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.
Fluency of Ideas

Fluency of Ideas

Our experiences and narratives are extremely important to consider when we make judgments about the world, however we rarely think deeply about the reasons why we hold the beliefs we do. We rarely pause to consider whether our opinions are biased, whether our limited set of experiences shape the narratives that play in our mind, and how this influences our entire outlook on life. Instead, we rely on the fluency of ideas to judge our thoughts and opinions as accurate.

 

In Thinking Fast and Slow Daniel Kahneman writes about ideas from Cass Sunstein and jurist Timur Kuran explaining their views on fluency, “the importance of an idea is often judged by the fluency (and emotional charge) with which that idea comes to mind.” It is easy to characterize an entire group of people as hardworking, or lazy, or greedy, or funny based entirely on a single interaction with a single person from that group. We don’t pause to ask if our interaction with one person is really a good reflection of all people who fit the same group as that person, we instead allow the fluency of our past experiences to shape our opinions of all people in that group.

 

And our ideas and the fluency with which those ideas come to mind don’t have to come from our own personal experience. If a claim is repeated often enough, we will have trouble distinguishing it from truth, even if it is absurd and doesn’t have any connection to reality. The idea will come to mind more fluently, and consequently the idea will start to feel true. We don’t have to have direct experience with something if a great marketing campaign has lodge an opinion or slogan in mind that we can quickly recall.

 

If we are in an important decision-making role, it is important that we recognize this fluency bias. The fluency of ideas will drive us toward a set of conclusions that might not be in our best interests. A clever marketing campaign, a trite saying repeated by salient public leaders, or a few extreme yet random personal experiences can bias our judgment. We have to find a way to step back, recognize the narrative at hand, and find reliable data to help us make better decisions, otherwise we might end up judging ideas and making decisions based on faulty reasoning.
As an addendum to this post (originally written on 10/04/2020), this morning I began The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker. Early in the introduction, Pinker states that violence in almost all forms is decreasing, despite the fact that for many of us, it feels as though violence is as front and center in our world as ever before. Pinker argues that our subjective experience of out of control violence is in some ways due to the fluency bias that Kahneman describes from Sunstein and Kuran. Pinker writes,

 

“No matter how small the percentage of violent deaths may be, in absolute numbers there will always be enough of them to fill the evening news, so people’s impressions of violence will be disconnected from the actual proportions.” 

 

The fluency effect causes an observation to feel correct, even if it is not reflective of actual trends or rates in reality.
Constant Task Switching

Constant Task Switching

My last post was about training the brain to become less dependent on continuous novelty and to become better at concentrated focus. Training the brain for deep work requires that we wean ourselves from distractions and in some senses rewire our brains to be less dependent on distracting stimuli.

 

Cal Newport describes exactly what it is with today’s technology that ruin’s our ability to focus. He says it is not just a distracting technology or habit, but our constant task switching. It is the multitasking (or what we call multitasking) that makes it so hard for us to actually do anything. “The idea motivating this strategy [strict regulation of our internet usage and time] is that the use of a distracting service does not, by itself, reduce your brain’s ability to focus. It’s instead the constant switching from low-stimuli/high-value activities to high-stimuli/low-value activities, at the slightest hint of boredom or cognitive challenge, that teaches your mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty.” 

 

A lot of the important work that we need to do is hard, includes some drudgery, and requires a good amount of brain power to think through the best way to design, implement, and complete. Often times this requires reading important technical documents, writing detailed reports, or building spreadsheets or tables. All of these activities have parts that flow nicely, and all of them have tedious parts that require attention to detail to make sure everything is well considered, thorough, and accurate. These activities require deep work.

 

If you continually jump between your deep work and your twitter feed, or the scoreboard for the league, or your Snapchat, you will be taking your mind off the important but tedious work and giving your attention over to something designed to be more stimulating, but that is ultimately unimportant. Your brain won’t be able to put up with long boring stretches of time, and eventually the consequences of your bad habits will catch up with you. It will take you longer to do detailed writing and to complete projects. You will miss small details in your constant task switching and your accuracy will suffer. Your mind will become accustomed to switching into a fantasy world of distraction, and you will find yourself at family dinners pulling out your phone instead of being present with loved ones. To get better at deep work, and to get the benefits that come with a focused mind, we have to work against the constant need for distraction, and that means developing habits that put low-value/high-stimuli distractions into a proper time and space, so we can enjoy them appropriately without letting them interrupt our important work.
What do you pay attention to?

