Standard Stories Continued

Standard Stories Continued

“Is there anything wrong with standard stories?” asks Quassim Cassam in Vices of the Mind. “That depends,” he continues, “on one’s view of their two most striking theoretical commitments, individualism and their psychologism: they focus on a small number of individuals (‘designated actors’) and attribute the outcomes they want to explain to the psychology of these individuals.”
In almost any movie we see (I am particularly thinking about Disney movies here) there is a pretty small cast of characters. There are a handful of main characters who interact and drive the story forward, and then a few surrounding characters like co-workers, cousins, or fellow train passengers who are just in the background and don’t really contribute to the story. Standard stories flatten the world, and relying on them too much to understand our own worlds isn’t realistic because we have so many more people who play prominent roles in our lives, or who play important roles at different times, but are not consistently a main character in the story.
Cassam continues, “standard stories are, in this sense, personal and they have plots like those of a novel or a play. According to structuralism that is the fundamental problem. Because of their focus on individuals and their idiosyncratic psychologies standard stories forget that individuals only exist within complex social structures.” The narratives we create in our own minds and the stories we create for movies and television ignore the complex social structures (or at least fail to directly consider them) that drive a lot of our behavior and psychology. We attribute a great amount of influence and power to individual level decision-making. Specific character traits are elevated, describing and defining everything we need to know about an individual, and the correct set of thoughts and traits is all a character in a standard story needs in order to succeed and reach happily-ever-after. Again, this flattens our reality. The real world has complex social structures, institutions, and systems that are not always transparent, hard to navigate, and can limit many of the decisions in our lives.
Finally, Cassam writes, “what that means is that in many cases it isn’t individuals’ psychologies that explain their actions but the constraints imposed by the structures within which they operate.” Standard stories work well in our Western Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic  (WEIRD) culture in the United States. It highlights the power and possibility of the individual, elevating our decision-making, our hard-working ethos, and our beliefs that our thoughts and actions are what determine our success or failure in all that we do. Unfortunately, the world is more complex than what we see in standard stories. We become over-reliant on explanations for the world based on individuals and their psychologies, and don’t spend enough time thinking deeply about the structures and systems within which we live. Success in a standard story is incredibly rewarding, after all, it is all about you. However failure in such a story is crushing, because it doesn’t acknowledge the factors that limited your ability and decision-making. Standard stories place any failure entirely within the individual. they are simplified ways to understand the world, but are also inaccurate and leave us with a flattened understanding of what our existence is truly like.
Aspiration Rules

Aspiration Rules

My last post was all about satisficing, making decisions based on alternatives that satisfy our wants and needs and that are good enough, but may not be the absolute best option. Satisficing contrasts the idea of maximizing. When we maximize, we find the best alternative from which no additional Pareto efficiencies can be gained. Maximizing is certainly a great goal in theory, but in practice, maximizing can be worse than satisficing. As Gerd Gigerenzer writes in Risk Savvy, “in an uncertain world, there is no way to find the best.” Satisficing and using aspiration rules, he argues, is the best way to make decisions and navigate our complex world.

 

“Studies indicate that people who rely on aspiration rules tend to be more optimistic and have higher self-esteem than maximizers. The latter excel in perfectionism, depression, and self-blame,” Gigerenzer writes. Aspiration rules differ from maximizing because the goal is not to find the absolute best alternative, but to find an alternative that meets basic pre-defined and reasonable criteria. Gigerenzer uses the example of buying pants in his book.  A maximizer may spend the entire day going from store to store, checking all their options, trying every pair of pants, and comparing prices at each store until they have found the absolute best pair available for the lowest cost and best fit. However, at the end of the day, they won’t truly know that they found the best option, there will always be the possibility that they missed a store or missed a deal someplace else. To contrast a maximizer, an aspirational shopper would go into a store looking for a certain style at a certain price. If they found a pair of pants that fit right and was within the right price range, then they could be satisfied and make a purchase without having to check every store and without having to wonder if they could have gotten a better deal elsewhere. They had basic aspirations that they could reasonably meet to be satisfied.

