The Heart of the Social Contract

A lot of my writing lately could be misread as me making excuses for people who have made poor decisions and failed to be good citizens. I have been writing about the homeless and those who face chronic evictions, arguing that their failure is in many ways a larger failure of society to provide a system that will maximize human well-being and provide a reasonable floor from which everyone can rise. I have been more critical of those who dismiss the homeless and chronically evicted as lazy or morally deviant than I have been critical of those who cannot maintain a job, housing, or the support of friends and family. The reason I have been so critical of those who have, rather than those who need, is because I think we focus too much on ourselves, our own wants and desires, and our own challenges. We don’t think about ourselves in relation  to a larger society, at least not in the United States we don’t do enough thinking of ourselves and our dependence on others.
In his 1993 book about homeless women, Tell Them Who I Am, Elliot Liebow writes, “trying to put oneself in the place of the other lies at the heart of the social contract and of social life itself.” It is important that we think about others rather than only think about ourselves. If we only think about our own problems, if we only  think about what would make us look cool, and if we only strive for our own goals, then we will fail in our obligations of the social contract. We have to think about the other people who are in our community, what they need, what their problems are, and how all of us can be part of a solution. We also have to think about the negative externalities that our actions produce in the world. What Liebow writes in the quote above is that the heart of a democracy relies upon all of us coming together and thinking not just about ourselves, but about others and about society.
I’m not saying that individually we all need to be more charitable, altruistic, and to give more of our time and money. I’m saying that we need to think more about others, and as a collective need to invest in institutions that make it easier for us to uphold the social contract. I would argue that recently we have invested in institutions which focus us inward, away from the social contract. Social media asks us to say something about our own lives, streaming services all us to focus our entertainment on our own preferences at any minute, and our current work expectations drive us to long hours so that we can own bigger and better things. The institutions which push us to be more communal have fallen to the side, requiring greater commitments from those involved, and scaring away those who would otherwise look to be involved. As Liebow explains, we need to think about others to be socially responsible and address collective problems, and this requires a shift away from our individual focused mindsets.
The Spotlight Effect

The Spotlight Effect

We are social creatures that crave connections with and acceptance from other people. We want to have many allies as we move through life and want to be seen as a valuable ally to others. In our minds, we magnify our actions, words, and behaviors, examining what we do and how we present ourselves to others to make sure we are winning as many allies as possible. However, this constant focus on ourselves and how we might appear to others creates an illusion known as the spotlight effect. We are so focused on how we are presented to others that we begin to feel as though everyone else really is watching us and really is paying attention to how we present ourselves.

 

The reality, for most of us, is that very few people really notice much about us. Our spouse and other members of our household probably notice the little details about us, whether we haven’t shaved for three days, whether we have worn the same shirt two days in a row, and whether something is really bothering us, but most other people probably don’t notice that much. The reality is that most of them are focused on themselves, falling into their own spotlight effect and not actually paying much attention to what we are doing.

 

Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein write about the spotlight effect in their book Nudge. They write, “One reason why people expend so much effort conforming to social norms and fashions is that they think that others are closely paying attention to what they are doing. … here’s a possibly comforting thought: they aren’t really paying as much attention to you as you think.”

 

People follow traditions, like wearing ties, that they dislike because they think everyone expects them to wear a tie and will be disappointed in them if they fail to wear one. This example of conformity bias mixed with the spotlight effect is relatively harmless, but the spotlight effect can have more severe consequences. People may believe their phones and social media posts are being watched by the police, they may worry that their colleagues will think of them as a cheapskate if their Secret Santa gift isn’t expensive and cool enough, and they may worry that other people on social media won’t find them authentic if they don’t angrily denounce the outrage of the day. These examples show how the spotlight effect can play into conspiratorial thinking, spending more money than one can really afford to spend, and engaging in signaling behaviors that might be beyond reasonable.

 

This is why Sunstein and Thaler’s quote can be helpful and possibly comforting. It is useful to recognize that we overanalyze ourselves and focus too highly on everything we do and how we present ourselves. Understanding this can help us see that everyone is so focused on themselves that they don’t have a lot of mental capacity left for scrutinizing everyone else. Once we realize that others are not paying as much attention to us as we thought, we can scale back negative aspects of conformity and self scrutiny. We can dial back the spotlight effect, and hopefully make decisions and choices that better fit the person we are, not the person we try to convince everyone else that we are. There are positive aspects to the spotlight effect, but for many of us, we probably over stress ourselves worrying about what others think, and would benefit from recognizing that others don’t pay so much attention to us.
The Focusing Illusion Continued

The Focusing Illusion Continued

I find the focusing illusion as described by Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow to be fascinating because it reveals how strange our actual thinking is. I am constantly baffled by the way that our brains continuously and predictably makes mistakes. The way we think about, interpret, and understand the world is not based on an objective reality, but is instead based on what our brain happens to be focused on at any given time. As Kahneman writes, what you see is all there is, and the focusing illusion is a product of our brain’s limited ability to take in information combined with the brain’s tendency to substitute difficult and complex questions for more simple questions.

