Evolution does not simply mean better. It means continued survival and change in the face of challenges for survival. Sometimes the experiences of the individuals can improve, but that is not always the case.
Miserable Early Farming and Parallels to Modern Life

Miserable Early Farming and Parallels to Modern Life

“Rather than heralding a new era of easy living,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens, “the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers.” When we tell a basic story of humanity, we imagine early hunter-gatherer humans as cold, scared, dumb, and barely surviving as they foraged through forests in search of mushrooms and prey. The story has these people then evolve into smarter farmers who work hard in fields, but have nice warm shelters and a happy family before eventually evolving into our modern city living, car driving humans. This overly simplified story, unexpectedly, is off with regard to the experiences of early foragers and farmers, and I think there is a lesson we can see in our own lives in the modern world.
The first thing to recognize is that farming is hard, and was especially hard for the first humans to truly settle into an agricultural lifestyle. It was not a guarantee that farming and agriculture would be the best way for humans to live for continued survival and the future evolution of the species. However, that is what happened. Harari asks why this became the path of human evolution and social growth took given that farming is miserable, barely produced sufficient food at first, and left early humans dependent on a single crop. His answer generally tends to be the cooperative benefits and safety that agricultural communities offered to humans, even if it ruined every other aspect of their lives. “Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease,” Harari writes.
Humans had evolved over tens of thousands of years to be great foragers. We have not evolved for the same period of time to be great farmers. Farming was incredibly difficult work from the start, and it made people’s lives as a whole worse off at the individual level while increasing the wellbeing of a select few and ultimately raising the potential of humans as a collective. In some ways, this doesn’t feel too different from modern society. There are still those who farm and those who are working in awful situations (think of the Dirty Jobs tv show) so the rest of us can live clean and leisurely lifestyles. Some of us are the equivalent of the first humans to begin farming, while others of us are the equivalent of the foragers who stuck to their adventurous lifestyle rather than adopting an agrarian life, and still others are like the ones who reaped the benefits of the agrarian society without having to do the farming themselves. For me, thinking about the history of humanity and the parallels between the modern world and the world of our ancestors helps me think about how I want to live and how many before me have lived.
Surely, whichever path I choose can be defensible based on how humans of the past chose to live and how our species evolved. Do I feel that I can’t be tied down to a particular spot and job? No problem, even while agrarian societies were getting their foothold, foraging continued to be a better lifestyle than farming, its only natural that I would be the modern day equivalent. Do I feel that I need to work hard and produce something meaningful for myself and all of society, even though all that hard work sucks? Sure, that’s only natural, look at all the humans who settled in communities to begin farming and change the direction of human evolution. And do I feel like I should be able to enjoy the benefits of hard work by making smart decisions and setting myself up well to enjoy life even though I’m dependent on the work of others? Well, that’s natural too, just look at the people who became leaders in agrarian communities without doing the farming themselves. The point is that we don’t necessarily have to defend our decisions and lifestyles as being ‘natural’, or as the ‘best way for people to live’, or as anything other than how we are choosing to live now. There is a huge range of possible ways of life, and it’s not always clear what is going to lead to the most flourishing for humanity or the greatest chance of evolutionary success. As Harari notes, farming was not a clear path toward successful genetic continuation for the first agrarian humans, but it worked out. Before them foragers drove human evolution in small tribes for a hundred thousand years. It’s not clear exactly where we are headed, but there are lots of ways to try to get there.
Unsurpassed Adaptability

