Feeling Threatened

When we feel jealous of another person, what do we actually feel about ourselves? In his book, Some Thoughts About Relationships, author Colin Wright writes, “Jealousy, at its core, is about feeling threatened.” Many of our reactions to the world and people around us, in my opinion, tie back to tribal forces that have been brought with us through human evolution. Jealousy is related to our status in the group, and when others have something we want, live a way we would like to live, or receive some benefit that we did not receive, our position of status appears to diminish in our tribal brain.

 

Wright continues in his book to explain that we can overcome jealousy with better awareness of our feelings and reactions. In personal relationships this means a better focus on how we feel, awareness of what causes certain emotions to bubble up, and a recognition of what places and people cause us to feel a certain way. Gaining a better handle on what actions and behaviors help us feel good and what actions and behaviors lead to negative feelings, such as jealousy, will give us the chance to craft our life in a more considerate direction.

 

This focus will help us begin to analyze our thoughts and feelings and begin to act in a less impulsive manner. Focusing beyond ourselves, slowing down our actions as responses to observations and feelings, and bringing a rational approach to how we think about our feelings can allow us to overcome negative impulses. Assessing why we feel a certain way can give us the chance to decide whether we should be upset, whether our emotions are the result of a lack of sleep, or whether we should act to correct an injustice.

 

As a public policy student, I see this ability and a deeper understanding of jealousy as critical in deciding how we should react to policies that unavoidably direct scarce resources to some groups and not others. Recognizing that our jealousy regarding certain programs may not be influenced by the efficiency or effectiveness of a program, but on our thoughts of how deserving we find the beneficiaries of a program is important in crafting and evaluating policy. We can understand that our jealousy is a reaction based on our perceived status relative to others in our complex society, and can begin to evaluate our opinions by moving past our initial reactions based on jealousy, status, and threat.

To More Fully Understand Reality

I really love science. Most of the shows on my podcast feed are science shows, and even though I am not a scientist myself, I love listening to new discoveries and trying to think about the world in the way a scientist would. Even though he is not a scientist himself, Colin Wright, in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be, has a whole chapter dedicated to experimentation and what we are doing when use the scientific method to understand the world around us. This entire chapter resonated with me since I like to think about the world scientifically.

 

I spend a lot of time trying to approach the world in a rational and empirical way, continuously doubting the stories I tell myself and wanting objective confirmation of the things I experience. I forget how foreign this way of thinking can actually be for much of humanity. Many people do not truly approach the world following the scientific method and have not been trained to think in truly scientific ways. Our ancestors for thousands of years evolved in small groups where we could understand reality and bond at the same time by telling stories that explained how the world operated and how humans should exist within it. It is only relatively recently in human history that we found out how to interrogate the world through experimentation to truly see what was happening in front of us.

 

Wright writes, “Our understanding of the world, the galaxy, the universe in which we live, is increased through a scientific model, which allows us to posit ideas and then test them systematically.” A challenge for humanity is recognizing that we further our understanding by developing testable hypothesis and designing experiments that set out to prove those hypothesis false. It is too easy to prove what you want to believe is true and approaching science and the universe in this way presents us with too many opportunities to nudge the data and methods to get the results we hope for. Setting out to rigorously try to disprove your theory leaves you in a place where you never quite confirm what you believe, but as you eliminate different alternatives that would prove your thoughts false, you gain more confident that your idea is an accurate reflection of  the world. “We observe, we experiment, we refine and experiment some more, and we eventually learn something that we can express and act upon.”

 

Wright suggests that part of why this is so hard for so many people is because, “this is in part a consequence of having been told since birth that our opinions are just as good as anyone else’s.” We live in a world today where we feel as though we are supposed to have an opinion about everything. It feels like we should come up with the answer for every problem, even if we have no reasonable basis for having an opinion. I believe that is part of why we operate unscientifically, but I also think that human nature does not favor believing in something because we have systematically tested it and ruled out alternatives in a legitimate manner. It is far easier, and often more comforting, to believe the world is a certain way because it feels intuitively correct. Striving to use the scientific method in our lives, however, has incredible payoffs as we step away from the false narratives and stories we create in our head and learn to live with more accurate information that better reflects the reality of the universe without preconceived expectations of what that reality should be.

Remember Your Bubble

A huge challenge for our world today is the way we get stuck in our own echo-chambers and fact bubbles. The world is a large and incredibly complex place. We never truly know that much about any one thing. We might be an expert in our field of study, we might be an expert in the area we work in, and we might have a hobby that has made us an unofficial expert in a random thing, but we can never truly know everything there is about a subject or topic. As a result, we rely on a body of knowledge that is incomplete to make assumptions to form a belief about the world.

