On Ego - A Response to a Comment from Philip

On Ego – A Response to a Comment from Philip

Philip asked me some thoughts about ego in a recent comment. Several years back I read and wrote about Ryan Holiday’s book Ego is the Enemy and it has been fundamental in shaping how I see and understand myself within our complex social world. In addition to Ego is the Enemy, Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s book The Elephant in the Brain and Daniel Kahneman’s work in Thinking Fast and Slow dramatically shape the way I understand the idea of the self, how we think, and the role of ego in our lives. Here are some of my thoughts on ego, and some specific responses to questions that Philip asked.
 
 
First, Philip said that he sees, “ego as a closed loop of sort, independent of the acting self.”
 
 
I wouldn’t agree with Philip on this point, but that is because I reject the idea of an independent acting self. Yuval Noah Harari is a great person to read on meditation and the idea of the self. If you ever try meditating, you will quickly learn that you don’t truly have control over your thoughts. This suggests that we don’t have an independent self that is doing the thinking in our minds. “Thoughts think themselves,” Harari has said, and if you meditate, you will understand what he means. Thoughts frequently pop into our head without our control. Ego, and the kinds of thoughts we associate with ego and megalomania, are all just thoughts swirling around in what appears to be a chaos of thoughts. Given the nature of thought, I don’t think we should think of ego as anything independent of the other thoughts within our mind.
 
 
Second, Philip says, “if you are in a state of security, you can choose not to act on ego.”
 
 
I also wouldn’t agree with this point. In his Meditations, Aurelius writes about Epictetus, a slave and a pioneer of stoicism. Epictetus was not exactly secure, but he was able to put aside ego and focus on the present moment. His particular brand of stoicism has resonated with prisoners of war and involves the dissolution of personal ego for survival. We can put aside ego at any point, regardless of how secure we are.
 
 
Also pushing against Philips thoughts is Donald Trump. Certainly, at many points in his life, Trump has been secure in terms of money, fame, power, and influence. Yet Trump is clearly an egomaniac who is unable to set his ego aside and will pursue even the smallest slights and insults against him. I don’t think that a state of security is really an important consideration for whether we act in an egotistical way.
 
 
Philip’s third observation on ego is “as a self preserving mechanism, protecting you and helping you in motivating living the life you do.”
 
 
This is a view on our ego that I would agree with. When we think about how the mind works, I think we should always approach it from an evolutionary psychology standpoint. Very likely, our brains are the way they are because at some point in the history of human evolution it was beneficial for our minds to function in one way over another. There could be some accidents, some mental equivalents to vestigial organs, and some errors in our interpretations, but we probably didn’t develop many psychological traits and maintain them throughout generations if they were not helpful for survival somewhere along the way.
 
 
When we view the ego through this lens, it is not hard to see how the ego could help improve our chances of surviving and passing down our genes. If we are egotistical and think that we deserve the best and that we deserve larger amounts of resources, we will be more likely to advocate for ourselves and fight for a better lot in life. This could help our survival, could help us find a better mate, and could help ensure we pass more genes on to subsequent generations. Without the ego, we may chose to settle, we may be complacent, and we may not strive to pass our genes along or ensure that those subsequent genes have sufficient resources to further pass their genes into the following generation. Ego can push us to strive toward the higher salary, the fancier car, more exclusive golf clubs, and other things that are not really necessary for life, but could help ourselves amass more resources and help our kids have better connections to get into Stanford and ultimately find a spouse and have kids. Ego could certainly be antisocial and harmful for us and society, but it could also be important for genetic survival.
 
 
Philip’s fourth point is about a guy who is hurt because his wife forgot his birthday.
 
 
It is possible that an inflated ego is what made this guy upset when his wife forgot his birthday, but it could also be a number of other psychological or relationship issues between him and his spouse. He may have larger issues of self-worth and value independent of his ego. He may be codependent and perhaps need counseling to better manage his relationships with others. Or his wife could have just been having a bad day. This didn’t seem like a great avenue for discussing and understanding ego to me.
 
 
The fifth point that Philip brings up ties back to his third, by viewing ego as a “fairness calculator.”
 
