Deceiving Ourselves

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about evolutionary psychology of the brain in their book The Elephant in the Brain to explain why it is that we have hidden motives and why those hidden motives can be so hard to identify. The authors write (brackets mine, italics in original), “The human brain, according to this view [evolutionary psychology], was designed to deceive itself–in [Robert] Trivers’ words, ‘the better to deceive others.'” The authors look at how self-deception can be positive from an evolutionary perspective, and how that shapes the way we think about ourselves and our place in the world.

 

Fudging on the rules from time to time and making ourselves look better than we really are can be good strategies to survive, or at least they potentially were for our ancestors. Humans evolved in small, political, social tribes with rules and norms to adhere to and enforce to varying degrees. Slight amounts of cheating, if they can go unnoticed, can be beneficial for survival. This drives an evolutionary pressure to pass along selfish genes that favor individual survival, hold up the rules when it is convenient, but push rules aside when it benefits us. Simler and Hanson argue that this pressure is so strong, that we evolved to not even notice when we do this.

 

We also seem to justify our actions (a process known as motivated reasoning) in a way which says that we didn’t really do anything bad, we were just making the best decision we could given the circumstances or we were upholding fairness and justice in the absence of a greater authority to administer justice. The more we can convince ourselves that we are right and that we are on the correct side of a moral argument, the more we can convince others that our actions were just. If we are blatantly lying about our motivations, and we know we are lying, it will be harder to convince others and build support around our actions.

 

If however, we convince ourselves that our actions were right and our motives pure, we will have an easier time convincing others of our correctness and of our value to them and to society. When we give to charity, at least part of our donation is probably driven by a desire to want to be seen as the person who gives to charity or as a person with enough money to give some away. These two motivations, however, would be frowned upon. Instead, we convince ourselves that we give to charity because it is the right thing to do, or because we think the cause is incredibly important. Those both may be true, but if we completely convince ourselves that we are donating for the high-minded reasons, we will be more authentic and better able to convince other people that we made donations for high-minded and not selfish reasons. We are wired not to see the world how it is, but to see it through a filter that magnifies our greatness and minimizes our faults, deceiving ourselves so we can do a better job of presenting the best version of ourselves to the world.

The Body’s Experience of Inequality

In his book, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coats describes the physical toll of racism. He looks at how we make abstractions and create philosophical thought out of ideas, reactions, and prejudices. In his view, violence and physical manifestations of inequality are hidden and explained away in our thought processes and communication, saving us from having to acknowledge the true human cost of racial tribal behaviors.

 

“There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or even in this moment. The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy. It is hard to face this. But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.”

 

Coats’ passage above has numerous points that accurately describe the world we live in today and the state of racial violence and injustice on our planet. In our country we are struggling with how we choose to remember the men and women of the Confederacy who were not just Americans, but were soldiers, mothers and fathers, and even patriots. This is the idea of heritage that is meant to be preserved and honored by their current day descendants, but Coats reminds us that this heritage is built on a legacy of violence against black people. A violence that existed at the whims of men in power one hundred and fifty years ago and a violence that selectively destroyed the human bodies of black men, women, and children. The reality, which Coats’ quote does not directly address, is that the heritage and legacy being protected today, is a heritage of fighting to preserve a place of honor for men who fought to preserve a system in which black men were enslaved, controlled, and tortured for the economic benefit of white men. There was no divine truth or scientific backing for the racist behaviors of men in the past, there was only tribalism, instincts of self preservation, and exploitation.

 

What Coats’ passage is truly meant to focus on, however, is the way in which our prejudices, known or unknown, manifest in the real world, outside of our minds. When we marginalize groups of people, we begin to look at them as less then human, as less than a whole human being. In this context, the human rights that we defend in our Bill of Rights and claim to protect for all people, are discounted and discredited for those who we view as less than ourselves. This happens to minorities, poor people, and those who serve as scapegoats to pacify the tribal part of our brain that wants to protect our group and denigrate those who are others.

 

Once we have established that the outsiders no longer have rights that matter, and that they are less than human, we can stop respecting their physical body and the space in which they exist. We can physically abuse them because our moral standards do not extend to this person who is less than human. Our excuses about human nature, about economics, and about personal responsibility are just thoughts, but they are brought into the world through our physical actions, landing on the body of the oppressed as described by Coats. Our thoughts may live inside us, fully justified in the echo-chamber of our mind, but our actions (and our inaction) bring about physical realities and consequences stemming from the mental models we harbor.