 

Colin Wright writes about these fact bubbles in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be, “We also find ourselves stuck inside fact bubbles which reinforce our existing ideologies, and which fail to provide us with full context, with complete, accurate information, and which leave us, as a result, holding worldviews that are not based on accurate representations of what’s happening.” This is not a new problem in human history, but it feels like it is a more acute problem today than it has been in the past. We have more access to information today than any humans before us, but the overwhelming tidal wave of information that we can focus on puts us in a position where we have to make choices about the information we take in. We can build a world for ourselves in which our worldview is always reinforced, and never seriously challenged. We can create a world in which all of our problems are blamed on some “other” who we must vilify in order to improve things. We advocate for specific ways that we think the world should organize itself because it is what we see, what we know, and what is familiar for us.

 

These bubbles however, are incredibly limited and our singular perspective does not accurately represent the complete range of experiences and possibilities for the human condition. As a response to these bubbles, many people advocate for stepping outside our groups and tribes to understand the worldviews and ideas of others. I do not think this is realistic advice.

 

The world is busy and we only have a limited amount of time and attention to direct toward any given thing. Trying to take in information that we can understand and identify is in many ways a by product of long work hours, long commutes, too much information to know where to focus, and a world that seems to place unlimited demands on our thoughts and actions. Rather than trying to jam in more time reading things that challenge us or listening to news that might spike our blood pressure, I instead advocate for more self-awareness. Recognize how frequently we act and are inspired by a story that makes us look like the hero. Acknowledge the times when you select something to read because it looks like it will already fit in with what you want to believe. Be aware that your perspective on the world is incomplete and that the information you absorb is limited and filtered to present the world a certain way. We likely won’t be eliminating bubbles from our lives any time soon, but we can at least acknowledge their existence and recognize that we don’t have the certainty we would like about the information that helps us know what is really happening in the world.

Paradoxes Within Our Constitution

The Constitution of the United States is over 230 years old. With many amendments added through the years, and with new interpretations of the Constitution, our country is still guided by a founding document written in 1787. What has made this document so enduring, argues Joseph Ellis in his book The Quartet, is not that it was written with the divine influence of providence or that it held unique support among men, but that it understood and adapted a paradoxical framework about government. Writing on our founders and the endurance of the constitution Ellis states,

 

“It has endured not because it embodies timeless truths that the founders fathomed as tongues of fire danced over the heads, but because it manages to combine the two time-bound truths of its own time: namely, that any legitimate government must rest on a popular foundation, and that popular majorities cannot be trusted to act responsibly, a paradox that has aged remarkably well.”

 

The ideas of our Constitution were not universally accepted and clear to everyone at the time of its adoption, and even today the paradox of our constitution is not well understood. Government does not rely on complete power and authority in the United States. A leading political figure, an agency, and the legitimacy of our government only persist because they can react (at least to some extent) to the popular demands of our citizens. At the same time, we have a slow process that in recent years seems to frequently grind to a gridlocked halt when a minority opposes the actions of a popular majority. This limits the ability of government or popular majority to  run roughshod over the rights and liberties of a minority. While politically frustrating, this limitation of the majorities power, and the the divestiture of the majority’s power in a politically elected representative or government creates a system of government that is reactive to its citizens and simultaneously constrained from tyrannical tendencies. It may not be perfect and often does not work as well as we would hope, but through time it has evolved to allow citizens to enjoy liberty and has moved in a direction where minority factions have been preserved and protected (thought often times not well) and gained greater influence over time.

Trust In Government

People today have lost trust in government. We have too many actors, too many points of view, too many opinions, and too many bad stories about the government. The days when politicians were less ideological, less partisan, and could be more moderate with their views and opinions are behind us. This does not mean, however, that we are stuck in a system of gridlock and argument for ever. We can still challenge our own assumptions and the assumptions of others by better understanding our political system and thinking more deeply about our opinions. Working through our priors and getting beyond our negativity and cynicism gives us a way to improve our own thought process and ultimately to improve government and the ways in which society interacts with government.

 

In Political Realism Jonathan Rauch writes, “Gone is the trust that government will “do the right thing,” replaced by an assumption that transactional politics is a rigged game played by and for special interests.” In our country we hate interest groups and lobbyists. We hate anyone with money who seems to be interfering in our elections or our processes, and cry out against the evils of big money. Except, not always. We only seem to hate special interests and lobbyists when they don’t represent us. Most republicans probably don’t think of the NRA as a special interest or as a lobbying group, and most Democrats probably don’t think of unions as evil big money organizations. When you begin to think about the groups and activists that you support or favor, you start to gain a better understanding of why lobbyists and interest groups exist. By looking inward and trying to understand your own political ideas, beliefs, and assumptions, you can begin to better understand other people’s opinions, beliefs, and assumptions, giving you a way to better relate to people with different thoughts.