What Do You Pay Attention To?

“Your world is the outcome of what you pay attention to,” writes Cal Newport in his book Deep Work. Newport builds on ideas by Winifred Gallagher in her book Rapt in which she discusses where her attention landed and how she tried to approach life and thinking after a difficult cancer diagnosis. What Gallagher found, and what Newport build’s on in the context of focused attention and work, is the importance of what we think about and pay attention to as we move through our lives. Newport includes the following quote from Gallagher in his book:

 

“Like fingers pointing to the moon, other diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioral economics to family counseling, similarly suggest that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non [an essential condition; a thing that is absolutely necessary] of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.” 

 

Newport explains that many of us make a mistake in thinking about what is important to us and what will bring us happiness. We assume that our context is everything, that we need a big house, a fancy title, a promotion, and a dream spouse to be happy. However, Gallagher’s book suggest that what we really need to feel happy is a shift in attention, away from the big things and desires, and toward the small positive things we enjoy in our life everyday, from a cup of coffee to a nightcap, and the small victories and enjoyable parts of each day. Appreciation and recognition of these small moments can mean more to us in the long run than the big fancy dream goals that we may one day reach.

 

We think it is the big context that matters, but as Newport writes, “Our brains instead construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to. Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow has a phrase for this, “What you see is all there is.” What you look at, what you think about, and what you encounter in your life is what your world will become. If you only look at your life and see the negative aspects of where you are, then your world will be awful. If, however, you can look at where you are and see good things around you, then your world will be better. This is what Gallagher learned while battling her cancer diagnosis, and this is what Newport incorporates into a life of focus. Dialing in on the important and positive aspects of life help us avoid feeling that we are not doing enough, are not good enough, and don’t have enough to live a happy and meaningful life.

Arguing for Importance

In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie shares a story about a tax consultant and an argument that the consultant had with a government auditor. The two were in a heated debate over a relatively small sum of money and whether it was assessed and taxed properly. A shouting match ensued with both parties being a bit arrogant and ego driven. In the end, the tax consultant realized that the debate was no longer about the facts of tax law or the money in question, the government auditor was arguing for his own importance.

 

The consultant, Mr. Parsons, decided that continuing the debate was not worthwhile and shifted the conversation, complimenting the auditor for the difficult work and decisions he had to make on a daily basis, often in the face of recalcitrant individuals defending questionable financial practices. He didn’t provide the tax inspector with empty flattery but acknowledged that his job was difficult, yet important in a democracy. Carnegie writes about what he learned from this story:

 

“This tax inspector was demonstrating the most common of human frailties. He wanted a feeling of importance; and as long as Mr. Parsons argued with him, he got his feeling of importance by loudly asserting his authority. But as soon as his importance was admitted and the argument stopped and he was permitted to expand his ego, he became a sympathetic and kindly human being.”

 

My wife is a human development specialist, and while she typically works with little ones from 0 to 3, her studies have provided her insights into childhood and adolescent development through early adulthood. She has talked to me about the ways that children and teenagers will seek negative attention, behaving badly and acting out, because even negative attention is a form of attention. Negative attention is still a recognition of the importance of another individual, and childish as it may be, even fully grown and professional adults may from time to time seek negative attention via conflict and arguments.

 

The tax collector in the story wanted to be recognized and wanted his authority respected. It may have been petty, he may have been on an ego and power trip, but nevertheless, becoming angry and indignant didn’t help to reduce his ego and make him a more reasonable person. What it took to get him to be more flexible and cooperative was kindness, not criticism. Positive attention may not have been 100% deserved, but honest praise (as opposed to empty flattery) provided him with a sense of importance and acknowledgement and allowed him to be comfortable with being more cooperative.

