Pluralistic Ignorance

Pluralistic Ignorance

TV shows and movies frequently have scenes where one character has been putting up with something they dislike in order to please another character, only to find out that the other character also dislikes the thing. I can think of instances where characters have been drinking particular beverages they dislike, playing games they don’t enjoy, or wearing clothing they hate, just because they think another character enjoys that particular thing and they want to share in that experience with the other person. It is a little corny, but I really enjoy the moment when the character recognizes they have been putting themselves in agony for the benefit of the other person, only to realize they have been in agony as well!

 

This particular comedic device plays on pluralistic ignorance. We don’t ever truly know what is in another person’s head, and even if we live with someone for most of our life, we can’t ever know them with complete certainty. When it comes to really knowing everyone around us and everyone in our community or society, we can only ever know most people at a minimal surface level. We follow cues from others that we want to be like, that we think are popular, and that we want to be accepted by. But when everyone is doing this, how can any of us be sure that we all actually want to be the way we present ourselves? We are all imagining what other people think, and trying to live up to those standards, not realizing that we may all hate the thing that we think everyone else considers cool.

 

The whole situation reminds me of AP US History from my junior year in high school. My friend Phil sat toward the back of the classroom and the year he and I had the class was the very last year for our teacher before he planned to retire. He was on autopilot most of the year, a good teacher, but not exactly worried about whether his students payed attention in class or cheated on tests. For one test, Phil was copying off the girl next to him, only to realize halfway through class that she was cheating off him! When Phil told the story later, we all had to ask where any answers were coming from if they were both cheating off each others test.

 

Pluralistic ignorance feels like Phil and his AP US History test. However, pluralistic ignorance can be much more important than my little anecdote. Yesterday’s post was about collective conservatism, a form of groupthink where important decision-makers stick to tradition and familiar strategies and answers even as the world changes and demands new and innovative responses. Pluralistic ignorance can limit our responses to change, locking in tradition because we think that is what people want, even though people may be tired of old habits and patterns and ready for something new.

 

In Nudge, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler write, “An important problem here is pluralistic ignorance – that is, ignorance, on the part of all or most, about what other people think. We may follow a practice or tradition not because we like it, or even think it defensible, but merely because we think that most other people like it.”

 

A real world example I can think of would be driving cars. Many people in the country absolutely love cars and see them as symbols of freedom, innovation, and American ingenuity. Thinking that people would be willing to give up their cars or change anything about them seems delusional, and public policy, advertising campaigns, and car designs reflect the idea that people want more, bigger, and faster cars. But is this actually true for most Americans?

 

Our cars emit toxic fumes, tens of thousands of people die annually in crashes, and the lights and sounds of cars can keep those who live along busy streets or next to car enthused neighbors awake at night. People have to pay for auto insurance, vehicles break down frequently, require constant costly maintenance, and in the US there is a constant pressure to have a newer and nicer car to signal how well off one is. My sense is that people generally dislike cars, especially anything dealing with purchasing or repairing a car, but that they put up with them because they think other people like cars and value and respect their car choice. I believe that if there were enough reliable, fast, and convenient alternative transportation options, people would start to ditch cars. I think lots of people buy fancy, powerful, and loud cars because they think other people like them, not necessarily because they actually like the car themselves. If we could come together in an honest way, I think we could all scale back our cars, opting for smaller, quieter, less polluting vehicles or public transportation. There are certainly a lot of problems with public transportation, but I think our obsession and connections with cars is in part pluralistic ignorance as to how much other people actually like and value cars. We are trapped in a vehicular arms race, when we would really all rather not have to worry about cars in the first place.
Confident Nudges & Strong Opinions

Confident Nudges & Strong Opinions

Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler describe an experiment in their book Nudge where people were placed in a group in a dark room with a small point of light. Due to an illusion with the brain processing visual information, the small point of light appears to move slightly, even though it is stationary. The lead investigator on the study placed a member of his staff in the room who would express strong confidence in the distance that the light supposedly moved, or express doubts about the groups conclusion for how far it moved. What the study showed is that strong confidence or strong doubt from one person can greatly shape the overall beliefs of the entire group.

 

Individually, people in the study would not arrive at matching or correlating guesses for the distance that the light moved. But when in groups, individuals begin to converge over a common distance (again, the light never moved – study participants only perceived motion due to an optical illusion). When one person in the group was either very sure that the group had the right estimate, or expressed strong doubt that the groups conclusion was accurate, participants tended to agree and move toward their estimate. A high distance guess stated strongly would pull everyone’s estimates up while a low estimate would shrink them. If the group had someone who was very confident in their answer, the participants became more confident, while if someone expressed strong doubts, the remaining participants level of doubt also rose. As Sunstein and Thaler write, “A little nudge, if it was expressed confidently, could have major consequences for the group’s conclusion.”

 

Most of us probably have to work in groups on a regular basis. This study is important because it shows how much one person can set the expectations and shape the assumptions of everyone in the group. We have all had projects that start out with little coherent information. Everyone has an idea for where the project could go, what shape the final output could take, and what factors will be the most important to include. If one person is has strong opinions in any given area, they can greatly influence the group’s decision-making. The authors continue, “the clear lesson here is that consistent and unwavering people, in the private or public sector, can move groups and practices in their preferred direction.”

