Adverse Childhood Experiences

Adverse Childhood Experiences

In $2.00 A Day, authors Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer write about adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and how they can contribute to and create a reinforcing cycle with poverty and homeless. Citing a study from the late 1990s the authors write, “When … researchers surveyed more than 17,000 people from San Diego – most of whom were middle-class and had gone to college – they found alarmingly high rates of ACE exposure. Sixty-four percent reported at least one adverse childhood experience; more than a third had experienced two or more such events.”
This finding is alarming, and one that I would expect to have either remained constant since the late 1990s or increased. People across the United States, the research suggests, are living with past traumas that they may or may not have fully worked through and processed. The majority of people in the United States have suffered at least one ACE (if you extrapolate to the whole population), and over a third had experienced more than traumatic event as a child. Edin and Shaefer go on to write, “exposure to jut one ACE seems to negatively affect a child’s life chances, but what about the effect of multiple and repeated occurrences? The ACE researchers reported that ACEs were not only unexpectedly common, but their effects were found to be cumulative.”
ACEs negatively impact an individuals life as they grow older. This can be seen in individuals who have trouble managing daily stress, have trouble forming trusting relationships, or in those who develop dangerous addictions. All of these negative consequences can impact the economic, social, physical wellbeing of the individual, and can have impacts of the lives of their family, friends, and communities. As the number of ACEs in an individual’s life increases, the consequences also seem to increase, creating deeper problems.  An individual with relationship and financial problems could find themselves in an insecure living arrangement, and if they have children, that could increase the ACE risk for that child, potentially recreating the cycle.
It is important that we as a society recognize the seriousness of ACEs. Children can hardly be blamed for the situations they find themselves in, but these situations can have life-long impacts on their behaviors, psychologies, and life outcomes for which we may blame them as adults. Failing to truly address ACEs and improve the lives of children by reducing the numbers of ACEs that any child may face, means that we will be living in the ongoing cycle of ACEs leading to worse life outcomes, increasing the chances of more ACEs for children in the future, leading to still more negative life outcomes in an ACE doom loop. Its clear that we cannot put the responsibility on individuals who have faced multiple ACEs to right their lives and stop this cycle on their own. It will take compassion, concern, and effort from those who were lucky enough to grow up without debilitating ACEs to make a difference.
The Remembering Self

More on the Remembering Self

Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow describes the remembering self as a tyrant, ruling what we do in the present moment by controlling our thoughts of the past. My last few posts have focused on how poorly we remember events from our past, and how we can be thought of as having an experiencing self and a remembering self. The experiencing self, the one that actually has to wake-up and get out of bed to face the day, is the one that actually lives our life. The remembering self only reflects back on what we have done. It doesn’t remember how awful writing all those school assignments was, it doesn’t remember how tired we were going to the gym for the fourth day in a row, and it doesn’t remember how pleasant it was to just relax for a whole day in front of the TV. Its memory is faulty, plagued by errors and biases in thinking, giving it a false sent of past experiences.

 

The remembering self doesn’t accurately remember the past, and it isn’t aware of itself or its separation from the experiencing self. It behaves and thinks much differently from the experiencing self, but within our minds, we don’t notice when we slip between the experiencing and remembering self, and we don’t realize how much we forget when we look back at our experiences. This creates problems when we think about how we should live, what we would like to do with our lives, and what our experiences have been. Kahneman writes,

 

“Confusing experience with the memory of it is a compelling cognitive illusion – and it is the substitution that makes us believe a past experience can be ruined. The experiencing self does not have a voice. The remembering self is sometimes wrong, but it is the one that keeps score and governs what we learn from living, and it is the one that makes decisions. What we learn from the past is to maximize the qualities of our future memories, not necessarily of our future experience. This is the tyranny of the remembering self.”