 

In the book, Kahneman asks us to think about the overall happiness of someone who recently moved from Ohio to California and also asks us to think about the amount of time that paraplegics spend in a bad mood. In both situations, we make a substitution. We know that people’s overall happiness and general moods are comprised of a huge number of factors, but when we think about the two situations, we focus in on a couple of simple ideas.

 

We assume the person from Ohio is happier in California because the weather in California is always perfect while Ohio experiences cold winters. The economic prospects in California might be better than Ohio, and there are more movie stars and surfing opportunities. Without knowing anything about the person, we probably assume the California move made them happier overall (especially given the additional context and priming based on the weather and jobs prospects that Kahneman presents in the example in his book).

 

For our assumptions about the paraplegic, we likely go the other way with our thoughts. We think about how we would feel if we were in an accident and lost the use of our legs or arms. We assume their life must be miserable, and that they spend much of their day in a bad mood. We don’t make a complex consideration of the individual’s life or ask more information about them, we just make an assumption based on limited information by substituting in the question, “How would I feel if I became paralyzed.” Of course, people who are paralyzed or lose the function of part of their body are still capable of a full range of human emotions, and might still find happiness in their lives in many areas.

 

Kahneman writes, “The focusing illusion can cause people to be wrong about their present state of well-being as well as about the happiness of others, and about their own happiness in the future.”

 

We often say that it is important that we know ourselves and that we be true to ourselves if we want to live healthy and successful lives. But research throughout Thinking Fast and Slow shows us how hard it can be. After reading Kahneman’s book, learning about Nudges from Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, and learning how poorly we process risk and chance from Gerd Gigerenzer, I constantly doubt how much I can really know about myself, about others, or really about anything. I am frustrated when people act on intuition, sure of themselves and their ideas in complex areas such as economics, healthcare, or education. I am dismayed by advertisements, religions, and political parties that encourage us to act tribally and to trust our instincts and intuitions. It is fascinating that we can be so wrong about something as personal as our own happiness. It is fascinating that we can be so biased in our thinking and judgement, and that we can make conclusions and assumptions about ourselves and others with limited information and not even notice how poorly our thought processes are. I love thinking about and learning about the biases and cognitive errors of our mind, and it makes me pause when I am sure of myself and when I think that I am clearly right and others are wrong. After all, if what you see is all there is, then your opinions, ideas, and beliefs are almost certainly inadequate to actually describe the reality you inhabit.
Focusing Illusion

Focusing Illusion

I wrote earlier about an experiment that Daniel Kahneman discusses in his book Thinking Fast and Slow where college students were asked to evaluate their life and asked to count the number of dates they had been on in the last month. When the question about dates came after the question about happiness, there was no correlation between the two answers. However, when the question about dating came before the question about happiness, those who had few dates tended to rank their overall happiness lower. Later in the book, Kahneman expands on ideas related to this finding and describes the focusing illusion.

 

Kahneman sums up the focusing illusion by writing, “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it.”

 

Our brains are limited. They can only hold so much information at one time. What you see is all there is, meaning that the things you directly observe become the reality that your mind works within. We use heuristics, make assumptions, and our thoughts are subject to biases. As a result, the things we pay attention to and think about become the center of our lives. They become more important in our minds than they really should be.

 

The dating and happiness questions help us see the machinery of the mind and help us understand how the brain works. The inner machinery of the mind really does overweight things that we happen to be thinking about. Having more or fewer dates is an important worry for college students, but making students think about their dating life before or after a question about overall happiness shouldn’t really influence the degree to which students rate their overall happiness. However, if the mind is forced to think about dating, it becomes a more important factor in the mind and begins to blend into other considerations.

 

I have seen this happen in my own life. Objectively, I have had a great life. I was raised by a great family in a safe neighborhood in the United States. But at times I was certainly one of those college students whose subjective rating of life was unreasonably influenced by things that shouldn’t have mattered very much. Whether it was not having enough dates, watching the University’s basketball team lose, or having an angry customer at the restaurant I worked at, I can look back and recognize times when I had a negative outlook on life that stemmed from small negative events that I focused on too deeply. I still do this today, but being aware of the focusing illusion and understanding that what you see is all there is has helped me to avoid focusing too deeply and giving too much important to events or opinions that shouldn’t dominate my outlook on life.
The Happiness of the Moment

The Happiness of the Moment

In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes, “remember that neither the future nor the past pains thee, but only the present.” He also writes, “if though holdest to this, expecting nothing, fearing nothing, but satisfied with thy present activity according to nature, and with heroic truth in every word and sound which though utterest, though wilt live happy.”