 

We should be aware of both sides of this story. We should try to recognize in ourselves how often we are making a power play, not adding much real value to the argument, discussion, market, or opinion that we are advocating for, but simply trying to be an important player. When we see that we are driven by ego and a desire to feel important, we should step back and ask if it is truly necessary, if we will really make things better for ourselves and others, or if we are just being a burden. At the same time, we should try to see this in others and avoid criticizing them for having a human desire that we share and often fall victim to ourselves. We don’t have to provide them with undue flattery, but we can adopt their perspective, recognize the positive aspects of their viewpoint, and try to provide them with recognition and acknowledgement so that we can start to cooperate and work together in a more reasoned and sensible manner.

Other People Are Important

The golden rule is basically a recognition that other people think and feel the way that we feel. If we have complex emotions, fears, desires, and feel that we are important, then surely other people do as well. From this follows the idea that we should treat people the way we would like to be treated.

 

We know that other people are important, but our actions don’t always reflect that. We often put ourselves ahead of others for no real reason. We go out of our way to make sure we have every possible desire filled, without considering the way that our behavior impacts what is available for others. We think about ourselves constantly, often forgetting that other people have valid thoughts and opinions just as we do.  Getting outside our own heads and remembering people is not just a nice thing we should do, but it is something that is vital to living a successful life. Dale Carnegie explains in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People:

 

“There is one all-important law of human conduct. If we obey that law, we shall almost never get into trouble. In fact, that law, if obeyed, will bring us countless friends and constant happiness. But the very instant we break the law, we shall get into endless trouble. The law is this: Always make the other person feel important.”

 

When we recognize that other people are important, we can take steps to actually show them that we think they are important. Often these can be small gestures, such as letting someone in line at the grocery store with just one item jump ahead of us with our full shopping cart. It can look like grabbing flowers for our partner or their favorite candy at the store as a little something extra. Sometimes it can just be listening to another person and thinking of a way to incorporate an idea they had in the office or give them credit when it is due.  Small steps like this can help foster relationships and improve our lives by helping us work and live better with the people around us.

 

Carnegie asks us to remember, “The unvarnished truth is that almost all the people you meet feel themselves superior to you in some way, and a sure way to their hearts is to let them realize in some subtle way that you recognize their importance, and recognize it sincerely.” Carnegie does not suggest we should simply give everyone around us what they want, but to remember that we can learn from others and that in some way, everyone we meet does have something they can teach us. If we see this same superiority complex in ourselves, we can learn to think beyond it, and ultimately prevent ourselves from getting into useless status measuring competitions with people who think of themselves as superior to us. Instead we can learn to let the ego fall to the side, give people recognition, and ultimately diffuse tension caused by unruly egos and work to get stuff done.

A Feeling of Importance

“If our ancestors hadn’t had this flaming urge for a feeling of importance, civilization would have been impossible. Without it, we should have been just about like animals,” writes Dale Carnegie in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People. Carnegie is hitting on an interesting idea: how the desire to be important has fueled human evolution and impacted the species we are today.

 

This is an idea I wrote about in the context of both competition and coordination for our early ancestors. In The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about the ways that insecurity and limited resources drove the human brain to be deceptive and political, finding ways to cheat to obtain resources without letting on to other members of our social tribe that we were not 100% honest. Conversely, the authors write about how as a result of this cheating and politically deceptive behavior, our brains became bigger and we became more intelligent, opening up the possibility of future planning and productive social cooperation.

 

Underlying both our cooperation and competition instincts is social status. For our earliest ancestors social status meant that you could obtain a mate, and as we evolved higher social status meant that you could also command more resources and have more allies and protection within your social group. For our early ancestors, having a high social status (in the eyes of Carnegie being important) meant that your genes would continue and that you had allies and resources to make it more likely that your genes were passed on to the next generation and the following generation.

 

Today, we still maintain that need to feel important and to build our social status, even though for most of us we can pretty well guarantee the continuation of our genes with limited resources and minimal social status. Our feeling of importance remains, but its original drivers have been nullified (at least in a large way in rich countries like the United States).