 

In my life, I want to look back and remember that I have done a lot of running. Many days, I don’t actually feel like getting out on a jog, but I know that in the future I will want to remember that I ran X number more miles in December of 2020 than I did in December of 2019. The experience of cold toes, of headlamp impressions on my forehead, and the hard work of running in the dark early mornings doesn’t matter to my remembering self. Those things will be diminished in my memory compared to the memory of having done something difficult and impressive. The fact that my remembering self has different priorities than my experiencing self is healthy with regard to running (as long as I don’t go overboard), but it can also be costly and even dangerous in our lives. The father who spends all his time working and neglects his children is being ruled by the remembering self in a similar way. He wants to remember himself as being hard working, as sacrificing for his family, and as being a successful high-earner. He gives up time he may enjoy hanging out with his kids, because the remembering self won’t remember that enjoyment as positively as the economic gains will be remembered from the extra hours of work, or as strongly as the social media pictures posted online. This example isn’t perfect, but it does contrast the way in which our remembering self can drive us toward unhealthy behaviors stemming from the remembering self’s more selfish take on our lives.
The Peak-End Rule - Joe Abittan

The Peak-End Rule

Our experiencing self and our remembering self are not the same person. Daniel Kahneman shows this in his book Thinking Fast and Slow by gathering survey information from people during unpleasant events and then asking them to recall their subjective experience of the event later. The experiencing self and the remembering self rate the experiences differently.

 

We can see this in our own lives. During the day you may have had a frustrating project to work on, but when you lay down at night and reflect on the day, you might not remember the project being as bad as it felt in the moment. Alternatively, you might sit around all day binging a TV series and really enjoy a lazy relaxing day. However, you might remember the day much differently when you look back at it, no longer appreciating the experience but regretting it.

 

With our brain experiencing and remembering events differently, we are set up for some strange cognitive biases when we reflect on past events and think about how we should behave in the future. The Peak-End Rule is one bias that factors into how we remember events and can influence our future choices.

 

You might expect to rate a poor experience based on how bad the worst moment of the experience was. Say you had to go to a child’s gymnastics routine that you were really dreading. A certain part of the routine may have been all but unbearable to you, but if at the end you found a $20 bill on your way back to the car. Your judgement of the event is going to be influenced by your good luck. Rather than basing your judgement of the show purely on that dreadful routine, or on an average of the whole evening, you are going to find a spot somewhere between the worst moment and the happy moment when you found $20. Its not an average of the whole time, and its not really indicative of your actual experience. A random factor at the end shifted your perspective.

 

In his book Kahneman writes about the Peak-End Rule as “The global retrospective rating predicted by the average of the level of pain reported at the worst moment of the experience and at its end.” This definition from Kahneman comes after describing a study with participants sticking their hands in icy cold water and subjectively judging the experience later.

 

The peak-end rule is not limited to painful and unpleasant experiences. Instead of a miserable experience, you could have a truly wonderful experience that ends up being remembered somewhat poorly by a momentary blip at the end. Picture a concert that is great, but flops at the end with the speaker system failing. You won’t reflect back on the entirety of the experience as positively as you should simply because a single song at the end was ruined.

 

What we should remember from this is that endings matter a lot. Don’t end your meeting with the bad news, end it with the good news so that people walk out on a positive note. The ending of an experience weighs much more heavily than everything in the middle. The points that matter are the peak (either the best or worst part) and the ending. A great ending can buoy a poor experience while a bad ending can tank a great experience. For company meetings, job interviews, or performances, make sure you bring the ending to a high point to lift the overall level of the subjective experience.
Subjective Reference Points

Subjective Reference Points

One reason why we will never be able to perfectly understand other people and the opinions, decisions, and beliefs that other people hold is because we all have different reference points. I cannot be inside your head, I cannot see things from exactly the same angle that you see things, and I cannot have the same background and experiences that you have. Our differing reference points create subjectivity in our lives, and not just in areas that we would all agree don’t have one true correct answer. Even areas where it seems like there should be a single objective fact or reality can be very subjective. We expect to see a lot of subjective variability in terms of our preferences for living in the city versus the country, in preferring private insurance versus state sponsored insurance, or preferring soft versus firm mattresses, but we probably don’t expect to have the same different subjective experiences or preferences for how loud a sound is, how light or dark a shade of gray appears, or the value of a $2 million dollar gambling win.