The Trouble With Group Brainstorming

Richard Wiseman in his book 59 Seconds continues to explain the results of experiments on group behavior by explaining ways in which group discussions can lead to individuals dominating group discussions and stifle others.  “When strong-willed people lead group discussions they can pressure others into conforming, can encourage self-censorship, and can create an illusion of unanimity.” This quote very accurately explains many of the groups that I was a part of for school projects in high school and college.  A single individual can drive the group in the direction they see best while shutting out the ideas of others in the group.  This can make the group feel hostile, and can actually reduce creativity.

 

Being in a group with a strong-willed individual can be uncomfortable for everyone involved.  If the group does not lead in the exact direction desired by the strong-willed person, then they will feel betrayed and angry, and the quality of their work and participation will dwindle.  I have been part of groups where one person pushes the group in a certain direction, only to have the rest of the group eventually go in another direction and leave them as an outcast.

 

In terms of creativity, group brainstorming can be one of the least effective ways to come up with creative ideas, and Wiseman’s quote shows why.  Self censorship during brainstorming is the opposite of what is desired, but it is often what occurs when a group of individuals get to gather.  The strong-willed individual may push people to think in ways that are more aligned with their ideas, and not necessarily the most creative.  Those who are more shy may be reluctant to share good ideas in a group because they know that the leaders or their colleagues may not be open to the ideas that they have.  Strong-willed individuals can shut them down with as little as a shake of the head or a brief smirk at the mention of an idea that does not align with their thoughts.

Journaling to Improve Your Relationship

Richard Wiseman in his book 59 Seconds: Think a Little Change a Lot explores the importance of journaling to reach your goals, increase happiness, and boost the longevity of your relationships. What Wiseman found and explains to the reader is that it takes just a few minutes of writing to drastically change your thoughts. I would not call Wiseman’s findings mental “hacks”, but rather simple tools that help boost self awareness and shift your mental focus. Our culture has become obsessed with finding “hacks” to simplify life and produce desired changes without much effort.  To me the idea of mental hacks misses the point.  The real idea is to become more self aware, so that you can consciously decide to change your attitude and behavior as opposed to adopting some hack to force you to change and achieve some quick goal.  While Wiseman’s journaling suggestions are short a and quick, they cannot be described as hacks because they require a level of mental focus to be useful.

 

Wiseman outlines this simple three day journaling activity to help improve your relationship:

 

“Day 1:
     Spend ten minutes writing about your deepest feelings about your current romantic relationship.  Feel free to explore your emotions and thoughts.

Day 2:

     Think about someone that you know who is in a relationship that is in some way inferior to your own.  Write three important reasons why your relationship is better than theirs.

Day 3:

Write one important positive quality that your partner has, and explain why this quality means so much to you.
Now write something that you consider to be a fault with your partner and then list one way in which this fault could be considered redeeming or endearing.”

 

What really surprises me is that Wiseman openly encourages us to compare our relationship to others.  I grew up playing basketball and learning about John Wooden, and one of Wooden’s key philosophies was that you can never compare yourself to another person.  According to Wooden’s philosophy, comparing your relationship to another persons relationship is useless since your background will differ, and since you can not control the actions or fortunes of the others.  Wiseman however is asking us to compare and specifically think of a relationship that we deem to be negative.  The purpose of this reflection is to have us think about ways in which the other relationship is not going well, and then identify why ours is going well.  What we could see is something that we want to avoid in our relationship, or we may see that our relationship is also filled with the same negative qualities. While Wooden may still be correct, the exercise of day two does help build self awareness.

 

The most powerful day in my opinion is day three of Wiseman’s relationship journaling.  I believe that many people in relationships work hard to avoid thinking of the characteristics they do not like in their partner.  There is definitely an idea in our culture that things are ok if your ignore the bad and only focus on the positive.  In relationships I believe this idea may be even stronger.  It can be scary to think about the qualities we do not like in our partner, but when we think about how those qualities build up to the entire person, and why they align with the person we love, it can boost our feelings for them and reduce the importance of that negative quality.  Wiseman helps us to see past the single negative quality by placing it in a more positive light.

 

Ultimately Wiseman’s ideas for increasing the longevity of our relationships through journaling helps us gain more awareness in our relationship and focus our thoughts and energy towards the love we feel for the other person. He encourages us to venture into scary places thinking about the negative quality of our relationship and the relationships of others.  By doing so we can see how to better our relationships and what pitfalls we wish to avoid.