 
I also think this could be a useful way to view ego and it also seems like it could be understood through a cognitive psychology perspective. We don’t want to feel like we are being cheated, yet we would be happy to bend the rules and cheat a little if we thought we could get away with it. This is a lot of what Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler discuss in The Elephant in the Brain. If we can signal that we are honest and trustworthy, without actually having to be honest and trustworthy, then we are at an advantage. However, if we suspect that another person is all signal and no actual behavior to back up those signals, then we may act in an egotistical way by being defensive and pushing back against the other. Ego does seem to help fuel this mindset and does seem to encourage a type of fairness calculator behavior.
 
 
The final point that Philip makes is that, “ego needs to be controlled in a civilized society.”
 
 
I think here Philip is also correct. We live in very complex social societies and ego helps us individually, but also has negative externalities. Ego certainly helped push Trump to the presidency and the history books, but I’m not sure the world was better for it. By pursuing our own self-interest and acting based on ego, we can damage the world around us.
 
 
Hanson and Simler would argue that much of these harmful effects of ego are moderated by our signaling ability. Hanson has said that his estimate is that up to 90% of what we do as humans is signaling, at least in rich countries like the United States. Signaling both helps us get ahead and tempers our ego. Overt displays are frowned upon, leaving less overt signaling as the way we display how amazing we are. An unchecked ego is going to break the rules for signaling, and unless it is Donald Trump in the 2016 election, such overt egotism will be punished. Ultimately, we do have to control ego because of negative externalities if we want to cooperate and live in complex social communities.
 
 
I hope this helps explain some of how I think about ego!
Theory of Mind is Underrated

Theory of Mind is Underrated

Sometime when infants are around three years old they begin to recognize that the other human beings in their lives are similar to themselves. Whether it is their parents, care takers, or other kinds that they interact with, typically developing children around three will begin to understand that others have the same feelings and emotions that they have. Infants begin to develop what we call theory of mind. It is a momentous and underrated step in human development.
 
 
I seem to be experiencing the world. To me, it feels like there is a conscious individual inside my head who has thoughts, feelings, desires, emotions, joys, pleasures, fears, and experiences of physical phenomena (as an aside, the idea of a single conscious self is up for debate). But I can’t prove that any other person has conscious experiences of the world in the way that I feel as though I do. I can see other people who appear to be virtually exactly like me. I see other people who react in ways I would expect myself to react if I was in a similar happy, scary, or boring experience. I can create a reasonable and testable theory which suggests that other people do indeed have conscious experiences of the world even though I can never fully prove it. This is theory of mind, and this is what three year old toddlers do when they start to realize that other people don’t like being hit, don’t like when someone takes their stuff, or would be happy if someone shared a piece of cake with them.
 
 
This is a phenomenal super power and without realizing it, we apply this power in most of the ways we think about the social world. In WEIRD countries it underlies our moral and social contracts. As Steven Pinker writes in The Better Angels of Our Nature, “I experience pleasures and pains, and pursue goals in service of them, so I cannot reasonably deny the right of other sentient agents to do the same.” This humanist philosophy develops from our earliest ages and influences how we understand the world. If we were not able to think about others and infer that they have a mind and have the same experiences as we do, our social interactions would be dramatically different, and peaceable democracies might not be possible.
Dogmas About Violence

Dogmas About Violence

In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker demonstrates that many of the ways in which we think about violence are inadequate for actually understanding violence. Often, our views toward violence are more dogmatic than evidence based. We have ideas, views, and beliefs of violence that seem to fit, but that don’t actually have much historical backing and don’t really take full context into consideration. Pinker’s book pushes back against such dogmas to help us better understand what is happening in world-wide violence trends. His argument is that by better understanding the causes and underlying factors contributing to violence, we can better understand actual trends in violence and shape our responses accordingly.
 
 
Regarding some dogmas that people hold about violence he writes, “on the contrary, violence is often caused by a surfeit of morality and justice, at least as they are conceived in the minds of the perpetrators.” Morality doesn’t necessarily seem to be a key to stopping violence. Pinker demonstrates that many religious wars, such as The Crusades, were fought by people who believed they were very moral. In fact, their morality was at the center of their conflict. Morality today is still used to justify violence, such as when we tie capital punishment to a sense of justice. The idea is that someone who killed another deserves to have the same violence inflected upon themselves. Our moral sense is that more violence is a worthy response to violence.
 