 

Each of these areas of unexpected subjectivity are discussed by Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. He shows that understanding and predicting subjective experiences in these areas is possible if we understand the different reference points that are in play for each individual. There may be an objective and unchanging fact at the base of the reality each individual experiences, but the experience can nevertheless be subjective. Kahneman writes,

 

“To predict the subjective experience of loudness, it is not enough to know its absolute energy; you also need to know the reference sound to which it is automatically compared. Similarly, you need to know about the background before you can predict whether a gray patch on a page will appear dark or light. And you need to know the reference before you can predict the utility of an amount of wealth.”

 

I don’t want to end up in a point where we say there is no objective reality we can all observe, after all, “a dead body is a dead body, and someone is going to jail,” as a friend who is a federal judge here in Reno, NV once said to me. But I do want to highlight just how much of our world can be interpreted differently based on our reference points. Sounds, colors, and the value we would get from a certain amount of wealth are not obviously subjective, but Kahneman shows just how subjective these areas are in his book. This should make us consider how much our backgrounds, our unique points of view, and the circumstances in which we make our observations shape how we understand the world. A lot of our understandings of reality are context dependent, and that should cause us to pause before we say with absolute certainty that reality is exactly as we have experienced it. We should pause to consider the reference classes which shape and influence how we experienced the world, and how those references might be different than those of other people. We can’t just say that there is one way to interpret and experience everything in the world, we have to accept that how we experience the world will be shaped by many factors that we might not be aware of and might not consider if we don’t slow down to think about the references.
The Emotional Replica of Reality in our Brains

The Emotional Replica of Reality Within Our Brains

It feels weird to acknowledge that the model for reality within our brains is nothing more than a model. It is a construction of what constitutes reality based on our experiences and based on the electrical stimuli that reach our brain from various sensory organs, tissues, and nerve endings. The brain doesn’t have a model for things that it doesn’t have a way of experiencing or imagining. Like the experience of falling into a black hole, representations of what the experience is like will never fully substitute for the real thing, and will forever be unknowable to our brains. Consequently, the model of reality that our brain uses for every day operations can only include the limited slice of reality that is available to our experiences.

 

What results is a distorted picture of the world. This was not too much of a problem for our ancestors living as hunter-gatherers in small tribes. It didn’t matter if they fully understood the precise risk of tiger attacks or poisonous fungi, as long as they had heuristics to keep them away from dangerous situations and questionable foods. They didn’t need to hear at the frequency of a bat’s echolocation pulses, they didn’t need to see ultraviolet, and they didn’t need to sense the earth’s magnetic field. Precision and completeness wasn’t as important as a general sense of the world for pattern recognition and enough fear and memory to stay safe and find reliable food.

 

Today, however, we operate in complex social structures and the narratives we tell about ourselves, our societies, and how we should interact can have lasting influences on our own lives and the lives of generations to come.  How we understand the world is often shaped by our emotional reaction to the world, rather than being shaped by a complete set of scientific and reality based details and information. As Daniel Kahneman writes in Thinking Fast and Slow, “The world in our heads is not a precise replica of reality; our expectations about the frequency of events are distorted by the prevalence and emotional intensity of the messages to which we are exposed.”

 

Kahneman writes about news reporting of strange and extreme phenomenon, and how that leads us to believe that very rare events like tornado deaths are more likely than mundane and common causes of death such as those resulting from asthma complications. Things that are dramatic and unique feel more noteworthy, and are likely to be easier for us to remember and recall. When that happens, the events feel less like strange outliers, and more like normal events. The picture of reality operating in our mind is altered and distorted based on our experiences, the information we absorb, and our emotional valence to both.