 

These people may be right and may have good insights, but they can also be very wrong. A strong personality expressing confident opinions can push an entire group toward conformity. They can downplay the real threats or weaknesses of a plan, and can be overconfident with the prospects of success. For these reasons it is important to build in mechanisms that check groupthink. It is important to have someone play devil’s advocate, to ask how a plan could fail, to get the group to think about the strengths and weaknesses of a plan in honest terms. Without finding a way to check overconfident or strongly expressed opinions, a group can be derailed from the very start, with everyone conforming to the strong opinions of a single individual.
Fluency Versus Frequency

Fluency Versus Frequency

When it comes to the availability heuristic, fluency seems to be the most important factor. The ease with which an example of something comes to mind matters more than the real world frequency of the event. Salient examples of people being pulled over by the police, of celebrity divorces, or of wildfires cause our brains to consider these types of events to be more common and likely than they really are.

 

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman shares results from a study by German psychologist Norbert Schwarz which demonstrates fluency versus frequency in our analysis of the world. Schwarz asked participants to list six instances in which they behaved assertively, and to then rate their overall level of assertiveness. In a second instance, Schwarz asked participants to list twelve instances where they were assertive and to then rate their overall level of assertiveness. What the studies show is that those who were asked to come up with 6 instances of assertiveness considered themselves to be more assertive than those asked to come up with 12 instances. Kahneman describes the results by writing, “Self-ratings were dominated by the ease with which examples had come to mind. The experience of fluent retrieval of instances trumped the number retrieved.”

 

The logical expectation would be that asking people to list 12 instances of assertiveness would give people more reason to believe they were a more assertive person. However, that is not what the study showed. Instead, what Kahneman explains happened is that as you are asked to pull more examples from memory, your brain has a harder time remembering times when you were assertive. You easily remember a few stand-out assertive moments, but eventually you start to run out of examples. As you struggle to think of assertive times in your life, you start to underrate your assertiveness. On the other hand, if you only have to think of a handful of assertive moments, and your brain pulls those moments from memory easily, then the experience of easily identifying moments of assertiveness gives you more confidence with rating yourself as assertive.

 

What I find fascinating with the study Kahneman presents is that the brain doesn’t rely on facts or statistics to make judgments and assessments about the world. It is not setting a bar before analysis at which it can say, more examples of this and I am assertive, or fewer examples and I am not assertive. It is operating on feeling and intuition, fluidly moving through the world making judgments by heuristics. The brain is not an objective observer of the world, and its opinions, perspectives, and conclusions are biased by the way it operates. The study suggests that we cannot trust our simple judgments, even when they are about something as personal as our own level of assertiveness.

We Might Be Wrong

“If you can be sure of being right only 55 percent of the time,” writes Dale Carnegie in the book How to Win Friends and Influence People, “you can go down to Wall Street and make a million dollars a day. If you can’t be sure of being right even 55 percent of the time, why should you tell other people they are wrong?”

 

We always feel so sure of our judgments and conclusions. From the health and safety of GMO foods, to the impacts of a new tax, to who is going to win the Super Bowl, we are often very confident people. The world seems to always want our opinions, and we are usually very excited to offer our opinion with a staggering amount of confidence. This has lead to a lot of funny social media posts about people being incorrect about history, science, and sports, but more seriously, it can create thinking errors that lead nations to invade countries for poor reasons, lead to mechanical failures of spacecraft and oil platforms, and can cause us to loose huge sums of money when the game doesn’t turn out the way we knew it would.

 

I think a good practice is to look for areas where we feel a high degree of confidence, and to then try to ascribe a confidence level to our thoughts. We can try to tie our confidence levels back to real world events to help us ground our predictions: The percent chance of getting blackjack in a given hand is 4.83%, Steph Curry’s 3-point shooting percentage is 43.5%, and the percent chance of getting heads in a coin flip is of course 50%. Can you anchor your confidence (or the chance you are wrong) to one of these percentages?

 

I haven’t studied this (so I could be wrong – I’d wager the chance I’m wrong and this is not helpful at Steph Curry’s 3-point percentage), but I would expect that doing this type of exercise would help us recognize how overconfident we often are. It might even help us get to the next step, admitting that we might be wrong and considering different possibilities. Carnegie continues:

 

“You will never get into trouble by admitting that you may be wrong. That will stop all argument and inspire your opponent to be just as fair and open and broad-minded as you are. It will make him want to admit that he, too, may be wrong.”

 

The important thing to remember is that the world is incredibly complex, and our minds are only so good at absorbing lots of new data and articulating a comprehensive understanding of the information we synthesize. We should be more willing to consider ways in which our beliefs may be inaccurate, and more willing to listen to reasonable people (especially those who have demonstrated expertise or effective thinking skills) when they suggest an idea that does not conform to our prior beliefs. Try not to be close-minded and overly confident in your own beliefs, and you will be better at avoiding thinking errors and making better long-term decisions.

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.