 

Aurelius is a foundational Stoic thinker. A key part of stoicism is remaining in the present moment, focused on where you are now, what you are doing now, and how you can best use your current time. Worrying about what will happen in the future and feeling regretful of what has happened in the past only distracts from the present moment, bringing anxiety to situations that on their own do not cause any negativity in our lives.

 

The stoics, it turns out, were largely correct about finding happiness in the present moment. Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking Fast and Slow, writes, “Our emotional state is largely determined y what we attend to, and we are normally focused on our current activity and immediate environment. There are exceptions, where the quality of subjective experience is dominated by recurrent thoughts rather than by the events of the moment.”

 

Happiness is generally an emotion we feel when we are present. By refocusing our mind on our present activity and finding constructive and useful outlets for our attention, we can find happiness, even if our past has been a nightmare or if we are afraid of what will come in the future. It is important to learn lessons from the past and important to plan for the future to be successful and maximize our opportunities to meaningfully engage in the world, but when we spend all our time allowing recurrent thoughts to dominate our mind, we will diminish our overall happiness. If we constantly think about something embarrassing from the past, if we are always worried about an upcoming deadline, or if we only think forward to vacations and what we would rather be doing, then we won’t be happy in the moment. We won’t make the most of our current situation, and we won’t be content where we are. By focusing on the present and attending to a single present task or activity (even if it is just our breath), then we can root ourselves to our current state, and allow the regret and fears from our past and future to begin to melt away.
Mood, Creativity, & Cognitive Errors

Mood, Creativity, & Cognitive Errors

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman comments on research studying people’s mood and cognitive performance. He writes the following about how we think when we are in a good mood, “when in a good mood, people become more intuitive and more creative but also less vigilant and more prone to logical errors.”

 

We think differently when we are in different moods. When we are relaxed and happy, our minds are more creative and our intuitions tend to be more accurate. Kahneman suggests that when we are happy and when we don’t sense threats, our rational and logical part of the brain lets up, allowing our mind to flow more freely. When we are not worried about our safety, our mind doesn’t have to examine and interrogate everything in our environment as thoroughly, hence the tendency toward logical errors. A sense of threat activates our deep thinking, making us more logical, but also diminishing the capacity of our intuitive thinking and making us less creative, less willing to take risks with our ideas and thoughts.

 

The research from Kahneman about mood, creativity, and cognitive errors reminds me of the research Daniel Pink shares in his book When. Pink finds that we tend to be more creative in the afternoons, once our affect has recovered from the afternoon trough when we all need a nap. Once our mood has improved toward the end of the day, Pink suggest that we are more creative. Our minds are able to return to important cognitive work, but are still easily distracted, allowing for more creative thinking.  This seems to tie in with the research from Kahneman. We become more relaxed, and are willing to let ideas flow across the logical boundaries that had previously separated ideas and categories of thought in our minds.

 

It is important that we think about our mood and the tasks we have at hand. If we need to do creative work, we should save it for the afternoon, when our moods improve and we have more capacity for drawing on previously disconnected thoughts and ideas in new ways. We shouldn’t try to cram work that requires logical coherence into times when we are happy and bubbly, our minds simply won’t be operating in the right way to handle the task. When we do work is as important as the mood we bring to work, and both the when and the mood may seriously impact the output.
Self-Control Depletion, Continued

Self-Control Depletion, Continued

“The evidence is persuasive,” writes Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow, “activities that impose high demands on System 2 require self-control, and the exertion of self-control is depleting and unpleasant. Unlike cognitive load, ego depletion is at least in part a loss of motivation.”

 

Yesterday I wrote about our misconceptions regarding individual self-control. I wrote about how important it is to structure our environment accordingly for productivity and self-restraint. We are influenced by far more factors in our environment than we like to admit, and we don’t have as much self-control over our behaviors as we believe we do. Being intentional with our environment, shaping the systems, structures, and institutions around us, will enable us to move through life without needing unreasonable (or unattainable) self-control and motivation.

