Terrorist Motivations

Terrorist Motivations

One of the arguments that Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler make in their book, The Elephant in the Brain, is that we are not very good at accurately gauging the motivational reasons behind the actions of ourselves and others. We tend to look for large ideological and rational explanations for our behavior and the behavior of others. We often overlook simpler explanations of self-interest in favor of more high minded reasons for behavior.
If we recognize that we do a poor job of understanding the motivation of ourselves and others, then it is not surprising to learn that our assumptions of terrorist motivations are also often wrong. Steven Pinker demonstrates this in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. Pinker specifically looks at suicide bomb terrorists and our general assumption that they are motivated by pure religious beliefs. This assumption, according to Pinker, is incomplete for many suicide bomb terrorists. Pinker writes,
“Using interviews with failed and prospective suicide terrorists, the anthropologist Scott Atran has refuted many common misconceptions about them. Far from being ignorant, impoverished, nihilistic, or mentally ill, suicide terrorists tend to be educated, middle class, morally engaged, and free of obvious psychopathy. Atran concluded that many of the motives may be found in nepotistic altruism.”
Pinker shows that there are a lot of pedestrian motivations for why individuals become suicide terrorists. Their motivation is not always a fervent ideological belief or hope for a spiritual reward of heavenly virgins. Pinker references Atran to show that some suicide terrorists are given the opportunity to have their debt cleared for future generations by going through with a suicide operation. Some suicide terrorists have had families kidnapped and threatened if the suicide bomber doesn’t go through with a bombing. Some terrorist groups offer substantial money to the surviving family members of the suicide terrorists. These monetary and family life motivations are what Atran refers to as nepotistic altruism.
We frequently make assumptions about others and about what motivates them. We make fun of others based on our assumptions, dismiss them, and are surprised to learn that our assumptions can be wrong. We are surprised when we see someone do something awful for motivations that we share with them. When we fail to understand motivation, we fail to understand what types of policies, rewards, and punishments might be useful in changing behaviors. It is important that we accept that we don’t fully understand the motivations of others and work to improve our perspectives so that we can better shape society to prevent things like suicide bomb terrorism.
Get to Know as Many Different Approaches as Possible

Get to Know as Many Different Approaches as Possible

On the most recent episode of the Don’t Panic Geocast, Shannon Dulin said something along the lines of, “all models are wrong.” Our minds are not perfect replications of reality.  They operate on models that explain and to some extent predict reality, but what takes place within our mental models is not actually what happens in reality.
 
 
Think of a map. A super simple map doesn’t match the bend in each road perfectly. It doesn’t give you a sense of elevation. It is a model for the area you are interested in traversing with the aid of the map. On the other end, most accurate possible model of the area would be a complete and perfect replication of the area, but of course that would be of no use in helping us better understand and navigate the area. Our mental models are just like these maps. They simplify, cut out some of the clutter, and reduce some of the unique of aspects of reality to give us a more manageable picture and sense of direction. Our mental model is not a perfect replication of reality. Our model is wrong because the only way for it to be right would be for it to be a perfect replication which would be too complex for our minds.
 
 
Given that models are wrong, but that we need them because we need to simplify in order to think, it is important that we constantly explore to better understand what does and does not need to be in our mental models. Along the same thought lines, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “what is important is to get to know as many different approaches as possible and to ask the right questions,” in his book Sapiens.
 
 
We can focus on any given area, from earthquakes, to human happiness, to minimum wage laws and adopt rigid conclusions based on our mental models for understanding the world. But those conclusions are almost certainly wrong because our mental models are almost certainly insufficient and wrong. Getting locked in on a singular mental model or idea will lead us to rigid conclusions that don’t accurately match reality. To get beyond this we need to be able to gather various perspectives and points of view. Not just on a single issue or idea, but on topic. We have to be willing to rethink any mental model that operates in our mind. We need to hone, refine, and adjust mental models with a spirit of exploration and research. Only by trying many different models and combinations will we start to know what is important and what can be stripped out of our model. We have to do this, because we will always rely on mental models to understand the world, and having a wrong model means we misunderstand reality and means we will make poor judgments and decisions that will impact the real world in a negative way.
Survivorship Bias and Ancient Humans