 

For a social species, this can have dramatic consequences. If we generalize a character trait of one person to an entire group, we can develop dangerous stereotypes that influence our interactions with hundreds or thousands of people. A single salient event can shape how we think about problems or opportunities in our communities and societies. Rather than fully understanding our reaction and the event itself, we are going to struggle through narratives that seek to combine thousands of individual perceptions of reality, each influenced in unique ways by conflicting emotions and opinions of what has happened. Systems and structures matter, especially when our brains operate on inadequate versions of reality rather than concrete versions of reality and can be shaped by our emotional reactions to such systems and structures.
Fluency Versus Frequency

Fluency Versus Frequency

When it comes to the availability heuristic, fluency seems to be the most important factor. The ease with which an example of something comes to mind matters more than the real world frequency of the event. Salient examples of people being pulled over by the police, of celebrity divorces, or of wildfires cause our brains to consider these types of events to be more common and likely than they really are.

 

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman shares results from a study by German psychologist Norbert Schwarz which demonstrates fluency versus frequency in our analysis of the world. Schwarz asked participants to list six instances in which they behaved assertively, and to then rate their overall level of assertiveness. In a second instance, Schwarz asked participants to list twelve instances where they were assertive and to then rate their overall level of assertiveness. What the studies show is that those who were asked to come up with 6 instances of assertiveness considered themselves to be more assertive than those asked to come up with 12 instances. Kahneman describes the results by writing, “Self-ratings were dominated by the ease with which examples had come to mind. The experience of fluent retrieval of instances trumped the number retrieved.”

 

The logical expectation would be that asking people to list 12 instances of assertiveness would give people more reason to believe they were a more assertive person. However, that is not what the study showed. Instead, what Kahneman explains happened is that as you are asked to pull more examples from memory, your brain has a harder time remembering times when you were assertive. You easily remember a few stand-out assertive moments, but eventually you start to run out of examples. As you struggle to think of assertive times in your life, you start to underrate your assertiveness. On the other hand, if you only have to think of a handful of assertive moments, and your brain pulls those moments from memory easily, then the experience of easily identifying moments of assertiveness gives you more confidence with rating yourself as assertive.

 

What I find fascinating with the study Kahneman presents is that the brain doesn’t rely on facts or statistics to make judgments and assessments about the world. It is not setting a bar before analysis at which it can say, more examples of this and I am assertive, or fewer examples and I am not assertive. It is operating on feeling and intuition, fluidly moving through the world making judgments by heuristics. The brain is not an objective observer of the world, and its opinions, perspectives, and conclusions are biased by the way it operates. The study suggests that we cannot trust our simple judgments, even when they are about something as personal as our own level of assertiveness.
On Travel as a Cure for Discontent - Joe Abittan

On Travel as a Cure for Discontent

Does travel help us be more happy? Seneca did not think it did. In Letters From a Stoic, he included a quote from Socrates, “Why do you wonder that glob-trotting does not help you, seeing that you always take yourself with you? The reason which set you wandering is ever at your heels.”

 

Seneca writes that escapism is not a path toward happiness. We must focus on ourselves and use self-awareness, Seneca would argue, to become happy with ourselves and our situations wherever we may be. If we cannot be happy as ourselves and with one given situation, then how can physically moving ourselves from one place to another increase our happiness? We will still be ourselves, with all the same troubles that created our discontent where we initially were. On travel as a cure for discontent, Seneca saw little promise.

 

His letter continued, “What pleasure is there in seeing new lands? Or surveying cities and spots of interest? All your bustle is useless. Do you ask why such flight does not help you? it is because you flee along with yourself.”