 

Today’s quote from Kahneman gets more detailed with self-control, ego depletion, and our experience of focus, attention, and mental effort. Cognitive load, as mentioned in the quote, is the effort put on our thinking processes. Remembering a 7 digit number is a light cognitive load, while holding 7 digits in your mind and adding one digit to each number to get a new number is a higher cognitive load. At a certain point under cognitive load, our mind simply can’t hold any more information and can’t continue to accurately do more mental weight-lifting. This is the point where ego depletion sets in if we continue to try to push through and maintain the hard work.

 

The more we engage System 2, the part of our brain needed for focus activities and complex problem solving, the quicker we lose motivation for mentally taxing activities. This is the ego depletion that Kahneman writes about. Our brains in theory can keep going, we could keep reading, writing, plugging away at a spreadsheet, but our brains start to get tired, and our motivation to focus and push through with continued mental effort fades. If we continue to exercise self-control, preventing ourselves from a diversion, such as playing a video game, then we are slowly going to wear ourselves out, and we will be more likely to get a cookie, have a drink, or binge watch a whole TV series once we do stop.

 

Just as our brains are not able to continually hold more and more information without making mistakes, our brains are not able to continually do more and more deep work without reaching a breaking point. As Cal Newport writes in his book Deep Work, for most people who are serious about doing their best work, the limit is roughly 4 hours of intense deep work per day. The mind, even a well trained mind, will get tired and lose the motivation to keep pushing through more deep work without making dangerous mistakes and becoming less productive in the long run. We have to keep in mind the twin forces of cognitive load and ego depletion, and focus on doing the right work at the right time, before our cognitive load is overwhelming and before our self-control has been depleted. We can do great work, but we have to be intentional about how we do our deep work, and we have to set up our environment to minimize the pull of distractions and the need for self-control.
Limited Effort for Focus and Deep Work

Limited Effort

A little while back I wrote a blog post centered around a quote from Cal Newport, “You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.”

 

The idea is that our brains get tired, and as they get tired, they become worse at practicing self control. When you are exhausted, when you have had to concentrate really hard on school work, a business presentation, or on paperwork to ensure your child’s medical care is covered, your mind’s ability to focus becomes deminished. You have trouble staying away from that piece of cake in the fridge, from scrolling through Facebook, and you have trouble being patient with a child or spouse when they try to talk to you.

 

In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes something very similar to the quote from Newport, “self-control and deliberate thought apparently draw on the same limited budget of effort.” 

 

Our brains only have so much ability to do heavy duty thinking. It is as if there is a set account for deep thinking, and as we think critically we slowly make deductions from the account until our brains are in the red. Using our brain for serious thoughts and calculations requires focus and self-control. However, our willpower is depleted as we use it, so as we focus for longer periods of time, our brains become worse at ensuring that we stay focused.

 

Kahneman suggests that this is part of why we spend most of our life operating on System 1, the automatic, quick, and lightweight thinking process of our lives. System 2 is the deliberate thought process that we engage to do math, to study a map to make sure we know where we are driving, and to listen seriously to a spouse or child and provide them with support. System 2 takes a lot of energy, and has a limited budget. System 1 runs on low-power mode, and that is why it is our default. It makes mistakes, is subject to biases, and doesn’t always answer the right questions, but at least it saves us energy and allows us to reserve the effort of attention for the most important tasks.

 

Kahneman and Newport would likely both agree that we should use our budget for System 2. We should maximize the time we spend in deep work, and set ourselves up to do our best System 2 work when we need to. We can save System 1 for unimportant moments and tasks, and work with our brains so that we don’t force too much System 2 work into the times when our effort budget has been depleted.
Skill Versus Effort

Skill Versus Effort

In the world of sports, I have always enjoyed the saying that someone is so good at something they make it look easy. While I usually hear the saying in relation to physical activity, it also extends to other generally challenging activities – Kobe made the fadeaway jumper look easy, Tyler Cowen makes blogging look easy, and Roman Mars has made podcasting look (sound?) easy. But what is really happening when an expert makes something look easy? Daniel Kahneman argues that increased skill makes things look easy because skill decreases the effort needed to do the thing.

 

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman writes, “As you become skilled in a task, its demand for energy diminishes. Studies of the brain have shown that the pattern of activity associated with an action changes as skill increases, with fewer brain regions involved. Talent has similar effects. Highly intelligent individuals need less effort to solve the same problems, as indicated by both pupil size and brain activity. A general law of least effort applies to cognitive as well as physical exertion.”

 

while I was at a UCLA summer basketball camp years ago, Sean Farnham told me a story about Kobe – he used to work out at the UC Irvine Gym every morning. He drew such a big crowd to the gym that UC Irvine asked him to either stop coming to the gym, or to arrive at a different time. Kobe didn’t stop, he just changed his hours, working out at 4 or 5 a.m., before the gym would be packed. Farnham told me that Kobe had a training entourage with him, so that when he would pass out on the court from physical exhaustion of working so hard, his staff could pull him to the side, get him some fluids, and help him get back out on the court until he would pass out again.