Survivorship Bias and Ancient Humans

Yuval Noah Harari writes almost romantically about ancient human foragers in his book Sapiens. Describing the difference in knowledge, skills, and abilities between modern humans and ancient hunter-gatherers, Harari is absolutely glowing in his descriptions of ancient humans. He praises them for the knowledge, self-awareness, and connectedness between their bodies and the natural world. Something he argues modern humans have lost.
He writes, “Foragers mastered not only the surrounding world of animals, plants and objects, but also the internal world of their own bodies and senses. They listened to the slightest movement in the grass to learn whether a snake might be lurking there. They carefully observed the foliage of trees in order to discover fruits, beehives, and bird nests. They moved with a minimum of effort and noise, and knew how to sit, walk, and run in the most agile and efficient manner. Varied and constant use of their bodies made them as fit as marathon runners.”
I think this paragraph is generally accurate, if a bit hyperbolic, but troublingly, I think this paragraph is also subject to survivor bias. The humans who lived and survived the longest in a dangerous wilderness environment were probably as fit as modern day triathletes. They probably were more aware of seasonal changes and small details in nature that helped them find food and avoid predators. But I don’t see why we would extend those traits to all foragers. It is unlikely that every human was great at all of the skills Harari lays out, and it seems to me that it would be unlikely for all of them to be agile, fit, super proto-homo sapiens. Many probably fell short in a few areas, and if they fell too short in too many areas, then they probably died, leaving us with the survivorship bias that Harari ends up with. Ultimately, this gives us an overly-romanticized perspective of foraging humans.
Participating in Society - Shark Tank - Mark Cuban - Joe Abittan

Participating in Society

I recently read Entertaining Entrepreneurs by Daniel Horowitz. The book is a deep dive into the show Shark Tank, examining the culture that made it a hit, the successful business people who play the investing sharks, and the contestants and their pitches. The book talked about the way the sharks present themselves as sharp individuals whose exceptional work ethic and insightfulness allowed them to become independently wealthy. With Mark Cuban on the show, I was constantly reminded of the stories about him I heard growing up. Cuban owns the Dallas Mavericks NBA team, and as a child who grew up playing basketball, his story was all around me. Cuban reportedly ate nothing but mustard sandwiches as he was trying to make it big, working hard, and living frugally. Now he is a billionaire, and his days of eating mustard sandwiches are behind him, but his discipline in his early days are what allow him to have the fabulous lifestyle he lives today.
Horowitz shows that there is much more to the story than Cuban eating cheap food at home while trying to be the hardest worker in the world. Cuban participated in a complex society, eventually selling his company to a much larger corporation, and eventually building his own massive organization behind the scenes. There is a paradox in the idea of the individual witty sharks, who are all backed up by corporate enterprises and rely on many people to propel and perpetuate their fame and status. No matter how independent they want to be, Horowitz reminds us, the sharks, and indeed everyone connected to the show, is participating in society and relies on other people to live the fabulously wealthy lives that we all dream about.
On the other end of the our socioeconomic status ladder are homeless individuals, and in the case of Elliot Liebow’s book Tell Them Who I Am, homeless women. Mark Cuban and homeless women seem like they would have nothing in common to connect them in the same blog post, but homeless women, just as Cuban, live within a larger society. No matter how poor one is, nor how wealthy one is, participating in society cannot be avoided, and that participation will in-part drive the outcomes one sees. Cuban is able to participate in society in ways that enhance his status, while homeless women cannot participate in society in ways that enhance their status. In fact, homeless women can only play one role in society, the role of the outcast who everyone is allowed to lambast. Liebow writes,
“Since homeless women are not likely to have formal credentials, social status, money, or useful social or business connections, they confront potential employers, landlords, indeed the whole world, with little more than themselves to offer for evaluation. For this reason, and more than for most of us, the way homeless women present themselves – how they look, speak, and carry themselves – makes a great difference in how they are treated by the rest of the world.”
Homeless women are not even given real opportunities for advancement as they participate in society. They cannot be separate individuals defined purely by how hard they work and whether they are willing to eat nothing but mustard sandwiches as they pinch every penny. When they show up looking for someone to help integrate them into society, they cannot change the fact that their appearance and lack of credentials tells the world they are homeless and unworthy of our respect. When this is the only way they can participate in society, it is no wonder that they never seem to improve their lives.
Cuban, and the rest of the sharks, don’t want to present themselves as depending on society in the way that homeless women do. Cuban and the sharks are fabulously wealthy, well credentialed, and well connected, but they need investors, creditors, social connections, and a public that believes the hype in order to participate in society the way they want. In the end, they are not actually that much different from homeless women – they still depend on society and the roles society allows them to play. The difference is that society has deemed them worthy and valuable, and loads them with praise, while homeless women are deemed unworthy and useless, and criticized as they are pushed away. Homeless women are unable to present themselves in a way that society rewards, but as Horowitz explains in his book, the Sharks all go through painstaking effort to present themselves in a specific way that society does reward. They are as sensitive to their presentation as the homeless women are, but they are better able to control and manipulate that presentation.
What You See Is All There Is