 

In a narrow sense, Seneca is correct. We bring baggage with us when we travel. We bring baggage in the form of our actual luggage, the stuff we bring to present ourselves to the outside world and to make the environment we find ourselves in a little more familiar. Simultaneously, we bring mental baggage in the form of thoughts, fears, expectations, and anything in our mind when we left the place we were at. We are still ourselves and a simple transplantation cannot solve deeply held fears, anxieties, habits, or behaviors.

 

But even before a global pandemic (I originally highlighted and read these quotes in June of 2019), I recognized that Seneca’s thinking on travel is too narrow and misses an important point. Travel changes our perspectives, disrupts the routine thoughts that occupy our minds, and can serve as a temporal break to allow us to make a change in who we are and what we do. Colin Wright describes it this way in his book Come Back Frayed, “Travel frays. Not just our stuff, but us. It pushes us, rubs us against uncomfortable realities, the friction creating gaps in our self-identity, loosening and then tightening our structure over and over and over again.”

 

It doesn’t matter what (or who) we bring with us when we travel. The journey changes us, alters us physically and mentally, shifts perspectives, and interrupts our experience of the passage of time. Our voyage is not useless if we can use the self-awareness that Seneca prescribes to help us see how travel is changing us and to take away important lessons from where we go. Happiness can be found in travel because we don’t just take ourselves with us, we don’t just flee and escape ourselves and our spot on earth, we literally fray apart who we were, and loosen and tighten the structures which bind ourselves over and over. In the end, travel changes us, and that can help us find new avenues toward happiness.

Beliefs Are Not Always in the Driver’s Seat

I am not a religious person. I can explain to you all the reasons why I don’t believe there is a deity who created the universe or interjects into our lives, but according to Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, that might not be a particular meaningful thing to try to communicate. If I set out to explain what I believe about the world as a rational for the beliefs that I hold, I might be missing a more fundamental but less appealing reason for my atheism. I don’t come from a religious family, and to be a good part of my familial group and our friend groups, I adopted their beliefs and have found justification for those beliefs through the years. I may think those justifications are sound, but that doesn’t mean I should ignore the part of my brain that set me down the path I am on.

 

In The Elephant in the Brain, Simler and Hanson write, “as we’ve seen throughout the book, beliefs aren’t always in the driver’s seat. Instead, they’re often better modeled as symptoms of the underlying incentives, which are frequently social rather than psychological. This is the religious elephant in the brain: We don’t worship simply because we believe. Instead we worship (and believe) because it helps us as social creatures.”

 

Hanson and Simler explain the ways in which both theists and atheists approach religion following a belief-first model. In this model, we develop beliefs about the world and universe from what we see and experience and then we adjust our behaviors to align with those beliefs. This is the model, the authors suggest, that is at work in debates between most theists and atheists. This is why we argue over the veracity of religious claims and the implications of ever growing scientific understandings of the universe.

 

But what might really be going on, and this is a view you might see from an anthropologist but might not hold front and center in your views, is that religious views help us be part of a social group and community of people who cooperate, share common values, and can provide support to one another. Religion has social values that can draw people toward it, and increasingly today, atheism seems to have many of  the same social qualities.

 

I have been in very religious contexts and circles though I am most comfortable among atheists. In both groups I have noted a tendency to characterize the other group as deviants. Religious people are mocked as morons while atheists are scoffed at as selfish and amoral trouble-makers. Both groups use the other as an out-group of villains to create more cohesion internally.

 

There is surely a part of religious beliefs that is driven by our experiences and how we think about and understand the world, but whether we want to admit it or not, a large part of our religious identity is shaped by our relationships and social groups surrounding the idea of religion. We can use religion as a model and a guide for our lives that provides us with social connections and social benefits, and we can also use our lack of religious beliefs to do the same. The true nature of the universe and the reality of the world around us often come second, and that is part of why it is so hard to change someone’s religious beliefs and why we tend to hold the same beliefs as our parents and family.