 

Reflecting and looking inward also helps us see just how transient our policy beliefs truly are. When we become more self-aware and more self-reflective, we are able to better understand where our beliefs and opinions come from. I try to follow politics actively, trying to focus more on the policy side than on the horse-race political side, and I notice constantly that my opinions are greatly shaped by the person who comes up with an idea. When President Trump says something, I have an almost visceral reaction assuming that his idea is full of self-interest and short sighted thoughts and is undoubtedly the opposite of what we should actually do in terms of policy. At the same time however, I know that my thoughts and opinions on things like national debt are woefully underdeveloped. I can recognize that I have some thoughts and beliefs about how our nation and society should be structured, but those thoughts are not necessarily based on scientific evidence, but general thoughts, my view of my identity, and to some extent my own self-interest. What this means, is that I should back away to some extent when I recognize that  my opinion is influenced by prejudices and judgement about the opposing political party or politician.

 

This may not help us achieve more transactional politics and it may not increase trust in government directly, but this strategy can help us begin to back away from such staunch opposition to opposing parties and people. By recognizing when we don’t have full information and when we are allowing our judgement of the speaker to shape our beliefs of the policy, we can start to be more civil in our discussions. This in turn can help us as a country moderate our discussions and opinions, and ultimately, bring politics back to the center where it can be more transactional and less volatile.

The Right and Wrong Perspective

“The difference between the right and wrong perspective is everything,” Ryan Holiday writes in his book, The Obstacle is The Way. “Where the head goes, the body follows. Perception precedes action. Right action follows the right perspective.” In the two quotes above Holiday lays out his thoughts for the importance of the systems we build for looking at the world. Stepping beyond our initial view of the world and learning to adjust our perception is incredibly important in the world today. Limiting our views and entrenching ourselves in our single perspective creates a reality for us that is not shareable nor understandable beyond ourselves to those with different experiences, beliefs, and views.

 

Holiday’s quotes feel very timely for me given the recent election. Our country has become increasingly polarized and there seems to be a great disconnect between those living in rural and urban areas. I’m afraid not that we have different opinions, but that we are not cultivating the ability to see the world from multiple perspectives, and that we are not striving to to better understand the other half of the country that does not live the way we do. When we limit our perspective and don’t seek a greater understanding of what others believe, we cut ourselves off from a large number of people. It becomes easy to hide behind those who share our views and we fail to even talk to those who are different from us.

 

In his writing, Holiday approaches our ability to change our perception as a tool for adapting to life’s many challenges. We can become more productive by thinking about the work we do from a different angle, and we can learn to better appreciate any given situation when we can focus on the present moment. For Holiday there are two parts of perception that shape the way we experience the world. We have the context of our lives that connects our view with the larger world, and we have our individual framing which is our determination of the meaning of a given event. We decide what something means according to our world view, and our entrenched perspectives on the specifics determine how that thing fits in with our daily actions and individual reactions.

 

Expanding on the idea of perspective as discussed in our daily lives makes me think about Amanda Gefter and her quest for ultimate reality in her book that I recently read, Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn. Gefter is a science journalist and author, and she explains how she built a career for herself reporting on physics. What she and her father have spent their life focusing on as a hobby is the search for ultimate reality, the search for the truest building block of the universe that may be the foundation for all of physics.  Ultimately, what she and her father found is that to the best of our understanding right now, there is no ultimate reality. Our perspective truly is everything. Where we are in the universe, how we choose to view the universe, and what we choose to look at determines the reality of the physics around us. Stepping outside the universe and taking a god’s-eye view of everything causes physics to break down, and ruptures reality. Change your frame and you lose gravity, divide atomic and subatomic particles far enough and you reach a possible eleven dimensional field of vibrations where there is no actual physical thing, accelerate yourself to the speed of light and time ceases to exist.  The physics and reality of our world only seem to work from our single perspective where we view the world and assemble our own information. There is no ultimate reality that can be agreed upon by everything, and there is no gods-eye view that can help us find “truth”. If this is true in the world of physics then it can be applied to our lives, and we can begin to understand that we never have an answer to the right way of doing things, we only have our perspective and how we choose to understand the world given the framework and understandings that we have built and adopted from our slice of the universe.

Benefitting From the Negative

There was an aspect of Marcus Aurelius’ life that would seem incredibly foreign and difficult to most Americans today, the ability to live with uncertainty and accept ambiguity. For many people living in the United States today, unanswered questions are painful and challenging, and there is a clear preference for seeing the world as black or white.  Aurelius on the other hand, seemed to be a master of living life in the intersection of ideas, constantly thinking through the good and the bad of any one thing or event, and constantly trying to reconsider everything in his life from multiple perspectives.  He never saw a bad event as being truly terrible or awful, and believed it was within person’s ability to choose how to interpret any given event. Aurelius wrote,

 

“Now, in the case of all things which have a certain constitution, whatever harm may happen to any of them, that which is so affected becomes consequently worse; but in the like case, a man becomes both better, if one may say so, and more worthy of praise by making a right use of these accidents.”