What You See Is All There Is

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman gives us the somewhat unwieldy acronym WYSIATI – what you see is all there is. The acronym describes a phenomenon that stems from how our brains work. System 1, the name that Kahneman gives to the part of our brain which is automatic, quick, and associative, can only take in so much information. It makes quick inferences about the world around it, and establishes a simple picture of the world for System 2, the thoughtful calculating part of our brain, to work with.

 

What you see is all there is means that we are limited by the observations and information that System 1 can take in. It doesn’t matter how good System 2 is at processing and making deep insights about the world if System 1 is passing along poor information. Garbage in, garbage out, as the computer science majors like to say.

 

Daniel Kahneman explains what this means for our day to day lives in detail in his book. He writes, “As the WYSIATI rule implies, neither the quantity nor the quality of the evidence counts for much in subjective confidence. The confidence that individuals have in their beliefs depends mostly on the quality of the story they can tell about what they see, even if they see little.”

 

System 2 doesn’t recognize that System 1 hands it incomplete and limited information. It chugs along believing that the information handed off by System 1 is everything that it needs to know. It doesn’t ask for more information, it just accepts that it has been handed a complete data set and begins to work. System 2 creates a solid narrative out of whatever information System 1 gives it, and only momentarily pauses if it notices an inconsistency in the story it is stitching together about the world. If it can make a coherent narrative, then it is happy and doesn’t find a need to look for additional information. What you see is all there is, there isn’t anything missing.

 

But we know that we only take in a limited slice of the world. We can’t sense the Earth’s magnetic pull, we can’t see in ultraviolet or infrared, and we have no way of knowing what is really happening in another person’s mind. When we read a long paper or finish a college course, we will remember some stuff, but not everything. Our mind is only able to hold so much information, and System 2 is limited to what can be observed and held. This should be a huge problem for our brain, we should recognize enormous blind spots, and be paralyzed with inaction due to a lack of information. But this isn’t what happens. We don’t even notice the blind spots, and instead we make a story from the information we collect, building a complete world that makes sense of the information, no matter how limited it is. What you see is all there is, we make the world work, but we do so with only a portion of what is really out there, and we don’t even notice we do so.
Patterns of Associated Ideas

Patterns of Associated Ideas

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman argues that our brains try to conserve energy by operating on what he calls System 1. The part of our brain that is intuitive, automatic, and makes quick assessments of the world is System 1. It doesn’t require intense focus, it quickly scans our environment, and it simply ignores stimuli that are not crucially important to our survival or the task at hand. System 1 is our low-power resting mode, saving energy so that when we need to, we can activate System 2 for more important mental tasks.

 

Without our conscious recognition, System 1 builds mental mental models of the world that shape the narrative that we use to understand everything that happens around us. It develops simple association and expectations for things like when we eat, what we expect people to look like, and how we expect the world to react when we move through it. Kahneman writes, “as these links are formed and strengthened, the pattern of associated ideas comes to represent the structure of events in your life, and determines your interpretations of the present as well as your expectations of the future.”

 

It isn’t uncommon for people different people to watch the same TV show, read the same news article, or witness the same event and walk away with completely different interpretations. We might not like a TV show that everyone else loves. We might reach a vastly different conclusion from reading a news article about global warming, and we might interpret the actions or words of another person completely differently. Part of why we don’t all see things the same, Kahneman might argue, is because we have all trained our System 1 in unique ways. We have different patterns of associated ideas that we use to fit information into a comprehensive narrative.

 

If you never have interactions with people who are different than you are, then you might be surprised when people don’t behave the way you expect. When you have a limited background and experience, then your System 1 will develop a pattern of associated ideas that might not generalize to situations that are new for you. How you see and understand the world is in some ways automatic, determined by the pattern of associated ideas that your System 1 has built over the years. It is unique to you, and won’t fit perfectly with the associated ideas that other people develop.