 

Maximizers set unrealistic goals and expectations for themselves while those using aspiration rules are able to set more reasonable, achievable goals. This demonstrates the power and utility of satisficing. Decisions have to be made, otherwise we will be wandering around without pants as we try to find the best possible deal. We will forego opportunities to get lunch, meet up with friends, and do whatever it is we need pants to go do. This idea is not limited to pants and individuals. Businesses, institutions, and nations all have to make decisions in complex environments. Maximizing can be a path toward paralysis, toward CYA behaviors (cover your ass), and toward long-term failure. Start-ups that can satisfice and make quick business decisions and changes can unseat the giant that attempts to maximize every decision. Nations focused on maximizing every public policy decision may never actually achieve anything, leading to civil unrest and a loss of support. Institutions that can’t satisfice also fail to meet their goals and missions. Allowing ourselves and our larger institutions to set aspiration rules and satisfice, all while working to incrementally improve with each step, is a good way to actually move toward progress, even if it doesn’t feel like we are getting the best deal in any given decision.

 

The aspiration rules we use can still be high, demanding of great performance, and drive us toward excellence. Another key difference, however, between the use of aspiration rules and maximizing is that aspiration rules can be more personalized and tailored to the realistic circumstances that we find ourselves within. That means we can create SMART goals for ourselves by using aspiration rules. Specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound goals have more in common with a satisficing mentality than goals that align with maximizing strategies. Maximizing doesn’t recognize our constraints and challenges, and may leave us feeling inadequate when we don’t become president, don’t have a larger house than our neighbors, and are not a famous celebrity. Aspiration rules on the other hand can help us set goals that we can realistically achieve within reasonable timeframes, helping us grow and actually reach our goals.
A Useful Myth

A Useful Myth

Autonomy, free will, and self-control combine to create a useful myth. The myth is that we control our own destinies, that we are autonomous actors with rights, freedoms, and the opportunity to improve our lives through our own effort. The reality is that the world is incredibly complex, that we don’t get to chose our genes, our parents, or the situations in life that we are born and raised within. A huge number of factors based on random chance and luck contribute to whether we are successful or not, but nevertheless, the belief that we are autonomous actors with control over our own free will is still a useful myth.

 

In Risk Savvy Gerd Gigerenzer writes, “people who report more internal control tend to fare better in life than those who don’t. They play a more active role in their communities, take better care of their health, and get better jobs. We may have no control about whether people find our clothes or skills or appearance attractive. But we do have control over internal goals such as acquiring languages, mastering a musical instrument, or taking responsibility for small children or our grandparents.”

 

This quote shows why the idea of internal control and agency is such a useful myth. If we believe we have the power to shape our lives for the better, then we seem to be more likely to work hard, persevere, and stretch for challenging goals. A feeling of helplessness, as though we don’t have control, likely leads to cynicism and defeatism. Why bother trying if you and your actions won’t determine the success or failure you experience in life?

 

This myth is at the heart of American meritocracy, but it is important to note that it does appear to be just a myth. EKGs can detect electrical activity in the brain and predict an action before a person becomes aware of a conscious desire to perform an action. Split brain experiments and the research of Kahneman and Tversky show that our brains are composed of multiple competing systems that almost amount to separate people and personalities all within our singular consciousness. And as I wrote earlier, luck is a huge determining factor in whether we have the skills and competencies for success, and whether we have a supportive environment and sufficient opportunities to master those skills.

 

Recently, on an episode of Rationally Speaking, Julia Galef interviewed Michael Sandel about our meritocracy. One fear that Sandel has about our system of meritocracy is that people who succeed by luck and chance believe that they succeeded because of special qualities or traits that they possess. Meanwhile, those who fail are viewed as having some sort of defect, a mindset that people who fail or live in poverty may come to believe is true and embrace, thus creating another avenue for defeatism to thrive.