The Argument That College Isn’t About Learning

In The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson make an argument that we create stories and narratives around how our world operates that make us look as good as possible. We have systems and structures in place that provide us with convenient reasons for behaving the way we do. These convenient reasons are socialable, put us in the best possible light, and make us feel good about ourselves. Simler and Hanson argue that below this surface lie our true reasons and our hidden motives for our behaviors.

 

One area they look at is education. Nominally, we tell everyone that we are going to school to learn something, to prepare ourselves for the future, to build new skills, to make new connections, and to gain new experiences. What we don’t say is that we are going to school to check a box, to gain a credential, and to simply look more impressive to other people. Education is supposed to be about learning and information, not about padding a resume and trying to simply gain something in a personal and selfish manner. Their argument about education relies on a lot of research that is also discussed in Bryan Caplan’s book The Case Against Education, which I have not read but is referenced in The Elephant in the Brain and who I have heard on several podcasts. To suggest that education is about something other than just the learning we are supposed to do, the authors write,

 

“Consider what happens when a teacher cancels a class session because of weather, illness, or travel. Students who are there to learn should be upset; they’re not getting what they paid for! but in fact, students usually celebrate when classes are canceled. Similarly, many students eagerly take Easy A classes, often in subjects where they have little interest or career plans. In both cases, students sacrifice useful learning opportunities for an easier path to a degree. In fact, if we gave students a straight choice between getting an education without a degree, or a degree without an education, most would pick the degree-which seems odd if they’re going to school mainly to learn.”

 

Sometimes we do learn useful things in school. Sometimes we really do gain new perspectives, have new and meaningful experiences, and grow though our coursework. But students don’t seem as focused on the learning in most areas (some technical degrees at the university level might be different) as simply getting through and getting a diploma. Education includes a lot of signaling aspects that are just as important (if not more important) than any learning we might do.

 

Education tells people we are the kind of person who can earn a degree. Good grades tell potential employers that we are the kind of people who can figure out what is demanded of us, and we are the kind of people who will then do what is demanded. Much of what we learn we will forget, and once we get on the job we will be expected to do a lot of training to learn how to do the actual thing we were hired to do based on our education. We learn a bit in school, but we also signal a lot about ourselves in the process.

Buying Experiences

I’m not big into materialism and I notice a lot of problems in trying to purchase ever greater and more expensive things. I’m one of those people who would probably repeat the trite line of “I’d rather buy an experience than a thing” or “I want to use my money to purchase memories and things that will stick with me rather than things that wear out.” What I need to remind myself, however, is that purchasing experiences over material objects does not remove me from the human drive to use our purchases to show off.

 

In The Elephant in the Brain Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about making experience purchases. Part of why we make these purchases is to enjoy a new experience, see something new, and get away to make new memories as we claim, but part is about something else. “Buying experiences also allows us to demonstrate qualities that we can’t signal as easily with material goods, such as having a sense of adventure or being open to new experiences,” the authors write.

 

Our experience purchases never happen in a vacuum. We come back from Hawaii with a great tan. We post pictures of the waterfall at the top of our hike on social media. We tell our friends and coworkers about the great meals and the amazing show that we went to. Our experiences don’t stay in the place we visited (sorry Vegas!), and in some ways, that is the point. Part of why we go on vacations, sign up for running events, take fishing trips, or visit the big city is so that we can have new stories to tell when we get back. This is part of the appeal and part of the value of our journeys.

 

This makes sense to me when I think about how we evolved. Even for those of our ancestors who were more predisposed to be home bodies taking care of the local tribal and group needs, a journey away could provide new insights and stories for others. Possibly a warning of traveling away, possibly of news of something new that might be on its way, and possibly just stories about something different. These tales and stories could help build group cohesion as a whole, and could help the story teller rise in terms of social status in the group to pass on their genes.

 

In the world today we should remember this. When we take a trip, we should consider our desire for sharing every detail, and we should consider whether we are sharing for others or for our own gain. We might still brag a bit about where we went, but we should do so with a conscious understanding of what we are doing, rather than denying our (potentially) true motives.