 

We don’t have control over System 1. If we active our System 2, we can start  to influence what factors stand out to System 1, but under normal circumstances, System 1 will move along building the world that fits its experiences and expectations. This works if we want to move through the world on auto-pilot with few new experiences, but if we want to be more engaged in the world and want to better understand the variety of humanity that exists in the world, our System 1 on its own will never be enough, and it will continually let us down.

Different Angles

In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie quotes Henry Ford on seeing things from another person’s perspective: “If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.” 

 

I am fascinated by the mind, our perception of the universe, and how we interpret the information we take in to make decisions. There is so much data and information about the world, and we will all experience that information and data in different ways, and our brains will literally construct different realities with the different timing and information that we take in. There may be an objective reality underlying our experiences, but it is nearly impossible to pinpoint exactly what that reality is given all of our different perspectives.

 

What we can realize from the vast amount of data that is out there and by our limited ability to take it all in and comprehend it is that our understanding of the universe is woefully inadequate. We need to get the perspectives of others to really understand what is happening and to make sense of the universe. Everyone will see things slightly differently and understand the world in their own unique way.

 

Carnegie’s book addresses this point in the context of business. When we are trying to make a buck, we often become purely focused on ourselves, on what we want, on how we think it is best to accomplish our goals, and on the narrow set of things that we have identified as necessary steps to get from A to B.

 

However, we are always going to be working with others, and will need the help of other people and other companies to achieve our goals. We will have to coordinate, negotiate, and come to agreement on what actions we will all take, and we will all bring our own experiences and motivations to the table. If you approach business thinking purely about what you want and what your goals are, you won’t be able to do this successfully. You have to consider the perspectives of the other people that you work with or rely on to complete any given project.

 

Your employees motivation will be different than the motivation of the companies who partner with you. Your goal might be to become or remain the leader in a certain industry, but no one cares if you are the leader in your space. Everyone wants to achieve their own ends, and the power of adopting multiple perspectives helps you see how each unique goal can align to compound efforts and returns. Remember, your mind is limited and your individual perspectives are not going to give you the insight you need to succeed in a complex world. Only by seeing the different angles with which other people approach a given problem or situation can you successfully coordinate with and motivate the team you will be working with.

The Case for Doubting Oneself

Our actions always make more sense to us than they do to others. To us, what we do and why we do the things we do fit in with an internal narrative that is always running through our head and playing out in our lives. We understand the world in a way that is logically coherent based on our experiences and perceptions of the world.

 

The problem for each of us, however, is that our experiences, perspectives, and perceptions are woefully inadequate to actually understand the way the world operates. In Letters from a Stoic, Seneca includes a short piece that explains how we should think about our thinking given these inadequacies of our mind:

 

“Crates, they say, … noticed a young man walking by himself, and asked him what he was doing all alone. I am communing with myself, replied the youth. Pray be careful, then, said Crates, and take good heed; you are communing with a bad man!”

 

The point here is not that the youth is actually a bad person, but it is that the narrative and story within our own heads is misleading. It makes judgments and assumptions based on limited, often biased information and creates stories that it claims to be true. We are tricked into believing the falsehoods of our own mind, and if we give our mind too much trust, it can lead us astray.  The advice from Crates conveyed by Seneca is to recognize that our minds are not wholly trustworthy, and to be careful when we are consumed by our own thoughts.

 

In my own life, I have found it to be helpful, but at times almost paralyzing to recognize how little information my mind actually has when it is making decisions and reaching conclusions. I find that I often doubt why I feel a certain way about another person or an event, and that I often pause to consider the information my mind is acting on before I do something, even when my actions or the outcomes are trivial. Occasionally this puts me in a place where I feel that I cannot take action, because I cannot entirely support my reason for doing or believing (or wanting to believe) something. On the whole, however, I feel that it does make me a more considerate person. I recognize times when I want to be outraged at something, just to signal to others how virtuous of a person I am that something outrages me. I often find that I want to complain about others, just to raise my own status, and I try my best to pull back from those urges. These are positive notes stemming from my self-awareness induced hesitation, but my hesitation also leads to situations where I am not as outspoken or decisive as I should be. As an example, I should probably be more outspoken about the importance of climate change legislation or science in general. I am not as willing to take a visible stand in an effort to say that, regardless of policy or party/identity, the behavior and language of our president is unbecoming of the nation’s chief executive and unacceptable in our public discourse (ever here is another example of me hesitating to be as direct as I think I should be).

