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.
55% of Chicago Homeless Looked Neat and Clean

55% of Chicago Homeless Looked Neat & Clean

If I pictured a homeless person in my mind I would imagine someone who was dirty, who may not have a shirt, and who had a mess of overgrown and ungroomed hair. Whether male or female, ragged clothes, unkempt hair, and bags full of stuff seems to be the typical image of a homeless person. However, there are many homeless people, perhaps even a majority in some cities at some times, who do not fit the stereotypical image of a homeless person.
In The Homeless Christopher Jencks writes about our expectations of what homelessness looks like, and what the reality of homeless often is for those experiencing homelessness. Regarding our expectations, he writes, “but appearances can mislead us … When [Peter] Rossi surveyed the Chicago homeless, his interviewers classified 55 percent of the people they interviewed as neat and clean rather than dirty, unkempt, or shabbily dressed.”
We don’t expect people who wear normal and clean clothes to be homeless. We don’t expect people who are generally well groomed and don’t smell bad to be homeless. But when Peter Rossi was writing his book Down and Out in America, a slight majority of people interviewed were dressed more or less normally and appeared to be typical people. These individuals are part of the group generally referred to as the invisible homeless. Rather than the visible people sleeping in tents who can’t shave, can’t shower, and have a few dirty possessions, these people appeared normal, but still didn’t have a home. They were missed and misunderstood in the debates and discussions of homeless people. They often hid their homelessness from the people they interacted with, creating space for the misperceptions about homelessness.
I think it is important to compare our stereotypical view of homelessness to the reality of homelessness for many people. When we see the visibly homeless we often have strong reactions, and those strong reactions generally dictate how we think the homeless should be handled. But those strong reactions and opinions fail to account for the kind of homelessness that perhaps a majority experience. This means that policies and programs to help the homeless (or more nefariously “address” the homeless) may fail to actually benefit the majority of homeless or to even focus on the leading drivers of homelessness. If someone who is neat and clean is in line at a soup kitchen, or asking for aid, they may not seem like they need it because they don’t look like the typical homeless person. Or, if we deny assistance to the homeless because we think they are all dirty, lazy, and possibly on drugs, then we fail to help those homeless who are trying to look and appear normal, who are tying to keep a job while homeless, and who are trying not to fall into the ungroomed stereotype of the homeless. It is important that we are aware of our expectations, biases, and prejudices around the homeless so that we can develop an accurate understanding of homelessness in our nation to actually address the problem.
Probability Judgments

Probability Judgments

Julia Marcus, an epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School, was on a recent episode of the Ezra Klein show to discuss thinking about personal risk during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Klein and Marcus talked about the ways in which the United States Government has failed to help provide people with structures for thinking about risk, and how this has pushed risk decisions onto individuals. They talked about how this creates pressures on each of us to determine what activities are worthwhile, what is too risky for us, and how we can know if there is a high probability of infection in one setting relative to another.


On the podcast they acknowledged what Daniel Kahneman writes about in his book Thinking Fast and Slow – humans are not very good at making probability judgments. Risk is all about probability. It is fraught with uncertainty, with with small likelihoods of very bad outcomes, and with conflicting opinions and desires. Our minds, especially our normal operating mode of quick associations and judgments, doesn’t have the capacity to think statistically in the way that is necessary to make good probability judgments.


When we try to think statistically, we often turn to substitutions, as Kahneman explains in his book. “We asked ourselves how people manage to make judgments of probability without knowing precisely what probability is. We concluded that people must somehow simplify that impossible task and we set out to find how they do it. Our answer was that when called upon to judge probability, people actually judge something else and believe they have judged probability.”


This is very important when we think about our actions, and the actions of others, during this pandemic. We know it is risky to have family dinners with our loved ones, and we ask ourselves if it is too risky to get together with our parents, with siblings who are at risk due to health conditions, and if we shouldn’t be in the same room with a family member who is a practicing medical professional. But in the end, we answer a different question. We ask how much we miss our parents, if we think it is important to be close to our family, and if we really really want some of mom’s famous pecan pie.


