Throughout The Better Angels of our Nature, Steven Pinker writes about the process of humans becoming less violent by describing humans as engaging in civilizing processes. Over time humans have developed social norms, institutions, and processes that have made us more civilized and less violent. We organize our social worlds in ways that reward patience, consideration of others, and restraint from violent and aggressive outbursts. Our civilizing processes have pushed back against many instinctive responses that are common across mammals.
“Biologists have long noted that the mammalian brain has distinct circuits that underlie very different kinds of aggression,” writes Pinker. In many situations mammals (which we are as humans of course) will act out aggressively. There are multiple brain systems and pathways that will drive aggression – fear, self defense, preservation of resources. Pinker stresses that there is not just one violent, aggressive, or animalistic circuit or pathway in our brains, there are multiple which can be activated by different factors.
Pinker continues, “one of the oldest discoveries in the biology of violence is the link between pain or frustration and aggression. When an animal is shocked, or access to food is taken away, it will attack the nearest fellow animal, or bite an inanimate object if no living target is available.” Brain circuits related to aggression are fast and non-discriminating. They will activate and direct aggression to anything that is close by – as many of us who have kicked a printer or thrown a TV remote know first hand.
So how have humans been able to become more peaceful over time when we have a variety of fast acting brain circuits which will trigger violent outbursts in response to a host of different factors? Pinker writes, “the neuroanatomy suggests that in Homo sapiens primitive impulses of rage, fear, and craving must contend with the cerebral restraints of prudence, moralization, and self-control.” In other words, humans have pursued civilizing processes that make aggression more costly, create institutions which reduce some factors that prime violence, and reward humans for practicing self-control rather than impulsive behaviors. As Pinker describes civilizing processes throughout the book, some processes are individual, requiring the individual to behave in more peaceful and sanitary ways. Some processes are institutional, creating rewards for civil behavior and punishments for less civil behavior. We actively shape a world that addresses the multiple pathways for aggression in the brain and works against those pathways so that they activate less frequently and are punished when they do activate. This is the heart of the civilizing processes which have driven down violence in human society throughout human history.
Recently, Tyler Cowen released a podcast interview he did with Annie Duke
, someone I remember from the days when my brother watched tournaments for the World Series of Poker. A line from the interview really stood out to me and is something I think about in my life all the time, but haven’t stated as eloquently as Duke. In the interview she says, “The way to happiness is to focus on process. Then the winning becomes secondary to that. It becomes a way to keep score on how you’re doing on the process piece. And to really focus on that as opposed to focusing on the end result.”
I really like the way that Duke thinks about life, happiness, and process. So often in our lives we look at the end results. We ask ourselves if our house is big enough, if our car is fancy enough, if we have a good enough job, and if we took a good enough vacation this year. The problem, however, is that these are end results that we use to judge ourselves. They are lag measures, not lead measures
, and as a result they only tell us how we are doing long after we have a chance to make improvements and adjust our approach. The second problem with thinking about the end results is that the end result we pick is arbitrary and in many cases our chances of achieving our desired end result are often beyond our control. There are so many random variables that can determine how successful you become and exactly where you end up. In poker, the randomness and chance within the game is part of its appeal, and sometimes whether you walk away with the most chips or with none is as much a matter of luck on a single hand as it is a matter of skill and intelligence.
Similarly, in Letters From a Stoic, Seneca writes, “When one is busy and absorbed in one’s work, the very absorption affords great delight; but when one has withdrawn one’s hand from the completed masterpiece, the pleasure is not so keen.” This quote from Seneca highlights the importance of maintaining good process. We are happy when we are engaged and active in our pursuit of a goal. Achieving our goal and no longer have work to do in pursuit of our goal is actually less fulfilling than the process to obtain the goal itself.
When we consider the quotes from both Seneca and Duke we see how important it can be to think about our daily habits, routines, and processes. If we can focus on goals related to process then we can have something meaningful to engage with that is unlikely to disappear and leave us feeling empty once reached. For a poker player, walking away from the table with a large stack of chips is what the game appears to be all about, but it is in playing poker, discussing strategy, and focusing on one’s abilities and weaknesses that professional poker players find the most enjoyment. Those are the pieces the player can control and engage with, and if the player focuses on process, they will improve and reach their end goals to ultimately be successful in the game. Focus on the process to build success and to enjoy the path toward continued success and excellence.
I listen to lots of podcasts and have a handful of authors whose output I follow fairly closely. Those authors frequently discuss the importance of writing, their process, and what they gain from trying to write each day. One thing is clear from these authors, the process of writing helps with the process of thinking.
At the end of his book When Dan Pink writes, “the product or writing – this book – contains more answers than questions. But the process of writing is the opposite. Writing is an act of discovering what you think and what you believe.”
I have heard this a lot. That writing is something that helps take nebulous thoughts and organize them together. That writing is not taking the thoughts one already has and putting them down on paper, but that writing pulls disparate pieces that we didn’t always realize we were thinking, and combines them in a logical and coherent manner. We discover through research and close assessment of our mind what we think, and present that to the world.
For me, writing is a way to connect with the books that I read. It is a chance for me to revisit them and remember the lessons I learned and think again about the pieces of books that I thought were most important when I originally read them. For me, writing is as much re-discovery as it is discovery. I don’t pretend that my writing is genuine and unique inspirations from my own mind, but rather reflections on why I found what someone else said to be important.
Generally, I believe that Pink is correct. I also think that writing is more than just a discovery of our thoughts, but a creation of our thoughts. Give students an assignment to write from a particular point of view, and even if they previously did not hold such a point of view, afterward they are likely to adopt that point of view. This is not so much idea and belief discovery, but belief formation. Part of our brains are rationalizing the words we put on the page, so to defend ourselves for writing those words. We may create new thoughts through writing just as we may discover thoughts and ideas that had already been bouncing through our mind. What is clear, however, is that writing forces the brain to be more considerate of the ideas that fly through it, and to create narrative and coherence between those ideas, organizing thought in new and more profound ways.