Unsurpassed Adaptability

Something I think about a lot, especially when thinking of the great diversity of human experiences, is how incredible human adaptability is. Humans have found ways to survive across the globe. Humans appear to have first evolved in Africa, with several different waves of human species spreading from Africa across Europe and Asia, and eventually across the oceans to the Americas and to Australia. From savannas and plains, to tropical jungle islands, to frozen tundras, humans have found ways to adapt and live. At this point, we have found ways to survive for long stretches submerged in metal tubes or floating outside the atmosphere in tubes. We have settled in the driest deserts, the wettest rain forests, and even have ways of surviving in the coldest, frozen polar ice-scapes.
This adaptability of humans is truly astonishing, especially when you look back at human history and put us in context with other animals and species. Yuval Noah Harari does this in his book Sapiens and he marvels at how quickly the human species was able to conquer the globe. He writes, “The human blitzkrieg across America testifies to the incomparable ingenuity and the unsurpassed adaptability of Homo sapiens. No other animal had ever moved into such a huge variety of radically different habitats so quickly, everywhere using virtually the same genes.” Adaptability has been a human super power since the early days of the cognitive revolution, when humans began to find ways to live in places that our genes had not evolved to fit.
I’m in awe of our adaptability and think about it whenever I am in a situation I didn’t expect and when I meet people who live dramatically different lives than my own. I am inspired by what some people can push their minds, bodies, and existence to become. I am also dismayed at how terrible life can be for others, and how they nonetheless manage to survive. From the Holocaust, to modern civil wars, to the squalor of tribes in the poorest parts of the globe, it is simultaneously inspiring that humans have survived such awful conditions and depressing. Our adaptability means we can survive and put up with terrible things, languishing in a state of mere existence for years or even generations. Just as our adaptability can allow us to be astronauts, athletes, and chess grand masters, our adaptability can allow us to be prisoners of war, sex trafficking victims, and impoverished peoples. Our unsurpassed adaptability is what allowed our species to conquer the planet, but it is also what has allowed us to pump green house gasses into the atmosphere and allowed us to devastate wildlife and ecosystems.
Our adaptability is amazing and has been since the early days of Homo sapiens, but it does have a cost. While it can allow us to be our best, it can perpetuate our survival at our worst. It has allowed us to flourish as a species across the globe, but has also allowed us to do great harm to the planet. Moving forward we need to continue to adapt, but should strive to do so in a way that makes life better for all, that finds a new Pareto efficiency between all of us and our planet.
People Eat Physics - Gulp - Mary Roach - Joe Abittan

People Eat Physics

In the book Gulp, Mary Roach explores what it is that makes us like certain foods. She investigates different qualities of different foods in an attempt to discern what food attributes make us like different things. There are the obvious taste and texture qualities, but she investigates further, and finds that there is a lot of physics involved in which foods we like and which foods we don’t like.
Roach quotes researcher Tony Van Vliet in her book writing, “People eat physics. You eat physical properties with a little bit of taste and aroma. And if the physics is not good, then you don’t eat it.” This quote followed the explanation of an experiment regarding potato chips. Researchers found that manipulating sound waves, to eliminate the crunch sounds of the chips, made people think they were eating old, stale chips, when in fact they were eating fresh chips. Eating, an activity dominated by taste and the mouth, it turns out is also greatly impacted by the ears.
“Crispness and crunch are the body’s shorthand for healthy,” Roach continues. When we eat, our noses play a big role, the touch receptors in our mouth play a huge role, and it turns out even our ears play a huge role. Without realizing it, we are using a huge amount of our senses to determine whether food is healthy, safe to eat, and nutritious. When the physics don’t align for any given physical property of the food, we will experience it differently. Add red coloring to white wine and people won’t experience it as a white wine. Mute the crunch on chips and people will think they are old and stale. People eat physics just as much as they eat food.
Visual Versus Olfactory

Visual Versus Olfactory

I like to remind myself that I don’t experience the world around me the same way that my dog experiences the world. One of the biggest differences for us is that as a human I primarily experience the world by picking up on visual cues, whereas my dog primarily experiences the world through olfactory cues. My smelling ability isn’t very good, but my vision is pretty great. My dog’s vision isn’t very good, but her smelling is phenomenal. “Humans are better equipped for sight than for smell,” writes Mary Roach in Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, “We process visual input ten times faster than olfactory.”
While we can smell, hear, and sense pressure changes on our skin, it is primarily our eyesight that helps us perceive and move about our world. We gain more information from looking at something than we do from smelling, tasting, and even feeling that same thing. That is why so much of our art is visual, why we paint our homes and cars, and why movies and videogames are able to keep our attention so well. Our brains pick up on and process visual stimuli much quicker than other stimuli.
In the human brain, a huge amount of space is dedicated to visual processing. Much more of our brains matter is dedicated to visual processing than olfactory processing, as Roach’s quote above indicates. This is why our brains are so much quicker at decoding and deciphering visual stimuli. In other animals, such as my dog, the part of the brain dedicated to visual processing is not as large relative to other brain regions. My dog has more brain space dedicated to olfactory processing than visual processing, relative to my brain, and thus perceives the world acting on different primary stimuli.
In the book The WEIRDest People in the World, Joseph Henrich shares research which suggests that certain visual activities, like reading, change the structure of the brain. In the case of reading, the brain space dedicated to processing visual symbols grows as one reads more and the brain tends to give up space related to facial recognition. We get better at reading quickly, but worse at remembering faces.  In Gulp, Roach explains that this kind of process is likely taking place very early on in childhood development. She quotes a scientist who she interviewed that explains that parents of infants go out of their way to label and identify objects that can be visually observed, but parents do not go out of their way to label sounds, smells, or other stimuli. We can spend hours identifying and labeling the tiny differences that we can observe in everything from different species of bugs to 1000 piece puzzles, but we don’t often spend a lot of time differentiating between all the aromas in the smell of coffee, all the different flavors in a slice of chocolate cake, or all the different sounds in an orchestra. In these instances, we take all the different components and experience them as one, unless we train to identify all the different components.
Our visual processing is truly impressive, but it is worth recognizing how much we rely on what we can see, and why. The world is a lot bigger than just what our minds can process from the visual information that we take in. Remembering how much of our brain is dedicated to visual processing can hep us better contextualize our experiences of the world and recognize when we are being overly biased toward visual information. Malcolm Gladwell’s final podcast of his most recent season, all about the power and potential of dogs’ olfactory processing, is a great reminder of why we shouldn’t be too biased toward what we can see.
The Illusion of Free Will & Computer Software