 

Carnegie continues in his book to write about the sense of ego that accompanies and drives our desire for importance. It can push us to do great things, but can also have extreme negative consequences for us as individuals and for society in general. Our ego, tied to our desire for importance (or increasing social status as Hanson and Simler would say) is important for us to understand and control. At a certain point we need to acknowledge that we do things just to make ourselves seem more important, and that things that can be good for our social status can be harmful for others. We should reflect on the decisions we make in this regard, and try to make decisions that at least reduce the external harm we cause. Giving up a small measure of our own social status in exchange for having a better world to live in is the least we can do given that we are operating on evolutionary drivers that no longer match our realities.

Evaluating What Really Matters

I really wish that the work week was not 40 hours long. I really believe we could be just as productive working 6 hour days rather than 8 hour days, and I think that we could use our extra time to build meaningful social capital in our societies and lives. (As an aside, I do recognize that a shorter work day would really just mean our cities would sprawl more and we would live further from work and spend more time commuting for work). Where we are right now, is in a weird position where we have allowed our work to consume almost all of what we do for reasons we don’t like. We work 8 hours a day and 40 hours a week because we want more and we want things that don’t really matter so that we can impress people we don’t really care about. We are focusing on things that are not that important and giving up large amounts of our lives to pursue these meaningless things.

 

In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca writes, “it is easy to escape, if only you will despise the rearwards of business. We are held back and kept from escaping by thoughts like these: What then? Shall I leave behind me these great prospects? Shall I depart at the very time of harvest? Shall I have no slaves at my side? No retinue for my litter? No crowd in my reception room?” It is hard to look at the opportunity for material gain and turn it down in favor of enjoying time. It is hard to draw back when we see an avenue for promotion, a way to work more to earn more, or a chance to gain more status and prestige. Often however, we hate the time we spend working and we put ourselves in situations that are dangerous to our health (even if you are not going into a mine, going into an office that spikes your blood pressure every day is unhealthy).

 

“Hence men leave such advantages as these with reluctance,” Seneca writes, “they love the reward of their hardships, but curse the hardships themselves.”

 

I recognize how important hard work is. I understand that without everyone working together to get stuff done, society does not advance, we don’t grow and prosper, and we don’t have any way to enjoy our leisure time. But I think we may be at a point where we are no longer working to enjoy our leisure time. We are not seeing our levels of work decline as we become more prosperous, we see the opposite. Productivity growth is slow, but the hours we spend working are increasing. This suggests we are putting ourselves in places we don’t want to be, not really working that hard when we are there (because we hate it) and then getting rewards we don’t even have time to be happy with.

 

I think we should step back and reconsider the things that really matter. We should find ways to pull back from work we hate and dislike. We should find ways to give people time and should encourage people to use that new time in a way that brings communities together with shared purposes and prospects. Rather than selfishly working for ourselves, we should spend more time engaged in a community and working together for others.

The Scale of Our Pain

I usually have one of two feelings when I fly into a large city or walk through a large crowd of people. I either feel insignificant and tiny, recognizing that whatever I do will eventually fade into oblivion among a sea of billions of people. Or, I feel proud to be part of an incredible collection of brilliant and capable human beings, each experiencing the world from a unique point of view, each with our own desires and feelings, and all connected by our shared humanity. Regardless of which sensation comes to mind, both help me recognize that what is going on inside my head, the reality of the world that I have constructed for myself, is not the full scope of human experience and is nothing more than just a world inside of me. Whatever fears, doubts, plans, successes, and assumptions I have are not any more real than the same thoughts going through the millions of people that might be living in the big city that I am flying into.

 

Recently, an entry in Fernando Pessoa’s book, The Book of Disquiet, has given me the same type of feeling. In a section of Margaret Jull Costa’s translation, Pessoa writes about pain, and about how our pain can feel so infinite and overwhelming to us, yet at the same time be so small and insignificant within the scope of the universe. In 1933 he wrote, “To consider our greatest anguish an incident of no importance, not just in terms of the life of the universe, but in terms of our own souls, is the beginning of knowledge.” When we start to recognize that we are not the center of the universe and when we can acknowledge that the severity of our emotions and feelings do not make them more real or more important in the scope of the world, we can start to see more objectively and without a filter orienting everything around us.