 

The emperor is taking a negative situation in this quote and expanding it beyond the current moment to imagine it within the context of a human life.  By shifting his focus he is able to view a negative as a necessary part of life, as an opportunity to grow and face new experiences. This is not something that is easy to do, especially when in pain immediately after facing a negative event or challenge, but it can help an individual begin to see that their actions, thoughts, and decisions will shape how their life is impacted by the bad things which happen to them.

 

What he is also able to do in this situation is see the world in a complex manner. He is looking at the universe and removing his impulse to describe events that happen. He does not narrow the possibilities of the universe down to a single point.  To accept that it is our opinion which shapes the reality around us is to live with open possibilities and to embrace uncertainty and ambiguity.

We Are All Trying To Reach The Best Places

In his book Considerations, author Colin Wright addresses our conflicts over differing ideas and everyone’s struggle to make their life meaningful.  In particular Wright considers the way we act towards others who do not share our same beliefs and fight for ideas that we think are wrong. “Every one of us is building the best life we possibly can for ourselves.  We’re all just working from different sets of instructions.” The instructions Wright addresses are our varying experiences and backgrounds along with the education and training we have received.

 

What I like about this quote is that it addresses the fact that so many of us seem to act in ways or hold personal philosophies that don’t align and are unable to be merged with those of others.  When we all start trying to force our viewpoints and ideas on the world without considering others, then the conflicts between our viewpoints become major conflicts between each other.  What Wright would argue for is an increased effort to understand the views of others and the willingness to allow our views to change. When we become entrenched in our ideas and refuse to listen to the thoughts of others we risk alienating our fellow citizens by creating fractures in our communities and groups.

 

What I find challenging with this quote is relating it back to people around me who do not strive to deeply understand the world around them.  Those without self awareness, who do not strive to think critically about the world and society, and who do not spend time learning and driving themselves to grow can really grate on me in their conversations.  When I listen to people who have ideas and opinions that are fundamentally flawed by being one sided or simply a rehash of a major media story, I have trouble giving their arguments my full attention and respect. I believe that we are at a point where everyone feels entitled to an opinion and a political or social voice, but those privileges should be earned through study and self awareness, not through access to media and technology.

 

I believe that Wright would not discount the thoughts and ideas of others simply because their views were naive and not fully informed. For him, those individuals would be following and explaining their own truths and understanings about the world. He would probably encourage others to become more aware and thoughtful of the world by politely inviting them into a more considerate space.

Groups & Individuals

In American politics we often complain about the polarization of ideas amongst politicians and their lack of ability to accomplish anything.  Richard Wiseman in his book 59 Seconds examines the behavior of individuals relative to the behavior of groups, and what he presents is an explanation for our government’s fractured state.  In regards to decision making Wiseman writes, “being in a group exaggerates people’s opinions, causing them to make more a extreme decision than they would on their own.”  He explains an experiment by James Stoner in which an individual was asked to consult a mildly successful author about whether or not they should stop writing cheap thrillers and take a risk by writing a larger novel that is outside of the typical genre in which she publishes. Individuals were less likely to recommend that she strive towards the risky novel than groups were.
Wiseman’s conclusion is that the groups we belong to push us further in whatever direction we already lean. In the example from Wiseman’s book, if we tend to be slightly more risky, then in a group we become much more risky.  This explanation of our behavior translates nicely to our political system. I studied political science in college and I remember discussing the impact of party leadership on Congress. What studies had shown is that the longer a politician serves in Congress and the more they become part of party leadership, the less likely they are to vote along the lines of what their constituents actually want.  Part of the explanation for this behavior could be related to Wiseman’s findings of group behavior pushing an individual to more extreme ideas.  The more control party leaders have over the other members of congress, the more they are likely to shape their decisions, and the longer an individual is in Congress, the more likely their decisions will become polarized. I think that Wiseman’s understanding of group decisions versus individual decisions does an excellent job breaking down part of our government’s breakdown.
On a personal scale I think it is important to be aware of the impact that groups will have on us.  Building our ideas in a group, as opposed to individual study and idea formation, may mean that we adopt more extreme ideas on a given topic.  In addition, when trying to brainstorm ideas, Stoner’s research shows us that groups will push us towards decisions and ideas that are more extreme than those we would find on our own.  I think this also translates into the ways we act and think about everyday topics.  Groups may be much more likely to push us towards having more extreme opinions about other people, act in more polarized ways toward others, and make us think in a different way about social issues and occurrences.  If you are building your self awareness, recognizing the impact of groups on your thoughts and opinions is crucial.