Peace and Creativity

In his book 59 Seconds psychologist Richard Wiseman evaluated research on how to maximize our time to bring about the desired results that we want in our lives.  He examined everything from creativity, to success, and happiness.  When researching creativity Wiseman found that our environment and emotional feelings toward our environment played a large role in our creativity.  Wiseman writes, “When people feel worried, they become very focused, concentrate on the task at hand, become risk-averse, rely on well-established habits and routines, and see the world through less-creative eyes.  In contrast when people feel at ease in a situation, they’re more likely to explore new and unusual ways of thinking and behaving, see the bigger picture, take risks, and think and act more creatively.”

 

I think this is a powerful section from Wiseman and one that I wish I could share with every business leader. Encouraging employees to be more creative and push for new ideas can help a company grow and succeed, but many employers don’t give their employees a chance to be creative, and they expect them to be in simple boxes where their routine is set and their actions are limited.  Focusing on your employees environment and attitude can help an employer create a place where employees are more at ease and able to think more creatively to build better habits and produce better results. I am currently reading Return on Character by Fred Kiel, and the thesis of his work is that leaders and CEO’s who focus on building an organization focused around integrity, honesty, and forgiveness provide greater returns for their companies, employees, and stakeholders.  When we consider Wiseman’s quote about people becoming more creative in relaxed environments, we can see how Kiel’s CEO’s who create those environments become more successful.  By maintaining a strong moral character a CEO can create a space where employees feel welcomed to perform their best and are not restricted in their actions and approaches to greatness.

 

However, I am afraid that sharing this quote with every business leader could backfire.  Those employers who do not see their employees as being in creative positions may read that quote and think that they can put their employees under pressure to have them focus better on the single task at hand as opposed to being distracted by the people and environment around them.  The quote could be read to suggest that developing well established habits and putting employees into risk-averse mindsets may be useful for employees who work specific and routine jobs.  This idea falls flat when you think about wanting to be a company that excels, with employees that excel at every position, especially if that employee performs any sort of customer service function.  Encouraging the creativity of employees by helping them fee comfortable and relaxed at work will lead to better results when employees are free to be creative and break away from ordinary habits.  When they are worried they will not risk trying something new in their daily routine and will never develop a habit that could drastically improve the quality of the work they produce.

 

In the end, I think we need to try and understand creativity as being something that we all have access to.  Wiseman’s quote shows that building supportive environments and bing at ease helps people become more creative. Those who deal with a high amount of anxiety tend to display a less creative vision and provide less innovation.

Priming and Creativity

Continuing with the idea of priming, Richard Wiseman in his book 59 Seconds researches the work of Jens Forster from the International University Bremen in Germany.  Forster asked people to participate in simple creativity exercises in environments that were specifically controlled and measured.  Forster began with an activity to mentally prime individuals by asking them to think about a certain stereotype, and measuring their creative ideas.  Following his mental priming experiment Forster executed a visual priming experiment. As Wiseman explains,

 

“Forster asked participants to take a standard creativity task (“think of as  many uses for a brick as possible”) while seated in front of one of two specially created art prints .  The two prints were each about three feet square, almost identical and consisted of twelve large crosses against a light green background.  In one picture all of the crosses were dark green, while in the other print eleven were dark green and one was yellow.  The researchers speculated that the unconscious mind would perceive this single yellow cross as breaking away from its more conservative and conventional green cousins and that this would encourage more radical and creative thinking.  The results were astounding.  Even though the participants didn’t consciously notice the picture, those seated in front of the “creative” picture produced significantly more uses for the brick.  A panel of experts judged their responses as far more creative.  The message is clear: if you want to fast track a group or and individual to think more creatively, use the power of visual priming.”

 

I find this experiment and idea to be really inspiring.  I have created my own simple art prints and placed them around my desk at work to help me generate more creative ideas throughout the day.  Prior to reading Wiseman’s book and beginning to listen to podcasts like Debbie Millman’s Design Matters, I never thought of myself as creative, but Forster’s experiments shows that everyone can be creative, especially if we prime ourselves for creativity both mentally and visually.