The Illusion of Free Will & Computer Software

Judea Pearl uses soccer as an analogy to demonstrate the usefulness of freewill, even if it is only an illusion, in The Book of Why. Pearl argues that believing we have free will, even if it doesn’t exist as we believe it does, has been helpful for humans throughout our evolutionary history. He argues that being able to communicate about our intentions, desires, and actions through a lens of free will has helped us develop agency to improve our existence as a species and survive.
Pearl also views the illusion of free will as a two tiered system that helps our species survive through agency by attributing responsibility to individuals. He communicates this idea through the language of computers by writing, “when we start to adjust our own software, that is when we begin to take moral responsibility for our actions. This responsibility may be an illusion at the level of neural activation but not at the level of the self-awareness software.”
Pearl is arguing that our consciousness (software) is different from our neural activity (the computer hardware equivalent of the brain). In this sense, Pearl is viewing consciousness and free will as a dualist. There is the electrical activity of the brain, and the software (our thinking and self-awareness) running on top of that electrical activity. While we might not be able to directly change the neural activity and while it may be automatic and deterministic, the software packages it runs are not, they are in a way revisable, and we are responsible for those revisions. That is the view that Pearl is advancing in this argument.
I think this idea is wrong. I understand the dualist view of consciousness and use that model most of the time when thinking about my thinking, but I don’t think it reflects reality. Additionally, throughout human history we have used technological analogies to explain the brain. Always equating the brain and thinking to the best technologies of the day, we have viewed the brain as having some sort of duality about it. The brain was once viewed as hydraulic pumps and levers, and today it is compared to computerized hardware and software.
I don’t have a full rebuttal for Pearl. I recognize that our experience feels as though it is not deterministic, that there seems to be some role for free will and individual agency, but I can’t go as far as Pearl and actually assign revision responsibility to our consciousness. I agree with him that the illusion can be and has been useful, but I can’t help but feel that it is a mistake to equate the brain to a computer. I don’t truly feel that even within the illusion of free will we are entirely revision responsible for our consciousness (the software/operating system). I think that comparing us to a computer is misleading and gives people the wrong impression about the mind, and I’m sure that in the future we will replace the hardware/software distinction and thoughts with different and more complex technologies in our analogies.
Objective Reality, Rationality, & Shared Worlds - Joe Abittan

Objective Reality, Rationality, & Shared Worlds

The idea of an objective reality has been under attack for a while, and I have even been part of the team attacking that objective reality. We know that we have a limited ability to sense and experience the world around us. We know that bats, sharks, and bees experience phenomena that we are blind to. We can’t know that the color red that I experience is exactly like the color red that you experience. Given our lack of sense, the fact that physical stimuli are translated into electrical brain impulses, and that there appears to be plenty of subjectivity in how we experience the same thing, an objective reality doesn’t really seem possible. We seemingly all live within a world created by many subjective measures within our own brains.
But is this idea really accurate? I recently completed Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now in which he argues that reason depends on objectivity and that our efforts toward rationality and reason demonstrate that there is some form of objectivity toward which we are continually working. The very act of attempting to think rationally about our world and how we understand the universe demonstrates that we are striving to understand some sort of objective commonality. A quote from The Book of Why by Judea Pearl seems to support Pinker’s assertion. Pearl writes:
“We experience the same world and share the same mental model of its causal structure. … Our shared mental models bind us together into communities. We can therefore judge closeness not by some metaphysical notion of similarity but by how much we must take apart and perturb our shared model before it satisfies a given hypothetical condition that is contrary to fact.”
Pearl wrote this paragraph while discussing the human ability to imagine alternative possibilities (specifically writing about the sentence Joe’s headache would have gone away if he had taken aspirin). The sentence acknowledges a reality (Joe has a headache) and proposes a different reality that doesn’t actually exist (Joe no longer has a headache because he took aspirin). It is this ability to envision different worlds which forms the basis of our causal interpretations of the world, but it also reveals a shared world in which we live and from which we can imagine different possible worlds. It hints at an objective reality shared among individuals and distinct from unreal and imagined, plausible worlds.
Reason and rationality demonstrate that there seems to be an objective reality in which we are situated and in which we experience the world. There are undoubtedly subjective aspects of that world, but we nevertheless are able to share a world in which we can imagine other possible worlds and consider those alternative worlds as closer or further from the world in which we live. Doing this over and over again, among billions of people, helps us define the actual objective reality which constitutes the world we share and from which we have subjective experiences. It is from this world that we can discuss what is subjective, what causes one phenomenon or another, and from which we can imagine alternative realities based on certain interventions. If there was no objective reality for us to all share, then we would never be able to distinguish alternative worlds and compare them as more or less close to the world we share and exist within.
Experiencing Versus Remembering