As Klein and Marcus say during the podcast, it is a lot easier to be angry at people at a beach than to make probability judgments about a small family dinner. When governments, public health officials, and employers fail to establish systems to help us navigate the risk, we place the responsibility back onto individuals, so that we can have someone to blame, some sense of control, and an outlet for the frustrations that arise when our mind can’t process probability. We distort probability judgments and ask more symbolic questions about social cohesion, family love, and isolation. The answer to our challenges would be better and more responsive institutions and structures to manage risk and mediate probability judgments. The individual human mind can only substitute easier questions for complex probability judgments, and it needs visual aids, better structures, and guidance to help think through risk and probability in an accurate and reasonable manner.
Judging Faces

Judging Faces

One of the successes of System 1, the name Daniel Kahneman uses to describe our quick, intuitive part of the brain in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, is recognizing emotions in people’s faces. We don’t need much time to study someone’s face to recognize that they are happy, scared, or angry. We don’t even need to see someone’s face for a full second to get an accurate sense of their emotional state, and to adjust our behavior to interact accordingly with them.


The human mind is great at intuiting emotions from people’s faces. I can’t remember where, but I came across something that suggested the reason why we have white eyes is to help us better see where each other’s eyes are looking, and to help us better read each other’s emotions. Our ability to quickly and intuitively read each others’ faces helps us build social cohesion and connections. However, it can still go wrong, even though we are so adept.


Kahneman explains that biases and baseless assumptions can be built into System 1’s assessment of faces. We are quick to notice faces that share similar features as our own. We are also quick to judge people as nice, competent, or strong based on features in their faces. This is demonstrated in Thinking Fast and Slow with experiments conducted by Alex Todorov. He had showed potential voters the faces of candidates, for sometimes only fractions of seconds and noted that faces influenced votes. Kahneman writes, “As expected, the effect of facial competence on voting is about three times larger for information-poor and TV-prone voters than for others who are better informed and watch less television.”


I’m not here to hate on information-poor and TV-prone voters, but instead to help us see that we can easily be influenced by people’s faces and traits that we have associated with facial characteristics, even if we don’t consciously know those associations exist. For all of us, there will be situations where we are information-poor and ignorant of issues or important factors for our decision (the equivalent of being TV-prone in electoral voting). We might trust what a mechanic or investment banker says if they have a square jaw and high cheekbones. We might trust the advice of a nurse simply because she has facial features that make her seem caring and sympathetic. Perhaps in both situations the person is qualified and competent to be giving us advice, but even if they were not, we might trust them based on little more than appearance. System 1, which is so good at telling us about peoples’ emotions, can jump ahead and make judgement about many characteristics of people simply based on faces, and it may be correct sometimes, but it can also be wrong. System 2 will probably construct a coherent narrative to justify the quick decision made by System 1, but it likely won’t really have to do with the experience and qualifications of the person. We may find that we end up in situations where deep down, we are making judgments of someone based on little more than what they look like, and what System 1 thought of their face.

Testing Our Assumptions

As I have worked on self awareness and worked to be a more understanding person capable of seeing the world from multiple perspectives, I have become more aware of my first impressions and snap judgments of other people. An important first step in becoming a more integrated person is recognizing the impulse thoughts we have about others and understanding where those thoughts come from.  Colin Wright in his book Considerations addresses this idea and drives it to an even deeper level. He examines the structure of the brain and out thoughts to understand why we have developed these impulse thoughts, and he challenges everyone to recognize and push back against these often times hidden beliefs (emphasis mine):


“Testing our assumptions is an excellent way to see the potential in things and people we wouldn’t otherwise stop to notice.  A person with a black plastic trash bag could be a lot of things, and it’s worth considering more than just your first impression if you intend to be an active participant in your environment, rather than just a passive experiencer.”


When I first started working on mindfulness and recognizing my thoughts about others, including my immediate reactions, I constantly felt discouraged by my negative reaction to people of other races or who appeared to be homeless or in poverty.  I would scold myself for having a negative initial judgement, and then worry that my initial thoughts bled over to my outward attitude and behavior.  What Wright explains in his book is that these types of instant reactions are evolutionary left overs from a time when we needed to make assumptions about our environment and react quickly to avoid wild animals that could kill and eat us.  Our quick reactions, memory, and pattern recognition saved our ancestors, but now those same traits get in our way.  The best approach to improve our behavior is to recognize these thoughts and accept that we make poor initial judgments. Once we identify our behavior we can work to challenge and change our reactions.


I am particularly struck by the last part of Wright’s quote.  It shows that in order to be fully integrated with our environment and to find real meaning through our impact in the world we must challenge our beliefs to push ourselves to grow and have stronger interactions and relationships with everyone in society. The more we challenge our knee-jerk reactions and the more we push ourselves to be involved with those who we normally would not interact with, the more we will be able to connect with the world. Those new connections will shape us and push us to a point where we no longer need to worry about a negative emotion being noticed by people who are different from us.