 

If internal control is a useful myth, it is because it encourages action and flourishing for individuals. My solution therefore is to blend the two views, the view of internal agency and the view of external forces shaping the future we have. These are contradictory views on the surface, but I believe they can be combined and live in harmony (especially given the human ability to peacefully and ignorantly live with contradictory beliefs). We need to believe we have agency, but also believe that success is essentially a matter of luck and that we are dependent on society and others to reach great heights. This should encourage us to apply ourselves fully, but to be humble, and take steps to help ensure others can also apply themselves fully to reach greater levels of success. When people fail, we shouldn’t look at them as morally inept, as lacking skills and abilities, but as people who happened to end up in a difficult place. We should then take steps to help improve their situations and to give them more opportunities to find the space that fits their skills and abilities for growth and success. Internal control can still be a useful myth if we tie it to the right structures and systems to ensure everyone can use their agency appropriately and avoid the overwhelming crush of defeatism when things don’t go well.
Self-Control & Environmental Effects - Joe Abittan

Self-Control & Environmental Effects

I discount the idea of the self more than most people. I don’t think that it is useful to think about ourselves as definable individuals the way most people do, and as a result, I don’t think self-control, discipline, and individual responsibility should be as prominent in our economic and political systems as we make them. From my perspective, the systems, structures, and environmental conditions of our lives shape our decisions and behaviors to a much greater extent than I think most people want to admit.

 

Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler provide evidence that supports my position in their book Nudge. Sunstein and Thaler write about the hot-cold empathy gap which describes how much self-control we predict we will have when we imagine a temptation versus how much self control we actually have when faced with a temptation. It is easy to say that we are going to limit how many sweets we eat at a Christmas party when we are still at home, getting ready to leave. But once we have arrived at the party and smell fresh baked cookies and pies, our self-control is effectively thrown out the window.

 

“When in a cold state,” write Sunstein and Thaler, “we do not appreciate how much our desires and our behavior will be altered when we are under the influence of arousal. As a result, our behavior reflects a certain naivete about the effects that context can have on choice.”

 

What is important to take away from this quote is that there is a disconnect between the way we expect to behave and the choices we expect to make and the actual behaviors and decisions of the moment. I believe that systems and structures matter a lot, but if we set up certain systems and structures in our lives without recognizing how hard it will be to actually make the choices and decisions that we expect to make, then we have not actually built any type of system or structure that we can be successful within. We can buy all the swiss chard that we want and write out a weekly menu full of healthy foods, but if we buy a pack of Oreos at the store convinced that we will only eat one a day for dessert, we will be unlikely to actually stick to our plan at 2:30 on Wednesday afternoon when we crave something sweet.

 

Environmental effects are important and often overlooked when we think about our decisions and behaviors. This is because our reflection is done in a cold state when we are not tempted by mindless TV, cookies, or sleeping in for an extra hour. If we want to be successful and develop systems and structures that will actually encourage self-control and good decision-making, then we have to predict how we will feel when we are in hot states, and we have to arrange our environment in a way that completely prevents the choices we want to avoid. We can’t have Oreos in the house at all, we have to install a website blocker to stop us from browsing social media, and we have to place the alarm away from the bed, so we have to actually get up when it goes off. Expecting that our self-control will hold is a good way to fail when temptation is all around.
Imagining Success Versus Anticipating Failure

Imagining Success Versus Anticipating Failure

I am guilty of not spending enough time planning what to do when things don’t work out the way I want. I have written in the past about the importance of planning for failure and adversity, but like many others, I find it hard to do and hard to get myself to sit down and think seriously about how my plans and projects may fail. Planning for resilience is incredibly important, but so many of us never get around to it. Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow, helps us understand why we fail to plan for failure.

 

He writes, “The successful execution of a plan is specific and easy to imagine when one tries to forecast the outcome of a project. In contrast, the alternative of failure is diffuse, because there are innumerable ways for things to go wrong.”

 

Recently, I have written a lot about the fact that our minds understand the world not by accumulating facts, understanding data, and analyzing nuanced information, but by constructing coherent narratives. The less we know and the more simplistic the information we work with, the more coherent our narratives of the world can be. When we have less uncertainty, our narrative flows more easily, feels more believable, and is more comforting to our mind. When we descend into the particular, examine complexity, and weigh competing and conflicting information, we have to balance substantial cognitive dissonance with our prior beliefs, our desired outcomes, and our expectations. This is hard and uncomfortable work, and as Kahneman points out, a problem when we try to anticipate failures and roadblocks.