 
Pinker continues, “a Third dubious belief about violence is that lower-class people engage in it because they are financially needy … or because they are expressing rage against society.” What Pinker found is that this isn’t necessarily true. People in the lowest socioeconomic levels, Pinker argues, tend to be “effectively stateless.” At a certain point, legal recourse to address crimes is just not possible for people in the lowest economic spheres. People may be dependent on government aid and assistance, but  they may be locked out of some of the protections that government and institutions afford more affluent people. Violence is better than trying to resolve conflicts legally for these individuals.
 
 
From a middle class perspective, impulse control more important for future success and security than it is for lower class individuals. Being impulsive and using violence against another person could lead to a job loss, a financial loss, the loss of friends, and the loss of familial assistance. If you have already lost those things, then the cost of violence falls. Approaches to address violence that are designed for the middle and upper classes literally are ineffective because they don’t operate on the proper incentive structure facing people in the lowest socioeconomic classes. And when those approaches fail, it can lead to a positive feedback loop where the poorest people are simply blamed for being impulsive and violent. We miss the importance of larger institutions and incentives.
 
 
Understanding these dogmas and the reality of violence helps us better understand why people are violent. Taking a long view of humanity allows us to more clearly see how these dogmas are built from limited perspectives of our current moment and current socioeconomic situations. To get beyond these dogmas requires that we think differently about the systems, structures, institutions, and incentives in people’s lives and how those factors can influence violent behavior.
Dispelling Paradise Lost

Dispelling Paradise Lost

I hate when people fall into paradise lost traps in their thinking. It is too easy for us to think that the past was somehow great and that our modern times and our pathway to the future are bleak. We always seem to be looking back to some sort of paradise that we have lost, some great golden age that has passed, some point in the history of humanity where everything was better. We criticize high school kids today as being worse than we were when we were their age. We imagine times when humans were more civil to each other.  We lament a loss of our connections to nature and a natural way of life. Underneath all of these ideas is a fallacy.
 
 
I think the heart of paradise lost mindsets is the long human childhood development period. We literally did have someone who watched over us and provided for all of our needs (if we had a full, healthy, and enriching childhood which is not the case for everyone). This sets our mind up to believe that there truly was a golden time where everything was perfect. That there was a paradise that we lost as we got older. The reality of course, is that we were simply young and didn’t have fully formed brains. We were not aware of the difficulties and tragedies of life, if we were lucky.
 
 
Also playing into this fallacy are various errors in human memory and judgment. We fail to remember the boredom, tedium, and frustrations of our youth. We are more likely to remember positive moments, even if they were few in number, than the long and unremarkable stretches of time or our past fears and anxieties. This misremembering process takes place in other areas too. We fail to remember how bad long traffic commutes were for previous jobs, we fail to remember minor contentious political and social events that created ill will and animosity among our societies and families, we forget how painful workouts were from back when we were in better shape. We fail to remember all kinds of negativities in our lives and we fail to recognize how awful life has been for other humans across space and time. And life has been miserable, violent, and deadly for humans across time.
 
 
As an example, Steven Pinker writes about the amount of violence that ancient humans experienced. Skeletal remains that we can recover from hundreds, thousands, and tens of thousands of years ago show substantial signs of violence. It is quite common to find remains with signs of major injuries that occurred before death and were very likely inflected by other humans in acts of violence. “Perhaps at the turn of the first millennium,” writes Pinker, “the only bodies that got dumped into bogs, there to be pickled for posterity, were those that had been ritually sacrificed. But for most of the bodies, we have no reason to think that they were only preserved because they were murdered.” According to Pinker, it is unlikely that so many of the bodies that we have recovered have signs of trauma consistent with human to human violence simply by chance. The reason why there is so much violence identified by anthropologists on ancient bodies is likely because there was a lot of violence experienced by ancient humans. Pinker continues, “prehistoric remains convey the distinct impression that The Past is a place where a person had a high chance of coming to bodily harm.”
 
 
It is fashionable today to say that humans should live like our  hunter-gatherer ancestors. That in moving to big modern cities we lost some part of paradise and have disconnected from our humanity. That we need to eat like a caveman, need to be one with nature, and need to reconnect with our natural human instincts. But this is just a fashionable myth. Our ancient hunter-gatherer forebearers were quite violent and lived short and painful lives. The paradise is today and lies ahead of us, not behind us where we were under constant threat, were undernourished, and killed each other or inflicted violence upon one another to a greater extent than we do today.
Why Study History? Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens - Joe Abittan Blog

Why Study History?