 

Tyler Cowen writes every day. On his podcast and in other interviews, he has explained how writing every single day, even on Christmas and your birthday, is one of the most important things you can do if you want to be a good writer and clear thinker. Much of his writing never gets out into the public, but every day he puts in the effort and practice to build his skill.

 

Roman Mars loves radio, and his hit podcast 99% Invisible is onto episode 410.  In a 2012 interview with Debbie Millman Mars talked about learning to love radio early on and how he developed a passion for audio programming, even if no one was listening.

 

Kobe, Cowen, and Mars all practice a lot, and have developed a lot of skill from their practice. As Kahneman explains, their daily practice doesn’t just allow them to make things look easy. For those who practice as much as these three, things really are easier for them. Kobe’s muscle memory meant that he was more efficient in shooting a fadeaway jump shot, literally needing less energy and less mental focus to pull off a perfect swish. Cowen writes every day and the act of starting a piece of writing for him probably requires less brain power to begin putting thoughts together. Similarly, Mars probably slips into his radio voice effortlessly, without consciously having to think about everything he is about to say, making the words, the voice, and the intonation flow more simply and naturally.

 

Kahneman and the three examples I shared show how important practice is for the things we want to do well. Consistent practice builds skill, and literally alters the brain, the chemical nerve pathways (via myelination), and the physical strength needed to perform a task. With practice, tasks really do become easier and automatic.
Stimuli, Attention, and What We Notice

Stimuli, Attention, and What We Notice

“Wherever you direct your gaze, you will meet with something that might stand out from the rest, if the context in which you read it were not equally notable,” writes Seneca in Letters From a Stoic.

 

Quite a while back I listened to a podcast interview with the founder of a music streaming service called Focus At Will. The company is different from other streaming services such as Spotify or Pandora in that they don’t provide stations that have your favorite songs from top artists. Instead, they have stations with altered songs and selected tunes that they believe will help you stay on focus. The idea is that our brains are easily distracted by the human voice, by instruments that mimic the human voice, and by lots of changes in our background. Each time we hear a voice, we are distracted for a fraction of second as our brain figures out whether we need to pay attention to that voice or not. And when the sound in the background changes suddenly, like when a song ends, when a car honks its horn, or when a branch snaps, our brains perk up and focus on our surroundings for a second to figure out if we are in danger. Eliminate these background noises and provide a consistent noise, the company argues, and people will be able to focus.

 

Seneca’s quote from above reminded me of Focus At Will and the theories behind their streaming. In particular, one of their stations really aligns with the ideas that Seneca lays out in the quote, but from an audio rather than visual perspective. Focus At Will has a station designed for people with ADHD. Based on neurological studies, they argue that people with ADHD have brains that are too sensitive to background noises. For most of us, when a colleague sneezes from two offices over, the sound is detected by our ears and transmitted to our brain which subconsciously decides the noise was unimportant. Consequentially we don’t even notice the noise because it gets stuck with the unconscious brain, never elevated to the level of conscious awareness. For an individual with ADHD, however, their brain is more sensitive to a sneeze from down the hall, and they consciously recognize that noise and are distracted as they think through whether they need to respond to the stimuli or not. This happens with more than just sneezes, and can be hugely distracting for the individual as they are constantly working through stimuli that are easily ignored and unnoticed for most of us.

 

The solution that most of us would jump to would be to put an individual with ADHD in a completely noise and stimuli reduced environment. The solution of Focus at Will, in line with Seneca’s quote, is to raise the context of other noises to be equally as notable as the disruptions. The streaming service has a station that can be almost overwhelming to individuals without ADHD. There is a flurry of sound (in a musical way – not just random noise) that is somewhere in the neighborhood of heavy metal, demolition derbies, or construction sites. The solution is to raise the level of noise and distraction so that everything is operating at a high distraction level, so that no notable sound stand out.

 

Personally, I listen to stations like the Chilled Cow Lofi Hip Hop Radio Station when I need to focus on important work. But the idea of what stands-out, what we focus on, what we notice among a sea of stimuli is fascinating. Our brains can be overwhelmed by stimuli, and at the same time, an abundance of stimuli can also bring our attention and focus into a single point, drowning out other stimuli. This is just one more example of how reality isn’t. Our brains construct and create the reality we experience, and how we see the world around us is context dependent, with the level of stimuli playing a role in what we observe and experience.