 

A recognition that the mind cannot possibly observe, analyze, and act on every piece of information available is powerful in being a more thoughtful and considerate person, but it can be paralyzing in negative ways. When we pause to think while others impulsively act, we give away some of the power we gain through self-awareness. The bombastic who dominate conversation through impulsive outbursts have an advantage in controlling the narrative when we hesitate to be more thoughtful in our discourse. We would all rather be the rationally calm individual in our lives, but it feels that the ignorantly loud person will always dominate the conversation when we choose this approach. I think we should nevertheless strive for greater self-awareness and calmness in our thinking, and as a society we need to do a better job of recognizing the importance of these skills, so we can be better at socially rewarding individuals who can control their impulses.

Egocentric Bias

I was reading an political science paper in an academic journal last night and came across a sentence that really stood out to me. The paper focused on the staffers who work for members of congress and whether they held accurate views of the constituents represented by the member of congress that they worked for. The paper finds that congressional staffers routinely misinterpret the views of their constituents, particularly overestimating just how conservative their constituents tend to be.

 

One reason given for the misinterpretation of constituent views was the opinions and ideology of the staffers themselves. In particular, egocentric bias may be pushing the staffers to see the views of their constituents in a warped light. The authors write, “Egocentric bias is a consistent finding in psychology that suggests individuals use  their own beliefs as a heuristic for estimating the beliefs and opinions of others.” In other words, we believe that people are like us and think the way we do.

 

In political science and in a democracy the implications of egocentric bias are huge. Our representatives could totally misinterpret what we think is good or bad, could totally fail to see what issues are important to us, and could support (or oppose) legislation thinking they were doing what we, their constituents, wanted. But really our representatives might end up acting against the wishes of a majority of the people they represent.

 

In our own lives, egocentric bias can also play a huge role. It may not seem like a big deal if we play some music from a speaker while hiking, if we don’t wipe down the machine at the gym, or if we wear that shirt with a funny yet provocative saying on it. After all, we are not bothered with these things and if we assume most people are like us then no one will really care too much. Unfortunately, other people (possibly a plurality or majority of others) may see our behaviors as reprehensible and deeply upsetting. We made an assumption that things we like are things that others like and that things that bother us are things that bother others. We adapted our behavior around our own interests and just assumed everyone else would understand and go with the flow. We bought in to egocentric behavior and acted in ways that could really upset or offend other people.

 

Egocentric bias is something we should work to recognize and move beyond. When we assume everyone is like us, we become less considerate, and that will show in how we behave. If instead we recognize that people are not all like us, we can start to see our world and our actions through new perspectives. This can open up new possibilities for our lives and help us to behave in ways that are more helpful toward others rather than in ways that are more likely to upset other people. What we will find is that we are able to have better connections with people around us and develop better relationships with people because we are more considerate and better able to view the world as they may see it, rather than just assuming that everyone sees the world how we do.

And What Else?

Yesterday I wrote about our tendency to view situations and decisions in the world as binary, and how the reality of the world is often more complex and nuanced than our decision making structures would suggest. Michael Bungay Stanier offers a way to get beyond binary views in his book The Coaching Habit. His solution is simply to ask the question, “And what else?” to get new ideas flowing and to break out of the simple this-or-that mentality that so many of us often stumble through.
In his book he writes, “…What would happen if you added just one more option: Should we do this? or This? or not? The results were startling. Having at least one more option lowered he failure rate by almost half, down to about 30 percent.
    When you use, “And what else?” you’ll get more options and often better options. Better options lead to better decisions. Better decisions lead to greater success.”
As almost everything in Bungay Stanier’s book, his advice and research is geared around professional and business coaching situations, but the takeaways can be expanded upon and used in more areas of life. His research shows that businesses perform much better when they consider a third option and are willing to look beyond the binary perspective. It is reasonable to think that other areas of our life would improve if we became better at recognizing when we were in a binary mindset and asked ourselves if there was a different option or even if we didn’t have to make a decision at all. When we start to become more comfortable with slightly larger perspectives, by making a choice between three options rather than just two, we start to see that the world has more possibilities than we originally recognized, and we start to be able to live a little more flexibly. Recognizing that our vision is limited, especially if we only give ourselves two possibilities for how the world is shaped, is key for growth and learning. Asking what else is a first step to challenge our thoughts and begin to expand our worldview.