The Power of Our Environment

While discussing the influence of small cues on our thought process, Richard Wiseman in his book 59 Seconds reflects on several studies that show how our environment can shape our thoughts and actions.  Wiseman explains the impact of small cues and the affect known as priming.  Priming involves triggers that lead to particular actions or thoughts becoming more prevalent or likely to occur.  A sneeze is a primer for someone to say bless you, the word hot is a primer for the word dog, and the Family Feud tv show is an experiment in priming with a cue or phrase priming responses from contestants.

 

Wiseman explains ways in which many situations in our lives can be impacted by primers, “Put people in front of a computer wallpaper showing dollar symbols, and they behave in a more selfish and unfriendly way, giving less money to charity and sitting farther away from others.  Give interviewers a cup of iced coffee, and unknowingly they rate interviewees as colder and less pleasant.  Add a faint smell of cleaning fluid to the air, and people tidy up more thoroughly.  Put a briefcase on a table during a meeting and people become more competitive.  The evidence points to a little counting for a lot.”

 

I find the idea of priming and our environment as very interesting since subtleties can have such a big impact on our actions.  I think most people can understand the situation where you are trying to cut back on sweets, yet in the office break room you see a pink box, and suddenly sugary foods are the only thing you can focus on.  These small cues seem to have a large impact on our behavior, and they seem to put decisions and actions beyond our control.
Changing our behavior is difficult, and the study by Wiseman shows that there are ways in which we can use priming for positive results. We can manipulate our environment to produce specific changes in our behavior, and help us act in ways we would like.  I am currently working through Dave Ramsey’s book on household money management and financial freedom, The Total Money Makeover, and one thing that Ramsey mentions is the myth that we only need a greater will power to change our actions and to achieve the goals we want.  What Ramsey explains, and what Wiseman’s research backs up, is that we are all motivated to make smart decisions (in this case financially) but we do not have systems in place to help us do so.  In the case of priming, we could say that our environment is set up to make it easy for us to go into debt and spend money, especially since our culture and environment lacks primers that lead us to save money and work on budgeting.

 

I think that it is worth the effort to study and practice simple priming methods that may help one create an environment that stimulates the desired lifestyle, actions, or thoughts that one is hoping to produce.  Understanding that small cues in our environment can have a big impact on our minds can help us feel better about ourselves when we have trouble reaching a goal, and can give us easy first steps to reach the goals we set out for.

Tips for Visualization

In his book 59 Seconds, Think a Little Change a Lot, Richard Wiseman debunks many myths about how to be effective, institute change in your life, and achieve your goals.  Wiseman is a professor of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom.  He studied the scientific literature searching for journal articles that outlined experiments related to the ideas in many self help books to see exactly which ideas and techniques had any true value.

 

Early on in his book Wiseman explains an often referred to study done at Harvard University.  In the study young men were asked if they had written down their goals for life, and then they were followed throughout their journey and their success levels were measured.  Incredibly the 3% of students who had clearly written out their goals had become more wealthy and successful than the other 97% combined.  This is a powerful story for visualization, goal setting, and writing out exactly what you want, but Wiseman explains that this study never happened.  He went searching for the research and the actual scientific journal article from the study, only to find out that it was all just a popular myth.

 

Wiseman then decided to look into what goal setting and visualization practices had been scientifically shown to produce results.  His findings for visualization are as follows:

 

“According to the researchers, visualizing the process of studying proved especially effective at reducing exam-related anxiety and helped students better plan and manage their workload.  Subsequent research has shown that the same effect occurs in several different areas, with, for example, tennis players and golfers benefiting far more from imagining themselves training than winning.”

 

The first study mentioned in Wiseman’s quote involved college students and their testing and studying strategies.  Psychologists Lien Pham and Shelly Taylor asked groups of students to either visualize themselves receiving a good grade on a test, or they asked them to visualize themselves studying so that they would get a good grade on the test.  This who visualized themselves acing the exam studied less and received worse grades than those who pictured themselves working hard and studying well.

 

Wiseman continues to explain that visualization has been shown to be even more powerful when we view ourselves from the third person perspective, as if we were someone else watching our actions.  Work by Lisa Libby at Ohio State University showed that individuals who viewed themselves going to the polls to vote were more likely to actually go vote if they pictured themselves from a third person perspective rather than from their own point of view.