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari asks why we should study history if history is not deterministic. If history was deterministic, then we would be able to look back in time at what has happened and determine where things will go next. We would  be able to see clear causal links between events of the past and easily adjust our behaviors and decisions moving forward. If history was truly deterministic, then the trite saying, “those who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it,” would actually mean something.
 
 
But history is not deterministic. There are random changes, chance events, and other unpredictable factors that influence everything from technological development, to GDP, and even marriage and family structures. We can look back and create a compelling narrative, but the causal power of our explanations is extremely low. We can see the how of history, that is how things unfolded, but not the why, not the causal structures underlying everything.
 
 
And that makes it reasonable to ask why we should bother studying history at all. Harari responds to this inquiry by writing, “history is not a means for making accurate predictions. We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine.”
 
 
History helps us see that racial hierarchies, monarchies, and other aspects of life and culture are based on little more than chance. It helps us understand that humans can live in more ways than we imagine and can have more experiences than we imagine. History doesn’t help us predict what is going to happen in the future and doesn’t tell us how we should live now, but it does help us see that the world is not as rigid as we may imagine. History should expand our knowledge of the possible and humble us in the choices and decisions we make.
Complexity and Cultural Decisions

Complexity and Cultural Decisions

In the United States, and in much of the world, people are reexamining the histories and cultures that built the lives that people live. There is a push to disavow ancestors who were brutal to other people, to disavow groups that committed genocides and atrocities against others, and to disavow the cultural practices of people’s who dominated other groups. Whether it is the Black Lives Matter movement and the 1619 Project in the United States, countries formerly dominated by the British Empire working to redefine themselves beyond their colonial past, or native peoples trying to reestablish a culture that was oppressed by explorers hundreds of years ago, people across the globe are attempting to make difficult decisions about how to understand their culture of oppression and celebrate that culture moving forward without becoming as bad as their former oppressors.
 
 
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes about the dilemma such people face. He writes, “whatever path we take, the first step is to acknowledge the complexity of the dilemma and to accept that simplistically diving the past into good guys and bad guys leads nowhere.” History is challenging. For example, while we generally dislike the history of British colonization, arguments can be made that countries colonized by the British had better outcomes than countries that were not colonized. Additionally, it is hard to separate what is truly derivative from one culture relative to another, especially after decades or centuries of cultural dominance and back and forth cultural influence. Simply arguing that history would have been better one way or another, or arguing that a culture should get rid of everything associated with “bad guys” is an insufficient way to think about how a culture should relate to its past.
 
 
In the United States this seems to be part of the problem with the sharp divide over the Black Lives Matter movement or Critical Race Theory. White people see these movements and fear that their cultural history is immediately tainted as bad and evil. Rather than feeling as though their cultural heritage has anything worth celebrating, they feel as though people are turning on their cultural heritage and disavowing anything that came from it, ultimately threatening the lives of white people today. If we want to address the cultural problems of white slave holders, it is important to recognize how difficult and thorny our cultural histories in the United States are, and to recognize that we cannot simply say that white people are evil (or have been evil). We cannot paint with a broad brush and must instead consider the nuances and complexities as we think about how American culture can move forward. In the United States this means that black people must be considerate of how their culture was influenced by white dominance, but also how their culture persisted and influenced the United States in positive ways. White people must also look back and not see their ancestors as purely evil. We can eliminate statutes and monuments to people who do not deserve to be praised, but we can also still celebrate aspects of our historical culture that propelled us to where we are. It is a difficult path to navigate, and probably doesn’t lend itself to a solid sense of balance, because cultures are too complex for dichotomies and balance. 
Misjudging the Benefits of the Agricultural Revolution

Misjudging the Benefits of the Agricultural Revolution

My last couple of posts have been about the Agricultural Revolution and how it didn’t provide the benefits to early human farmers that we would imagine or expect it to have provided. The Agricultural Revolution helped propel humans toward our modern world, but it wasn’t an immediate upgrade in the lives and diets of most humans. It is perplexing how humans managed to settle into farming communities and agricultural villages given that the first humans to begin cultivating crops likely had a worse time (or very minimally marginally better time) than ancient foragers.
 
