Natural Doesn't Mean Anything

Natural Doesn’t Mean Anything

I am generally not a fan of the term ‘natural.’ I’m fine with it in the context of human talents and skills, such as saying that someone is a natural runner or painter, but applying natural in other contexts, such as to foods, human social orders, and behaviors is often problematic. In the first context I mentioned, relating to human skills, we use the term natural to mean that something comes easily to someone. They have a proclivity toward something as a result of genes, epigenetic factors, or a lucky upbringing that gave them lots of exposure to the thing from a young age. In the other context, we are using the term natural to make normative judgements that don’t sound like normative judgements. We are attaching our values to what is desirable or undesirable, and cloaking that judgement in an idea that something simply happens because it happens and its a good thing.
To demonstrate this phenomenon, we can look at what might be considered ‘natural’ for human beings in terms of living and social arrangements. When looking back at human history in his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes about the evolution of Homo sapiens in tribal groups. He writes, “Even if a particularly fertile valley could feed 500 archaic Sapiens, there was no way that so many strangers could live together. … In the wake of the Cognitive Revolution, gossip helped Homo sapiens to form larger and more stable bands. But even gossip has its limits. Sociological research has shown that the maximum ‘natural’ size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals. Most people can neither intimately know, nor gossip effectively about, more than 150 human beings.”
What has helped Homo sapiens form societies larger than about 150 individuals are technologies such as religions and political institutions. Man-made structures for organizing human life have propelled us beyond our small tribes which would compete, fight, and  break down. Harari’s quote suggests that what is ‘natural’ for humans is to live in small bands where we are distrustful of strangers we don’t know intimately. What is unnatural is for us to exist and coordinate across large groups of human beings.
The way that Harari describes the ‘natural’ state of being for humans helps us see that ‘natural’ is often used to propel certain ways of being without actually considering whether the idea of ‘natural’ is a good or bad thing. It would be ‘natural’ for humans to live in small groups that fought each other, but that wouldn’t be good for the flourishing of humanity. So when we make arguments that eating the paleo diet is good because it is ‘natural’ or that political leaders need to be tough, strong men because that is ‘natural’, we are simply hiding a normative judgement behind the phrase ‘natural.’ What we can see, however, is that ‘natural’ is not a good or bad thing on its own. We should be responsible and stop using ‘natural’ as an argument or as a way to advertise products. It doesn’t mean what we purport it to mean.
Using Language for More than Conveying Environmental Information - Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens - Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson The Elephant in the Brain - Joe Abittan

Using Language for Conveying More Than Environmental Information

In the most basic utilitarian sense, our complex human languages evolved because they allowed us to convey information about the world from one individual to another. Language for early humans was incredibly important because it helped our ancestors tell each other when a predator was spotted nearby, when fruit was safe to eat, or if there was a dead water buffalo nearby that our ancestors could go scavenge some scraps from.  This idea is the simplest idea for the evolution of human language, but it doesn’t truly convey everything we have come to do with our language over a couple million years of evolution.
Yuval Noah Harari expands on this idea in his book Sapiens, “a second theory agrees that our unique language evolved as a means of sharing information about the world. But the most important information that needed to be conveyed was about humans, not lions and bison.” What Harari means in this quote is that human language allowed our ancestors to gossip. This is an idea that Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson share in their book The Elephant in the Brain. They argue that language is often more about showing off and gossiping than it is about utilitarian matters such as conveying environmental information. They also argue that the use of language for gossip and signaling was one of the key drivers of the evolution of the human brain, rewarding our ancestors for being smarter and more deceptive, hence rewarding larger and more complex brains.
In Sapiens, Harari explains that many species of monkeys are able to convey basic information through specific calls that are recognized among a species, such as when a predator is nearby or when there is ample food nearby. Playbacks of sounds identified as warnings will make monkeys in captivity hide. However, studies haven’t been able to show that other species are able to communicate and gossip about each other in the ways that humans do from a very young age. Our use of language to convey more than basic information about our environment allowed humans to develop into social tribes, and it has sine allowed us to develop massive populations of billions of people all cooperating and living together.
Kahneman's Gossip Hope

Kahneman’s Hope

Daniel Kahneman opens his book on cognitive biases, thinking errors, and observed processes within the field of cognitive psychology in an interesting place. Thinking Fast and Slow begins with Kahneman praising gossip, and explaining his hope for the readers of his book. He does not hope that readers of his book will avoid gossip and stop talking about others behind their backs. He hopes readers will gossip better, and understand the thought processes, mental limitations of the human mind, and mental errors that go into all of our gossip.


Kahneman writes, “The hope for informed gossip is that there are distinctive patterns in the errors people make. Systematic errors are known as biases, and they recur predictably in particular circumstances.”


What he hopes for is that understanding how the brain works will help us all have better conversations at the water cooler, or at lunch with a colleague, or in the evening when we get home and want to vent to a spouse or parent or pet. Gossip can be a powerful tool in developing and shaping the norms of society, and if we are going to give gossip so much power, we should at least do our best to ensure that our gossiping is well informed, accurate, and that when we gossip we understand how our minds are reaching our gossipy conclusions.


Certainly Kahneman’s real hope is that writing about and explaining gossip in a way that more people can access than simply putting his ideas in academic journals will lead to fewer negative externalities in the world from biases, prejudices, and simple cognitive errors. However, for most people, Kahneman thinks the water cooler gossip forum is where his ideas and research will really impact people’s conversations.