 

It is easy to project forward how our perfect plan will be executed. It is much harder to identify how different potential failure points can interact and bring the whole thing crashing down. For large and complex systems and processes, there can be so many obstacles that this process can feel entirely overwhelming and disconnected from reality. Nevertheless, it is important that we get outside of our comfortable narrative of success and at least examine a few of the most likely mistakes and obstacles that we can anticipate. Any time that we spend planning ways to get the ship back on course if something goes wrong will pay off in the future when things do go wrong. Its not easy because it is mentally challenging and nebulous, but if we can get ourselves to focus on the likelihood of failure rather than the certainty of success, we will have a better chance of getting to where we want to be and overcoming the obstacles we will face along the way.
Employers, Employees, and Opioids

Employers, Employees, and Opioids

One of the frustrations I have with modern day America is how frequently employers say that their greatest asset is their employees, but don’t back that statement up with actual action that helps improve the lives of their employees. Many of us work 40 hours when our work could reasonably be completed in fewer hours, alternatively many of us have incredible demands and insufficient help or time to complete our work. On the benefits side, many of us have health plans that don’t make preventative care affordable and have high deductibles and copays which place basic medical care beyond our reach. These frustrations, incursions into our non-work-lives, and a lack of support for living healthy lives are examples where employers are failing to live up to the claim that so many of them make about the care and value they have for their employees.

 

In the end, a failure to take care of employees and a willingness to let workers languish hurts the employers as much as the employees. In his book, The Opioid Crisis Wake-Up Call Dave Chase writes, “Ohio attorney general Mike DeWine estimated that 40 percent of job applicants in the state either failed or refused a drug test. The result: In certain places, solid middle-class jobs can’t be filled.”

 

On a first read, the problem sounds like it is on the job applicants. Why are so many job applicants using drugs, refusing drug tests, and unable to be hired for work? Shouldn’t they stop using drugs, get their lives together, and do the sensible things to be responsible humans and find employment? From the outside, as someone with a job who doesn’t have an opioid addiction, this is easy to say and think, but it’s also shortsighted.

 

Many of us have incredibly lengthy commutes, decimated social lives, no meaningful civic or religious organizations to give us purpose outside of work, and lack access to supportive mental health and general healthcare services. When we fall on hard times and need assistance, we don’t have a social safety net that we can fall back upon with encouragement and understanding. We feel isolated, can barely afford healthcare, don’t have much time outside of work and commutes for social or civic engagement, and if we do need welfare, the system is designed to make us feel like abject failures for turning to public support programs for help.

 

The blame can’t fall entirely on the individual. Businesses have to be held accountable as well, after all, employers count on a strong labor market to stay afloat and be productive. If they truly value their employees, they should prioritize a happy, healthy, and effective workplace by pushing back against institutions and structures in our lives that make us miserable, depressed, unhealthy, and uncommitted to the work we do. Chase’s book shows how employers are beginning to do this, by providing more services (in healthcare) to their employees and actually saving money while doing so. Employers can let their actions speak louder than their HR slogans, and can help their employees actually live healthy lives. In the end, the workforce that they rely upon will indeed be more reliable.
Lead Measures

Find a Lead Measure and Drive Toward It

Cal Newport describes the difference between lead measures and lag measures in his book Deep Work. The lag measure is generally the thing we are working toward. A promotion, a book publication, and a down-payment are all lag measures. They follow our actions and are the outcome that we can measure for success or failure. Lead measures are all the smaller inputs that build toward the success or failure of the lag measure. It is lead measures that are the most useful for us when thinking about our day to day productivity and progress toward goals.

 

Having a good lag measure is important, but achieving or failing in regard to your lag measure is a downstream consequence of upstream actions. It is hard to adjust based on lag measures because the activity that produced the outcomes being measured has already happened. Cal Newport explains the advantages that lead measures have over lag measures because of this fact:

 

“Lead measures turn your attention to improving the behaviors you directly control in the near future that will then have a positive impact on your long-terms goals.”

 

Newport explains that his personal lag measure for success as an academic is the publication of academic journal articles, and the lead measure he selected to drive toward that lag measure is hours spent in deep work. By measuring how much time he spendings in concentrated focus on work related to academic journal article publications, he ensures that he makes progress toward his publication goal, even if every single moment itself didn’t directly produce a new publication. Good lead measures provide the fundamental building blocks of the success we seek and are more within our control than our larger lag measures.