 
In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes about these challenges and why the reality of the Agricultural Revolution doesn’t match what we imagine the Agricultural Revolution to have been like. He writes:
 
 
“Village life certainly brought the first farmers some immediate benefits, such as better protection against wild animals, rain, and cold. Yet for the average person, the disadvantages probably outweighed the advantages. This is hard for people in today’s prosperous societies to appreciate. Since we enjoy affluence and security, and since our affluence and security are built on foundations laid by the Agricultural Revolution, we assume that the Agricultural Revolution was a wonderful improvement. Yet it is wrong to judge thousands of years of history from the perspective of today.”
 
 
We look at how we got to where we are and in some ways assume that the path that humans took was obvious and clear. We were once cavemen, then became farmers, then scientists, and now we can watch college football all day on Saturday on our flat screen TVs while eating pizza. The reality, however, is that early farmers and early foragers didn’t have any idea what the future would hold. It wasn’t clear exactly what would be a better step in the right direction. Advances came painfully slowly, and the Agricultural Revolution only looks like a revolution if you back out and look at the slow path of human evolution over tens of thousands of years. On the scale of a single human life, it was hardly a revolution and hardly clear that things were going in the right direction.
 
 
I think that part of what happens when we look back in time at the Agricultural Revolution and consider how it improved (or failed to improve) the lives of ancient humans, is that we substitute a hard question for an easy question. Instead of investigating what life was like for foragers relative to the first agricultural humans, we ask, “have I (and has humanity) benefitted from the Agricultural Revolution?” The answer is clearly yes, it was a good thing in the long run for us all individually. Retroactively we apply this good framing to the Agricultural Revolution and assume that it was always a good thing for everyone, judging history by our current situation and perspective. But as Harari writes, ancient farmers whose lives may have been worse off than the lives of ancient foragers certainly didn’t think that their transition to farming was always and unambiguously a good thing. They didn’t know what the future of humanity would become tens of thousands of years later, based on the system of farming and communal living that they were pioneering. By substituting how we feel about the Agricultural Revolution today for the lived reality of those who went through it, we get an incomplete and inaccurate view of what it really was.
People Eat Physics - Gulp - Mary Roach - Joe Abittan

People Eat Physics

In the book Gulp, Mary Roach explores what it is that makes us like certain foods. She investigates different qualities of different foods in an attempt to discern what food attributes make us like different things. There are the obvious taste and texture qualities, but she investigates further, and finds that there is a lot of physics involved in which foods we like and which foods we don’t like.
Roach quotes researcher Tony Van Vliet in her book writing, “People eat physics. You eat physical properties with a little bit of taste and aroma. And if the physics is not good, then you don’t eat it.” This quote followed the explanation of an experiment regarding potato chips. Researchers found that manipulating sound waves, to eliminate the crunch sounds of the chips, made people think they were eating old, stale chips, when in fact they were eating fresh chips. Eating, an activity dominated by taste and the mouth, it turns out is also greatly impacted by the ears.
“Crispness and crunch are the body’s shorthand for healthy,” Roach continues. When we eat, our noses play a big role, the touch receptors in our mouth play a huge role, and it turns out even our ears play a huge role. Without realizing it, we are using a huge amount of our senses to determine whether food is healthy, safe to eat, and nutritious. When the physics don’t align for any given physical property of the food, we will experience it differently. Add red coloring to white wine and people won’t experience it as a white wine. Mute the crunch on chips and people will think they are old and stale. People eat physics just as much as they eat food.
Poverty & Prophecy

Poverty & Prophecy

My wife and I have been listening to the Harry Potter books on Audible so I have been reminded of one of the key ideas from the series – the idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy. A prophecy is made about Harry Potter, the big bad guy, Voldemort, hears part of the prophecy and acts on it, ultimately fulfilling the prophecy and bringing about his own doom. The question, which is asked directly in the book, is whether any of the events of story would have happened if the prophecy had not been overheard. If the bad guy hadn’t been afraid of the prophecy to try to prevent it, would the prophecy have been meaningless?