The point is that the human mind doesn’t exactly work the way we tend to think it does. It feels as though we have one thought that rationally flows from another thought. That we are observant, considerate, and are willing to come to conclusions based on fact and observed reality. Through his research in the book, Kahneman shows us that our brains are predictable in the errors they make. They are not as rational as we believe, and our thoughts don’t flow coherently from one idea to the next. The observations we make are always incomplete relative to the full information of the reality around us, and our choices and actions are far more motivated by what we want to believe is true than is actually true in reality. Knowing all of this, Kahneman hopes, will make us more cognizant and reflective in our gossip, hopefully helping the world to be a slightly more accurate and enjoyable place to be.
Gossip Machines

Gossip Machines

Humans are gossip machines. We like to talk about  and think about other people, especially the negative traits and qualities of others. At the same time, we are self-deception machines. We downplay our own faults, spend little time thinking about our mistakes, and deny any negative quality about ourselves. Even when we are the only audience for our thoughts, we hide our own flaws and instead nitpick all the things we dislike about other people.


As Daniel Kahneman writes in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, “it is much easier, as well as far more enjoyable, to identify and label the mistakes of others than to recognize our own.”


But gossip isn’t necessarily as bad as we usually make it out to be. It is definitely not a good thing to constantly talk bad about other people, to find faults in others, and to ignore our own shortcomings. It can make us vain, destroy our relationships with friends and family, and give us a bad reputation among the people in our lives. And yet, we all engage in gossip and it pops up on social media today, in movies from the 80’s and 90’s, and even in journals from our nation’s founding fathers. Gossip seems to have always been with us, and while we are quick to highlight its evils, it seems to also be an important part of human society.


Kahneman continues, “The expectation of intelligent gossip is a powerful motive for serious self-criticism, more powerful than New Year resolutions to improve one’s decision making at work and at home.”


We do not live in a vacuum. We are not isolated from society and other humans, and as a result we understand ourselves and think about ourselves in relation to other people. We partake in gossip and we know that other people gossip about us. This creates an important constraint on our actions and behaviors, shaping the way we live our lives. Knowing that other people will judge us prevents many negative behaviors such as reckless driving, living in unsanitary conditions, or being deliberately mean to other people. While gossip certainly has a lot of problems, it does in some ways shape how we behave in societies with other people in positive directions.


We might not want to think about our own flaws, but knowing that humans are gossip machines forces us to at least consider how we will appear to other people some of the time. This can drive us to act in accordance to social norms, and can be the bedrock of a society that can cooperate and coordinate efforts and goals. Without gossip, we might have a harder time bringing ourselves together to live in harmony.

The Role of Gossip

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson have an interesting idea about gossip in their book The Elephant in the Brain. Instead of seeing gossip as some terrible moral failure on the part of human beings, the authors take a more deep and close look at gossip to try to understand just what is taking place. By understanding the role gossip plays, the authors are able to provide a more concrete reason for why we gossip.


They write, “Among laypeople, gossip gets a pretty bad rap. But anthropologists see it differently. Gossip–talking about people behind their backs, often focusing on their flaws or misdeeds–is a feature of every society ever studied. And while it can often be mean-spirited and hurtful, gossip is also an important process for curtailing bad behavior, especially among powerful people.”


Some discussions are hard to have out in the open. It is hard to go around openly asking people if the president’s behavior is crossing a line and is inappropriate. It is hard to openly ask the office if a co-worker’s clothing is unacceptable, and it is hard to openly ask the world if someone else is trying to do something just to show off. If we are on the wrong side in these situations, we can look really bad ourselves, and we can be very embarrassed if our opinions and ideas are rejected by the rest of the group.


Instead of putting ourselves out in a vulnerable place, gossip allows us to test the waters. We can quietly get a sense of other people’s opinions and ideas without actually revealing our thoughts and ideas completely. We can start to moderate our ideas and opinions and update our model of what is and is not acceptable, tolerable, or popular at a given time. Gossip lets us connect with others in a way that broad publicity does not. It can encourage social bonding between small groups within larger groups and it can help enforce the norms that our culture develops. These can all be positive and negative aspects of gossip, but it happens because we live in a complex and confusing world where we develop opinions socially as opposed to just individually. Sometimes, we need some cover to develop opinions that align with our social group to reduce our vulnerability to attack and isolation.

Don’t Gossip as a Coach

Human beings are great at gossiping. We seem to excel at talking about other people when they are not around and complaining about them or telling stories of other people’s strange behaviors. It makes us feel good to talk to someone else and have our insecurities about someone else justified, to have ourselves boosted above the person who is not around, and to know that other people are on our side. But that is all that gossip is. It is a form of self aggrandizing behavior that increases our political clout in our social group at the expense of another person and as much as we talk about another person, gossip is really all about us and all about making ourselves feel good.


So why does gossip make its way into our coaching relationships? This is a question that Michael Bungay Standier raises in his book The Coaching Habit. Bungay Stanier calls the temptation to bring gossip into professional coaching settings “coaching the ghost” because the person whose behavior and actions that you discuss is not actually in the room with you. Bungay Stanier recognizes that these conversations in our coaching meetings help with bonding and feel good on an individual level, but he is honest about the reality of the situation and how little gossip helps you achieve anything meaningful. Redirecting back to real coaching, he writes,


“The key thing to know here is that you can coach only the person in front of you. As tempting as it is to talk about a “third point” (most commonly another person, but it can also be a project or a situation), you need to uncover the challenge for the person to whom you’re talking.”


To move from gossip to coaching conversations must actually focus on the individual and how the individual can work better alongside the other person or how the individual can better manage the other person. Often times we just want to vent about the things we dislike or find annoying in our co-workers or family members, just telling someone what you don’t like or reaffirming another does not actually lead to growth. Instead we need to focus on what can be controlled, mainly our own mind, thoughts, and decisions. We can only control how we react and perceive the actions of another person, so we should focus on that rather than focusing on the person we dislike.