A Few Dominant Myths

A Few Dominant Myths

“Friends giving advice often tell each other, follow your heart. But the heart is a double agent that usually takes its instructions from the dominant myths of the day,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens. What we want, what we believe is possible for us, and how we experience the world is often dominated by the larger culture that we are a part of. This means that how we relate to and understand the world is constantly changing both through our own lifetimes and across the lifetimes of individuals of our entire species. What we believe, what we think is good and worthy of our time and energy, and how we go about pursuing our goals and desires changes based on the dominant myths of our time and the resources available to us.
 
 
To demonstrate this point, Harari shows how two myths, Romanticism and Consumerism can be found in the idea of follow your heart. Regarding Romanticism, Harari writes, “Romanticism tells us that in order to make the most of our human potential we must have as many different human experiences as we can.” The value of being human, within this framework, is the experience of being alive. Doing the same thing each day, becoming really good at one particular thing, living in the same spot, and having a few consistent experiences each day is not valuable. Uniqueness, openness, and diversity are praised within the individual.
 
 
Regarding Consumerism, Harari writes, “Consumerism tells us that in order to be happy we must consume as many products and services as possible. If we feel that something is missing or not quite right, then we probably need to buy a product.” Within this view, things, possessions, and services are of inherent value, as is owning things and consuming services. A lack of possessions is seen as failure, and the goal is to continually obtain more, bigger, and better possessions.
 
 
It is easy to see why Harari is able to lump these two myths together. Being unique compliments buying lots of different things. Having many varied possessions, purchasing many varied services, and utilizing possessions to engage in new and diverse activities tie Romantic ideas of the individual pursuing a diverse and exciting lifestyle with the consumerism urge to possess and own things and experiences. “Romanticism, which encourages variety, meshes perfectly with consumerism,” Harari writes.
 
 
But there is no reason that our culture needs to favor these two myths over others. It is nice to have a diversity of experiences. It can be helpful to see and view the world from different perspectives and to understand how others live and the full potential of humanity. It is also nice to be able to purchase comforts, and a helpful byproduct of consumerism is an advancing technological landscape that rewards innovations which improve life satisfaction. But Humans can be satisfied in life with a few possessions. We can be satisfied with a stable and predictable routine. We can find joy in becoming very good at doing the same things each day and mastering those tasks. There is no reason that Romanticism or Consumerism has to be understood as better than Stoicism or Minimalism, or any other myth that we might adopt. Within the United States, few of us truly challenge the ideas of Romanticism or Consumerism. They are the dominant myths of the day, and eschewing them is strange. Even when we do try to give up one myth, it is hard to give up both. Deciding not to purchase many products and services is seen as a way of being unique and self-sufficient, a Romantic framing of non-Consumerist behavior. Minimalism often still rewards carefully curated purchases and possessions. If you are not going to have a lot of things, then you better have the absolute best of the few things you do have, many Minimalists might argue.
 
 
How we understand ourselves, the values we pursue, and how we exist in culture is often determined by myths that work well when we all embrace them in a collective manner. That doesn’t mean that one myth is inherently better than another. Additionally, myths can be complimentary to each other, and even contradictory myths can be understood as complimentary and not conflicting. We do not exist in isolation or in a vacuum, and it shows in the ways in which cultural myths influence us. Follow your heart is a message to tap into the dominant myths of the day, and it is a saying that is influenced by those same myths.
Agricultural & Industrial Boredom