 

“It isn’t true that life is painful or that it’s painful to think about life,” Pessoa writes, “What is true is that our pain is only as serious and important as we pretend it to be.” Anything in our lives can take on extreme meaning and value. At the same time, anything in our life can be tossed out without care. What we focus on, where we put our attention and energy, and what we decide to be important is what will become our reality. Pessoa recognized this through his extreme self reflection, and from this point he became aware of his own insignificance and how little his thoughts and desires truly mattered to the rest of the universe. Any pain that he felt is simply a pain that he felt at that moment. Any experience he had was fleeting, because he was not a permanent fixture in the universe and not something that overwhelmingly shaped the universe.

 

Seeing this in ourselves and becoming aware of who we are and where we exist in the world is important if we want to do the most good with the time that we have. If we choose to live completely within our own mind, then we risk living in a way where we put ourselves before all others. We will seek more and more and attempt to raise ourselves above others while decreasing the pain we feel. Alternatively, we can step outside ourselves and try to engage in the world in a way that will improve the interactions between us and everyone else. We can try to make the world a better place for other individuals to interact within, even if they are not interacting with us directly, and even if we don’t directly see a benefit to ourselves. The reason to live in this world is because it is a more accurate reflection of the reality we live within. Our brain will only ever perceive so much, and rather than making up stories about what it means, we can live in a world where we try to continually develop a more objective understanding of what we see and experience, so that we can do the most good.

 

Pessoa closes in writing, “Seeing myself frees me from myself. I almost smile, not because I understand myself, but because, having become other, I am no longer able to understand myself.”

Our Careers

A real challenge for many people today is understanding how we should think about our careers and the jobs we do. Growing up we are told to go to college and to get a great job where we don’t have to work too hard. Along the way we watch people take jobs that sound important and impressive and often without realizing it, we develop an understanding that having a  job is less about earning a living and more about standing out and finding something that fulfills us and gives us meaning.

 

This pressure and drive toward a career that is about more than just earning money feels like a relatively new phenomenon to me, though I’m sure people have been confronting these challenges for ages. When I look around I see that young people today must balance the need to make money with pressure to become important and reflect their status through their career. At the same time, their position must appear to be desirable, interesting, and lucrative.

 

What is often lost, is that the career is not the sole factor in determining whether an individual is successful, and it is not the only factor in determining whether someone is happy. Senator Cory Booker’s mother gave him this advice on this the day he officially became a senator. In his book United, Booker shares what his mother told him on the day that he stepped into one of the most impressive and easily ego inflating careers in the country, “Don’t get carried away with all of this … Remember,  the title doesn’t make the man, the man must make the title.”

 

We must remember that having a fancy title and having a job that sounds important will not lead to happiness and will not lead to us becoming the person we always imagined ourselves to be. Stepping back and recognizing that our drive for fancy job titles is simply a desire to build our own ego and become carried away in thoughts of our own greatness will help us step back from the career drive that blindly shapes the direction of so many people’s lives. In a recent episode of the Rationaly Speaking Podcast, Julai Galef’s guest Robert Wright shared a similar thought. Speaking about leftover parts of human nature in our brain, Wright stated,

 

“The other thing I’d say is that some of the things are valuable to people. Like, they facilitate social climbing … But that presupposes that social climbing is itself good for you. That’s an argument you could have. …

 

And so it might encourage questioning, “Well, why the relentless pursuit of social status?” I mean I understand why I have it. Status got genes into the next generation, so I have the thirst for that … That doesn’t mean, if upon examination I decide that the quest for status, especially again, in a modern environment that may be different from the one we are designed for, if I decide that that’s actually not making me happy anyway, then some of these illusions are actually not even useful.”

 

Wright directly addresses social climbing as a status marker that developed when we lived in tribes as a way to help us pass our genes along. We live with a drive for status and today status is represented in our careers and rewarded financially. Wright’s argument, and the sentiment that Booker’s mother shared, is that simply having a title does not lead to argument or reflect that we are somehow better than others, it just raises our status which can be damaging if our ego becomes too inflated.

 

We may not be able to escape the reality that people today judge each other based on the work they do, but we can always remember that what is important is how we do that work, how we live our lives outside of work, and whether we are a well rounded and balanced individual in our time within and outside of our career. Simply having a title or being lucky enough to have a good job does not define who we are as a person or give our lives meaning. It is our actions and our intent that matter.