 

If you work in sales, you likely have a lag goal of a certain number of sales per quarter. A lead measure might be the number of pitches that you make per day or the number of cold calls that you make per day. If you are writing, then the number of hours spent writing is a good lead measure to back up a publication lag measure. And if you are a parent or spouse, a good lead measure might be the number of caring things you did for your spouse or child with the lag measure of having a stable family. Thinking through a reasonable lead measure will help you identify what important actions are within your control that you can do to increase the likelihood of success on your big goals. Failing to pick a lead measure leaves you aimless in your day-to-day, and can have consequences when it comes time to measure your overarching goals later.

Credit for Being Who You Are

It is easy to look at other people and compare ourselves to them and feel either vastly superior or completely inadequate. But whether we feel better than someone else or worse than another person, we should recognize that these comparisons are generally meaningless. There are some people who do incredible things in the world, and others who we think could do more, but it is often the case that the individuals themselves have less control over how amazing and impressive they are than we (and they) believe.

 

For someone who is successful, it is easy and tempting for them to take all the credit. Surely they had to make smart choices and work hard to get to the place they are, and surely their success feels as if it has been earned. Simultaneously, we can apply this filter to someone who has not become our picture of success. They were lazy and didn’t make smart choices, and also deserve the place where they have landed.

 

For both successful and unsuccessful people, this perspective can be turned around. The successful person was the beneficiary of good luck, of a supportive and loving family, and maybe even inherited some wealth to help them along the way. The person who didn’t succeed maybe just didn’t get the lucky break, didn’t have someone in their life to help encourage and inspire them, and maybe had other challenges we don’t know about. For the successful person, maybe they would still be successful even if they were lazy and made poor choices. Perhaps the person we think of as a failure would have still failed even if they had worked hard and made smart choices.

 

I like to think through these exercises to remind myself that what I think of as success and failure, and what I see in my own life outcomes and the outcomes of other people are not always the results of individual actions, choices, and will power. Comparing ourselves to those who are successful and those who have failed doesn’t really give us a good picture of who is a valuable person. We all have different advantages and all face different forms of adversity. There are a lot of factors we can’t control, and we can’t take full credit for being either successful or for failing to reach the highest rung on the ladder.

 

Dale Carnegie writes about this in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, bringing a bit of a Stoic perspective to his readers:

 

“The only reason, for example, that you are not a rattlesnake is that your mother and father weren’t rattlesnakes. You deserve very little credit for being what you are—and remember, the people who come to you irritated, bigoted, unreasoning, deserve very little discredit for being what they are.”

 

We didn’t pick our genes, we didn’t pick our families, and we can’t always control our thoughts and personalities. We can certainly do the best we can with what we have, but we shouldn’t judge ourselves too harshly (or praise ourselves unduly) because we are not like someone else. To be where we are today was in many ways a lucky result, and we will never know exactly what extra pushes we received that others did not, or what extra advantages others had that we missed out on. All we can do is try to engage with the world in a meaningful way, and try to help those who didn’t get the advantages that we had.

Understanding and Forgiving

It is popular today to have strong opinions about the shortcomings and moral failures of other people. Democrats will gobble up news about the crazy things our president does and says, people who work will be quick to call out the laziness in others, and it is easy to condemn the greed and excesses of billionaires. I would argue, however, these criticisms speak more about ourselves than the people whose supposed wrongs we are railing against.

 

Being critical is easy, and it props us up by showing how far beneath ourselves we find another person to be. It is easy for us to say how terrible another person’s actions and thoughts are while we are not in that person’s shoes, and it creates and easy space for us to feel good about ourselves for not having the vices we see in others. What this meaningless venting misses, however, is that we live in a society where the drivers, decisions, and behaviors of everyone is interconnected.