Agricultural & Industrial Boredom

Growing up, I remember being told that agrarian farmers in the United States around the time of the depression had a very small number of stimuli in their daily lives. I don’t know why I remember it being around the time of the Great Depression or limited to just farmers in the United States, but I had a teacher at one point who compared the number of stimuli in the lives of kids in the 1990s and early 2000s (kids like me) to farmers of the early 1900s. This was in a pre-smartphone age, but I still had a Gameboy, watched too much TV, and even in Reno, NV had plenty of billboards competing for my attention as I was driven to and from sports practices. A farmer of the 1900s had a tractor, some farm equipment, rows of corn, and blue skies with a few clouds here and there. By the time I had played a few minutes of Gameboy, watched a cartoon before school, and ridden the bus, I had experienced more stimuli competing for my attention than a farmer would have experienced their whole life – so my teacher suggested.
The implications of the lack of stimuli for early farmers was that their lives were boring. I had electronic games, interesting TV shows, and thousands of distractions every day to keep my mind occupied. But early farmers had very little to keep their mind engaged throughout the day. This idea is echoed by Yuval Noah Harari in is book Sapiens. He writes, “the forager economy provided most people with more interesting lives than agriculture or industry do.” This seems to have been true about early human agriculturalists and industrialists, and is in many ways still true today.
Ancient hunter-gatherers had a lot of interesting things to do each day. They would move around, travel about the landscape looking for different edible foods, try to stalk an animal to potentially kill for dinner, and look for resources and materials that could be useful for some sort of shelter. Their days were like our treasured weekend hiking and hunting trips, and for many of them, they were likely out with a small group of trusted tribesmen, not off by themselves.
Early farmers had a lot of work to do, but it was routine and dull compared to exploring the land looking for good food. In the end, farming seems to have been able to provide more calories for more people, making it pay off for society as a whole, but the individual farmers had less interesting lives than the foragers. Industry is similar. Humans within industry and factories are viewed as essentially biological machines, and they often have to do the same repetitive tasks for hours on end in industrialized economies. Certainly being a hunter-gatherer who goes on hikes all day and then hangs out with kids, plays games, tell stories, and gossips after a day out exploring would have been much more interesting and enjoyable than waking up early, making the same daily commute, and working the same tedious job 5 or 7 days a week.
There is no Natural Way of Life - Yuval Noah Harari - Sapiens - Joe Abittan

There is No Natural Way of Life

Are human beings naturally peaceful, or naturally violent? Are they naturally traders, or are they naturally competitors? Is it natural for them to pursue progress, or natural for humans to stick to tradition and avoid new ways of organizing the world around them? These questions rage every day in academic circles, on the news, in our offices, and everywhere that people gather. We like to believe that there are things that are simply natural for human beings, and things we consider natural are considered broadly good, while things that are unnatural are lumped in with everything bad and evil.
However, in his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari argues that there is no natural way of life for Homo sapiens. Instead, according to Harari, there is a wide horizon of possibilities which includes, “…the entire spectrum of beliefs, practices, and experiences that are open before a particular society, given its ecological, technological, and cultural limitations.” Even for people living in the most remote, technologically limited, and culturally strict villages on Earth, there is a wide horizon of possibilities for what any individual or group could do. For those of us lucky enough to live in the United States, the horizon of possibilities is effectively endless. The ways in which we could live and experience the world are greater than what any of us could imagine, and all the different perspectives and permutations could be considered natural from a certain point of view – or unnatural from another. Trying to attach values such as good or bad, through labels of natural or unnatural, doesn’t really make sense for any given permutation chosen from the horizon of possibilities.
Harari continues, “The heated debates about Homo sapiens’ ‘natural way of life’ misses the main point. Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, there hasn’t been a single natural way of life for Sapiens. There are only cultural choices, from among a bewildering palette of possibilities.” Dating back at least 70,000 years ago, human tribes have varied and differed based on numerous factors. Looking at a single ancient tribe or group of humans and deciding that how they lived was natural gives us a misleading understanding of how we should live today. We can look back and find tyrannical leaders who conquered other tribes and sacrificed their victims to their gods, but this doesn’t mean it is natural for humans to be lead by a single genocidal tyrant. It is just as fair to look around today and see transsexual men and women cooperating and sharing virtual resources in a video game and make conclusions about what is natural for humans as it would be to look back at the genocidal tyrant, to look back at human groups from the days of the first books in the Christian Bible, or to look back at any other group of humans from any part of the globe since the Cognitive Revolution and decided that how people live, interact, behave, and interpret the world is ‘natural’. At each point in space and time there are options available to us based on the ecology of where we find ourselves, based on the technology and knowledge available to us, and based on many other factors we cannot enumerate. Some ways of living are more likely to help us and others survive, some ways of living are more likely to help us enjoy our lives, but that doesn’t mean they are natural, good, or will continue to help us survive and enjoy our lives indefinitely. There is no natural way of life for a human, only a staggeringly large set of possibilities.
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.