This idea came back to me when thinking about a quote from Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer in their book $2.00 A Day. When I think about the poor and about the way they are treated, I often fall into a similar mindset as I do when I think about the prophecy from Harry Potter or any other story about a self-fulfilling prophecy. I find myself asking if the way we treat the poor effectively tells them they are not worthy and valuable, effectively creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that they realize. When we tell someone they are not good enough, not worth the time and attention of society, do they begin to believe it, and do they give up on themselves?
“Research shows that the intrusive treatment people typically receive at the welfare office can undermine their confidence in government and erode political participation,” write Edin and Shaefer. Their book shows that research on how people in poverty are treated finds that the treatment of poor people directly influences how they understand their position in society, how they understand whether they are supported, valued, and whether they should even try to participate in democracy to improve  their lives and fight for what they need to live better. Edin and Shaefer continue, “it stands to reason that this kind of treatment could also erode the very confidence that is so necessary for pulling yourself out of a $2-a-day poverty.”
This is where my ideas about self-fulfilling prophecies reconnects with poverty. Shaefer and Edin demonstrate that what we tell poor people becomes the reality they live within. We set up systems to aid the needy, but we treat them terribly when they seek to access such systems. We tell them they are not worthy, that they are failures, and that they don’t deserve the assistance legally provided. As a result, poor people believe they are not meant to participate in society, they may truly believe they are not good enough to improve their situation, and they may give up and accept that they are not deserving of a better life. The way we treat the poor effectively creates a prophecy that they live out, preventing them from meaningfully participating in our democracy, and limiting their chances of doing the things necessary to be seen as worthy of more help and assistance to escape deep poverty.
We Care About Narratives

We Care About Narratives

I have written a lot about narratives in the last few months. We understand the world via narratives. Scientific discoveries, economic measurements, facts, and statistics don’t mean anything to us in isolation and are not understood by our brains in isolation. Everything that we observe and experience is incorporated into a story, and we care about the narratives that we create.

 

The way we think about ourselves and others is understood through these narratives. Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking Fast and Slow looks at the ways we think about narratives, and how our narratives influence our thoughts, our behaviors and decisions, and the lenses through which we interpret the world. He writes, “we all care intensely for the narrative of our own life and very much want it to be a good story, with a decent hero.” We do things to improve our narrative, we work hard to give ourselves a good ending, and we create ideas within the relationships and frames of our lives that give us meaning and purpose for what we do and who we are.

 

From this narrative understanding of the world come two interesting observations from Kahneman that I want to highlight. One is duration neglect, the other is caring for people via caring for their story.

 

“Duration neglect is normal in a story,” writes Kahneman, “and the ending often defines its character.”

 

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the 23 Marvel movies that are out now), Iron Man is one of the most important characters. He has a huge character arc across the movies, developing from a spoiled billionaire playboy to the sacrificial hero at the end. And it is the ending that defines Tony Stark more than almost anything else across the movies. We forget that many of the villains across the entire saga are a creation of his own hubris, his own short-sightedness, and his own ego. We discount the times he fell short, because in the end he is the hero who saves the universe. Duration neglect kicks in, and we understand Tony by the end of his narrative, a bittersweet goodbye to the Iron Man hero who kicked off the whole movie phenomenon.

 

Of course a comic book movie series exaggerates our relationships to narratives and life. Iron Man and the rest of the characters are larger than life, but nevertheless, they do give us a window to understand how we understand the real world. You want the lives of those around you to end peacefully and you want people to feel fulfilled. You feel sad for the person who died young, before a wedding or before the birth of a child. It doesn’t matter how happy their life was overall, you want their narrative to have the Tony Stark arc, you wanted their narrative to be complete with a perfect ending.

 

And this brings us to the second idea from Kahneman, “caring for people often takes the form of concern for the quality of their stories, not for their feelings.” Stories where someone’s life ends before they could fulfill themselves feel hollow. We understand other people by understanding their story. We rarely think of someone as a generally happy or generally sad person without considering whether their life and their story has been good or bad. We judge the stories of others, and have trouble understanding how someone who is famous, rich, or seems to have a great career could be sad and empty. At the same time, we don’t understand how someone in poverty with few close family members could find happiness. We focus on changing the stories of others, rather than on helping them be happy.

 

We care about narratives and want stories to end well, want people to find meaning in their narratives, and understand and interact with people based on the narratives we tell ourselves and the narratives people present to us. Development, time, and individual events mean little compared to the grand arc of a narrative and how it comes to a close. When we help others and try to support them, we are often doing so in a way that is meant to boost both of our narratives.