 

The research seems to suggest that visualizing the process from a third person perspective as opposed to visualizing the outcome is more useful.  We will all hit hurdles and need a certain amount of grit to persevere, and Wiseman’s research shows us how to incorporate that “grit” mindset.  Visualization practices give us is the chance to imagine ourselves working hard to push past the obstacles and put in the effort necessary to reach our goals.  Focusing on just the outcome may drive motivation, but when the outcome seems to shift or be out of reach we can become more depressed than motivated, and we are more likely to abandon our path. Looking ahead and picturing the hurdles and seeing ourselves press through the hard work is the secret to visualization that gives us the grit needed for success.

An Eagerness to Connect

In his book 59 Seconds Richard Wiseman explains a very simple psychology experiment performed by Phillip Kunz and Michael Woolcott in 1970.  In an attempt to study reciprocity, the two psychologists sent christmas letters to randomly selected names and addresses from a local phone book.  Wiseman did not provide numbers, but he did say that a majority of the people who had been sent Christmas Cards responded to the letter they received from Kunz and Woolcott.  The study highlights that people have a desire to reciprocate the positive and considerate actions of other people. I read a little more from this study adding my own note to the section I just described.  To me, the entire experiment showed how eager people are to connect with others.

 

Sending someone a letter engages with them on their own terms.  We are sending them something that will meet them in their own comfortable home in a nonthreatening manner, and this makes it easy for people to respond and build a social bridge.  When we are willing to meet people on their own terms and engage with people in areas that are comfortable for them, we will get positive responses that build the social structure around us.

 

I think this would be an interesting experiment to perform in the United States today.  It was not clear from Wiseman’s writing whether Kunz and Woolcott performed their experiment in the United States or Wiseman’s home country of England, and I believe that the continental differences could have a large impact on the results.  I think the most interesting factor in a similar experiment today would be the social media, advertising, and identity theft impact on our social behaviors.  Receiving messages from strangers on Facebook can be a scary thing and having someone watch us through social media channels can be creepy to the point where you wonder if someone is following you to gain information that could be used to either harm you or market goods and services to you.

 

I am sure that in our very connected world, sending electronic correspondence, depending on the social media channel, would show very different reciprocity results than sending a holiday letter in the 1970’s.  Randomly messaging/mentioning a person on twitter is far more accepted and will get greater rates of response then messaging a stranger on Facebook.  Outside of the electronic world, sending a letter through the mail would still be an interesting experiment.  Our lives may be more complicated and busy than the lives of British citizens in the 1970’s, and we are less accustomed to receiving letters from people whether we know them or not. Having Americans take the time to sit down and read a letter from a stranger and then actually reply could be a rare occurrence in 2015 even though we are wired to reciprocate or at least by social.

Buying Happiness

In his book 59 Seconds Richard Wiseman examines people’s attempts to buy happiness. He takes a scientific approach to the question by studying academic experiments aimed at studying how money impacts happiness, and if purchases can really increase happiness.  Wiseman also considered how long different types of purchases will sustain your happiness in an attempt to find the best way to spend your extra money. An experiment by psychologists Leaf Van Boven and Thomas Gilovich served as the base for Wiseman’s research, and not surprisingly, Wiseman found that experiences made people happier for longer periods of time.  Van Boven and Gilovich asked people to rate the way an act of purchasing an item made them feel at that moment, and how they felt later on. Wiseman summarizes why purchasing experiences had a greater happiness factor than purchasing items,

 

“Our memory of experiences easily becomes distorted over time (you edit out the terrible trip on the airplane and just remember those blissful moments relaxing on the beach).  Our goods however tend to lose their appeal by becoming old, worn-out, and outdated.  Also, experiences promote one of the most effective happiness-inducing behaviors — Spending time with others.  Sociability might be part of the experience itself, or it might happen when you tell people about the occasion afterward.  In contrast, buying the latest or most expensive new product can sometimes isolate you from friends and family who may be jealous of the things that you have.”

 

Wiseman shows that the best way to be happy is to connect with others, and that those who emphasize material gains risk pushing others away.  He continues on in his book to explain the differences between highly materialistically driven individuals and those who are not as driven by material goals.  Those who view success as a community effort are more likely to want to spend time with those around them and also enjoy the successes of others as much as their own.  These people are more likely to spend their money on others or group experiences that bring people together instead of purchasing personal items. Wiseman and the research he studied suggested that this use of money will help connect people and build positive memories of the past. Buying fancy items however will lead to decreased happiness in the long run with the item purchased becoming worn out or out of style and serving as a constant reminder of the money that went toward the purchase.