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.

What is the Ultimate “Thing” of the Universe?

Amanda Gefter’s book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn is about her journey into the world of physics with her father. Throughout the book she and her father search for the ultimate building block of the universe. What is the smallest particle that forms the basis of all other particles? What aspect of the universe is constant among all scales and all perspectives? What constitutes reality in our universe?

 

From our perspective here on Earth, these questions seem like they should be strait-forward and easy to answer. However, once we start looking into the universe and observing more than what we can simply experience here on Earth, we begin to see that what we understand as reality is not as clear as it appears. The deeper we peer through space, the more we see strange phenomenon such as the curving of spacetime, and the more energy we put forward in the search of smaller and smaller particles, the more we find that matter seem to come and go and not behave as we expected.

 

Throughout their search, Gefter and her father look into the physics of various candidates for the ultimate building block of reality and meet many interesting scientists and physicists.  From the beginning, one of Gefter’s favorite physicists was John Wheeler, and early on in his research he took down the idea that spacetime itself was the most basic unit of the universe. “Wheeler emphasized that spacetime couldn’t be reality’s ultimate ingredient, because at its highest resolution quantum mechanics and general relativity conspire to destroy it, warping its geometry until it isn’t geometry anymore.”

 

Over the last two years a principle predicted by Albert Einstein has been proven correct as we have discovered gravitational waves. These are ripples through spacetime caused by events of massive energy. The empty space of space, according to the theory of Einstein is not actually empty but is composed of what we have confusingly named spacetime. Our planets and everything in the universe permeates across and through this spacetime according to physics that Einstein helped describe. In her book, Gefter turns back to Wheeler to describe this concept, “As wheeler put it, ‘Matter tells space how to curve. Space tells matter how to move.” Our planet, our sun, our galaxy, and everything in the universe is interacting with spacetime which is everywhere and all around us. As matter interacts with what appears to be empty space it actually distorts that space, because that space is more than emptiness. Light, energy, and matter are all influenced by spacetime which itself is simultaneously shaped by the matter and energy flowing through it. Even more bizarre, across spacetime, particles seem to pop in and out of existence continuously, with particles and antiparticles appearing from nothing and then colliding on a sub-microscopic level to vanish back into nothingness.

 

Early on what Gefter demonstrated with the help of Einstein, Wheeler, and spacetime, is that our concrete understanding and experience of reality is not as concrete as it appears. We can only see, measure, and experience so much, and there is far more in the universe than what we currently know and understand. The ultimate reality of the universe is beyond our current comprehension, and what this reminds us is that we should not be too sure of our own knowledge, for we are always limited by what we can experience and observe from our perspective. The universe is more than the stories we tell ourselves about it.

Our Vision of Criminals and Drug Users

In the United States we have a habit of conflating racial minorities with criminality, drug use, and poverty. When we think about the poor areas of our town, when we think about welfare beneficiaries, and when we think about the people in our jails and prisons we mostly imagine minority individuals and groups. This is not a vision that happened by chance and it is not exactly representative of the populations that live in poverty, have been incarcerated, or use drugs. Our nation built this vision slowly but surely over time starting with the Reagan administration’s war on drugs and rhetoric that established an us versus them mentality in regard to welfare, drug use, and poverty. Very deliberately, the administration and media in the 1980s and 1990s portrayed poor blacks as “them” while suburban whites were cast as the threatened “us”.

Michelle Alexander explains how this started and was fueled in her book The New Jim Crow. She discusses the ways in which incarceration became our answer for drug use, poverty, and growing minority populations. Casting minorities as bad and dangerous people was necessary to build support for greater government control over minority populations. Over time, with continued rhetoric and continued attacks from political elites, race and criminality became entwined so closely that “colorblind” individuals could discuss race and champion policies that would lead to disparate impacts for racial groups without having the appearance of ever discussing race. Alexander shares examples in her book.

She quotes an interview with Jerome Miller, the former executive director of the National Center for Institutions and Alternatives, “There are certain code words that allow you to never have to say ‘race,’ but everybody knows that’s what you mean and ‘crime’ is one of those… so when we talk about locking up more and more people, what we’re really talking about is locking up more and more black men.” Alexander also quotes Melissa Hickman Barlow from Time and Newsweek in 1989, “It is unnecessary to speak directly of race [today] because speaking about crime is talking about race.” And finally, Alexander cites a journal article from 1995 written by Betty Watson Burston, Dionne Jones, and Pat Robertson-Saunders in the Journal of Alcohol and Drug Abuse to describe the way that America had come to see black people and drug use. Alexander writes, “A survey was conducted in 1995 asking the following question: ‘Would you close your eyes for a second, envision a drug user, and describe that person to me?’ The startling results were published in the Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education. Ninety-five percent of respondents pictured a black drug user, while only 5 percent imagined other racial groups.”

What the examples above show is that our country views racial groups very differently. Black people in our minds are associated with poverty, drug use, and criminality. White people are associated with success and money. It is important to recognize how we view different racial groups so that we understand the subtext of our politicians, friends, neighbors, and Facebook-ranting relatives when they talk about harsh sentences for drug users or about policies to be tough of crime. What they really mean in these situations, based on our shared vision of who uses drugs and who commits crime, is that they will be tough on black people. We must understand also how these visions shape our implicit biases and how these expectations of different races impact the children growing up in communities across the country. White children grow up learning that black people are poor criminals and that they need to be controlled, and black children grow up learning that they themselves are dangerous, violent, and prone to drug use. This shapes how our children approach the world and find their place in society. In a very real way then, the rhetoric we use and the language we share begins to impact the way people understand their role and identity in society, and shapes the outcomes as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecys.