 

I like to remind myself that no one succeeds or fails on their own. Consider a student as an example. In order to be a great student you need to have a healthy space in which to do your studies. Things that would make that space livable and easy to do studying in might be things like loving parents, a desk, a heater for the cold months, and sufficient lighting for you to do your work. You did not discover the light bulb or the electricity that runs it, you did not pay for the energy to run the heater, and you didn’t purchase the house within which you studied. You may have put in the hard work necessary to be a successful student, but you depended on parents who could provide the structure and environment for you. Even if you were missing those things, and did your work at a library, you similarly were dependent on others for your success. Lacking these things, and being a failure, was similarly not your fault. You could not chose to be born in a situation where you would lack encouragement, electricity, or a safe place to do work.

 

When I think about how dependent we are on others for even the most basic parts of life, such as commuting on roads we did not build to school or work, I am reminded of how important it is that we think beyond individuals when we want to criticize someone for their behavior. When we see someone who is lazy, we should ask what was missing in their life that did not properly encourage them to be the best version of themselves? When we see someone who is needlessly greedy, we should ask, how did society let this person down so that they came to see having more money or power than anyone else as being the most important thing for them to pursue? And when I see someone who directly harms others, I want to ask, where did society fail to help this person value relationships and value the interconnectedness which we all share? Just as we cannot claim 100% responsibility for our most incredible successes and must attribute something to the community when we succeed, we must do so with the failures of ourselves and the individuals we see around us. To simply criticize is to the ignore the role of society, which we are a part of. To end the negative we see around us, we must give more of ourselves to our community and work harder to ensure that what has made us a good person or a success as we define it, is there for everyone. (I know there are some people who are exceptions to the examples I gave above, but they are likely not the majority.)

 

As Dale Carnegie wrote in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, “Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain, and most fools do. But it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving.”

Timing Impacts Test Scores and Life Outcomes

“Indeed, for every hour later in the day the test were administered, scores fell a little more. The effects of later-in-the-day testing were similar to having parents with slightly lower incomes or less education – or missing two weeks of school a year.”

 

The quote above is from Dan Pink’s book When in a section where he wrote about researchers who studied test scores for children in relation to the time of day that tests were administered. School children performed better on tests when they took place early in the day, and worse on tests when they came later. The difference was not enormous to the point where students were passing with flying colors in the morning and failing in the afternoon, but it was meaningful.

 

I find this incredibly interesting for a couple of reasons. The first is that I think 8 hour work-days are horrible, and the second is that I think we ascribe our success or failure in life to our own efforts far more than what we should.

 

Starting with the first point, if I were suddenly named king in the United States, my first act would be reduce the standard workday to 6 hours instead of 8. Most American’s no longer work at a factory where they need to be active on a line pushing a button or hammering a nail in order for widgets to be produced. When that was the case, 8 hour workdays may have been necessary, but in a knowledge economy where our main output comes from our mind and not our hands, 8 hour workdays likely harm our work more than they allow us to produce meaningful outputs. My big fear is that increased time outside of work will lead to more urban sprawl and longer commutes for people rather than to more valuable time spent in communities or with family.

 

Ultimately, however, I think giving us more time for sleep, for exercise, and for family will help us be better people. I believe that many people claim to be more busy than they actually are at work, and often spend a lot of time focusing on low value tasks that keep them busy but don’t provide much benefit for anyone. Shortening the work day would force people to be better schedulers and to use their time more wisely, and would hopefully create a happier workforce and nation.

 

Second, it is important to recognize that simply the time at which students took a test impacted the score they got. The test in some ways is measuring their knowledge, but it clearly is also measuring endogenous factors unrelated to their learning. We are grading and scoring our students in ways that can be influenced by meaningless factors beyond the students’ control.

 

I think this example is revealing of a basic fact of our lives. We feel like we are in control and as if the outcomes that people experience are directly related to their own effort and skill. However simply the time of day can have a big impact on our achievements, regardless of our skill or effort. Beyond test scores, perhaps you had a job interview in the afternoon, and both you and the interviewer were a little less sharp than you would have both been at 10 a.m. for an interview. You might not come across as the best candidate, and the time of day may be the biggest factor that prevented you from getting the job. In many ways small factors like timing can shape our lives in ways that we can’t even imagine. Sometimes luck is just as important as our skill and effort, and we should recognize that when we think about where we are and how we got to the point we are at.