Experiencing Versus Remembering

My last two posts have been about the difference in how we experience life and how we remember what happens in our life. This is an important idea in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow. Kahneman explains the ways in which our minds make predictable errors when thinking statistically, when trying to remember the past, and when making judgements about reality. Kahneman describes our mind as having two selves. He writes,


“The experiencing self is the one that answers the question: Does it hurt now? The remembering self is the one that answers the question: How was it on the whole? Memories are all we get to keep from our experience of living, and the only perspective that we can adopt as we think about our lives is therefore that of the remembering self.”


In my post about the Peak-End Rule I highlighted findings from Kahneman that show that the remembering self isn’t very good at making accurate judgments about a whole experience. It more or less averages out the best (or worst) part of an experience with the ending of the experience. The ups and downs throughout, the actual average quality overall, isn’t that relevant to the way we think back on an experience.


Duration Neglect also demonstrates how the remembering self misjudges our experiences. A long monotonous experience with a positive ending can be remembered much more fondly than a generally positive short experience with a bad ending.


When I think about the experiencing and remembering self, I try to remember that my remembering self is not able to perfectly recall the reality of my experiences. I try to remember that my experiencing self is only alive in the present moment, and when I am experiencing something great, I try hard to focus on that moment, rather than try to focus on something I want to remember (this is the difference between sitting and watching a beautiful sunset versus trying to capture the perfect picture of the sunset for social media). Keeping in mind the distinctions between the experiencing and remembering self is helpful for avoiding the frustration, guilt, and pressure that the remembering self heaps on you when you don’t feel as though you have done enough or accomplished enough. The remembering self is only one part of you, and its revisionist view of your history isn’t real. There is real value in finding a balance between living for the experiencing self and living with the knowledge of what fuels the remembering self. Tilting too far either way can make us feel frustrated and overwhelmed, or unaccomplished, and we all want to be somewhere between the two extremes, giving up a little to prop up the other in different ways at different times of our lives.
Duration Neglect

Duration Neglect

My last post was about the Peak-End Rule, the way our brains remember events where we subjectively rate them based on an average between the peak moment and the end. A great experience can be ruined by a poor ending, while a poor experience can be remember more positively if it ends on a high note. Duration Neglect goes along with the Peak-End Rule to shape the way we subjectively remember an experience that doesn’t necessarily align with our actual experience of the event in the moment.


Regarding an experiment with individuals rating painful colonoscopies, Kahneman writes, “the duration of the procedure had no effect whatsoever on the ratings of total pain.”


Again, what mattered for individuals is the peak level of pain and the pain they experienced at the end of the procedure. Patients who had a short colonoscopy with a painful ending rated the entire experience as more painful than individuals who had an equal peak in pain, but overall had a longer colonoscopy that ended on a less painful note. If two patients experience the same peak of pain, but one experiences it early rather than at the end, the subjective pain ratings will be skewed, even if the person who had the peak at the end had less total pain because their procedure was shorter.


What this means for gastroenterologists is that it is better for the procedure to go long than to be painful. We can tolerate pain as long as it is spaced out and as long as the ending is relatively better than the peak. A procedure that lasts 20 minutes with an average pain level of 4 is better than a 5 minute procedure with an average pain level of 6. The mind doesn’t remember how long the pain lasted, it only remembers how bad the pain was at the peak.


We can translate this into our daily lives as well. If we know there is going to be something unpleasant, then we can try to space it out and frontload the unpleasantness, knowing that the ending will lift the overall subjective feeling if it is relatively better. And, if we have something that is really positive, we can see that it is truly is better to leave on a high note. Once we reach a peak in terms of positivity, any additional goodness will only diminish the overall rating of people’s experience. Adding more positive notes that don’t quite match the peak doesn’t actually help improve the overall level that people will ascribe to the event when they think back on it.