How We Argue – Talking Past Each Other

Senator Cory Booker discusses the state of national debate in politics in his book United and I think accurately describes an unfortunate reality of today’s political discourse. The arguments that we make today often don’t seem to be in alignment. Each side is arguing in a way that does not seem to actually address the point being made by the other side, and does not seem to be operating with the same set of facts, values, or baseline understandings. Booker writes,

“We often end up in national conversations that are akin to arguing about what  the temperature is in a room without looking at the thermostat. What we need is a collective call to the common good based upon indisputable facts and the broader aspirational ideals to which we all ascribe.”

Booker’s point is well intentioned and falls in a recent theme among books that I am currently reading and podcasts that I listen to regarding language, reason, argument, and understanding. Booker is absolutely correct that we are arguing without a baseline and without a common set of facts, but the challenge is that his final point rests on political decision making, and even for an individual, deciding what aspirational ideals should be ascribed to is a struggle.

Author Colin Wright’s new book, Becoming Who We Need to Be, looks at one of the problems with arguments today and how we end up talking past each other. We fail to develop a shared understanding of the world and issue at hand because we use language differently depending on our viewpoints. We apply labels (acronyms, descriptions, names) to elements of an issue or argument, and if those labels are not well defined or shared, we end up at a point where our argument is in some way unintelligible to someone who sees things differently.

I have also recently listened to a couple of podcasts on Julia Galef’s show, Rationally Speaking, where the ideas of self-interest, rationality, and decision making have been challenged and examined from very nuanced perspectives. It turns out that we are not so good at determining what is in our own best interest, and much worse at understanding how other people determine what is in their best interest.

Julia Galef was also interviewed herself on a recent episode of the Ezra Klein show, and in the podcast Ezra and Julia discuss the problems that arise in our arguments. We are not open to the other side, and often shut out ideas that seem to be oppositional to ourselves or come from people we find disagreeable. This means that before we even begin an argument or debate, we are judging how aligned we are with the other person, and determining how much we should agree with them on any issue before we have even begun talking or listening.

I think Booker is correct that we are arguing without understanding what we are arguing about or what the baseline is, but trouble with how we use language, how we determine what is politically best for us or others, and how we rationalize what we and others believe make it politically challenging to ever decide what we should all ascribe to and how we could reach that goal. One solution would be an increased validity in political and knowledge institutions. A greater sense of support and acceptance of reports from academic institutions and politically neutral government agencies can help us be more aligned in our debates and discussions. This would require serious effort and commitment on the part of the agency or academic report to be seen as non-partisan, and it would also require the public to accept reports and findings that did not align with political ideals.

Our Shifting Views

Often times we adopt specific views on issues, ideas, and expectations in our lives, and we do not want to allow those views  to change. In some areas, such as politics, we have a negative impression of people who say their views change. We hold politicians to strict standards where they are expected to maintain the same views on all issues throughout their career.  Colin Wright, in his book Considerations, has a different idea regarding our views, “Views are temporal things, shaped by the exact perspective from which we perceive the world; a perspective that shifts every moment.

 

I really enjoy the way that Wright creates a distinction between our views and our perspective. Our background, experiences, underlying beliefs both conscious and unconscious, our socioeconomic status and so many other factors influence our perspectives.  When we do not know much about a particular topic or issue we are likely to have a very peripheral perspective and when we have studied in depth or felt the direct experiences of an issue or topic we will have a far more profound perspective.  It is from our unique perspectives that we interpret the world, and it is from our perspective that we develop our specific views on the events, thoughts, and beliefs that shape our world.

 

As we age, learn more, and gain new experiences our perspective on the world will naturally shift. By looking at our views through the perspective model that Wright explains, there is no way that our views can remain the same as our perspectives shift.  We may maintain very similar views, but out of the necessity, or views should adapt and differentiate. I enjoy bringing this back to politics because it is an area where the we should see individuals’ perspectives and views on constantly change and evolve, yet we do not allow politicians to shift their views.  It is impossible to elect a politician and expect that once they are on the job, studying issues and learning from research, that their views will remain unchanged. Throughout science as we grow and learn our views change, and this mindset should be applied to our personal lives, what we expect from our government, and the ways we approach other people.

Ask the Right Questions

Dave Birss writes in his book, A Users Guide to the Creative Mind, about being creative, finding new solutions, and combining ideas and perspectives to create something new. On solving problems he writes, “The best way to find the right solution is to make sure you’re asking the right question.”  I am a huge fan of this quote because it shows how important varying perspectives can be, especially when combined with persistence, a desire to improve, and flexibility.  Too often in our daily lives, be it business, our personal lives, and even national politics, we settle into a single perspective and we begin to approach problems from one side with everyone asking the same question.
If we follow Birss’ advice, then we begin to reach out to find solutions to our problems from new perspectives.  In my mind it is as if we take a problem, and leave a two demential space where we are looking at the problem as if it were a wall in front of us, and enter a three demential space and look at the problem as if it were a sphere where we could change our angle and vantage point at will.  When we begin to look at problems from new perspectives we find that we have different questions about our original problem. In fact we may see that our problem is actually a goal, an opportunity, or just a thought that others have not acted upon.
Asking the right questions is an exercise in persistence because you have to reach beyond the first thoughts and questions that you develop.  You must begin to think of things in new ways, ask others for their thoughts and advice, and not be afraid to voice opinions that may be different.  Our openness to new ideas will help us change our perspective, and our new perspective will help us ask new questions regarding our problem.  When we take this approach to push forwards and constantly grow, we will build new bridges and make new connections with a more well rounded and flexible mind.