The Elephant in the Brain with Psychics and Mediums - Kevin Simler - Robin Hanson - Mary Roach - Joe Abittan - Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife

The Elephant in the Brain with Psychics and Mediums

In the book The Elephant in the Brain, Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler argue that our own self-interest drives a huge amount of our behavior. On the surface this doesn’t sound like a huge shock, but if you truly look at how deeply our self-interest is tied to everything we do, you start to see that we like to pretend that we don’t act purely out of our own self-interest. Instead, we lie to ourselves and others and create high minded reasons for our beliefs, behaviors, and actions. But our self-interest is never far behind. It is always there as the elephant in the room (or brain) influencing all that we do even if we constantly try to ignore it.
This is likely what happens when people visit psychics and mediums with the hopes of learning about their future or reconnecting with the spirit of a lost one. Mary Roach describes what is going on with psychics, mediums, and their clients in her book Spook, and I think her explanation is a strong argument for the ideas presented by Hanson and Simler in The Elephant in the Brain. She writes:
“It seems to me that in many cases psychics and mediums prosper not because they’re intentionally fraudulent, but because their subjects are uncritical. The people who visit mediums and psychics are often strongly motivated or constitutionally inclined to believe that what is being said is relevant and meaningful with regard to them or a loved one.”
Both psychics/mediums and their subjects are motivated by self-interests that they don’t want to fully own up to. They both deceive themselves in order to appear to genuinely believe the experience. If you can fool yourself then it becomes much easier to fool others, and that requires that you ignore the elephant (your self-interest) in your brain.
Clients want to believe they are really interacting with the spirit of a lost one and not being fooled or defrauded. Critical thinking and deliberately acknowledging that they are susceptible to being fooled are ignored and forgotten. Instead, the individual’s self-interest acts behind the scenes as they help create the reality they want to inhabit with the help of the psychic or medium.
The psychics and mediums also don’t want to be viewed as fraudsters and quacks. They hide the fact that they have economic and social motivations to appear to have special powers and signal their authenticity. If a client is uncritical, it helps the entire process and allows both parties to ignore their self-interest acting below the surface. Ultimately, as Roach argues, the process is dependent on both practitioners who are willing to believe their subjects are having authentic experiences and on subjects to then believe their psychics and mediums are genuinely communicating with the dead. Without either, and without the self-deception for both, the whole process would fall apart.
Scarcity & Short-Term Thinking

Scarcity & Short-Term Thinking

I find critiques of people living in poverty to generally be unfair and shallow. People living in poverty with barely enough financial resources to get through the day are criticized for not making smart investments of their time and money, and are criticized when they spend in a seemingly irrational manner. But for low income individuals who can’t seem to get ahead no matter what jobs they take, these critiques seem to miss the reality of life at the poorest socioeconomic level.
I wrote recently about the costs of work, which are not often factored into our easy critiques of the poor or unemployed. Much of America has inefficient and underinvested public transit. The time involved with catching a bus (or two) to get to work are huge compared with simply driving to work. Additionally, subways and other transports can be dangerous (there is no shortage of Youtube videos of people having phones stolen on public transit). This means that owning and maintaining a car can be essential for being able to work, an expensive cost that can make working prohibitive for those living in poverty.
The example of transportation to work is meant to demonstrate that not working can be a more rational choice for the poorest among us. Work involves extra stress and costs, and the individual might not break even, making unemployment the more rational choice. There are a lot of instances where the socially desirable thing becomes the irrational choice for those living in poverty. If we do not recognize this reality, then we will unfairly criticize the choices and decisions of the poor.
In his book Evicted, Matthew Desmond writes about scarcity and short-term thinking, showing that they are linked and demonstrating how this shapes the lives of those living in poverty. “research show[s] that under conditions of scarcity people prioritize the now and lose sight of the future, often at great cost.” People living in scarcity have trouble thinking ahead and planning for their future. When you don’t know where you will sleep, where your next meal will come from, and if you will be able to afford the next basic necessities, it is hard to think ahead to everything you need to do for basic living in American society. Your decisions  might not make sense to the outside world, but to you it makes sense because all you have is the present moment, and no prospects regarding the future to plan for or think about. Sudden windfalls may be spent irrationally, time may not be spent resourcefully, and tradeoffs that benefit the current moment and the expense of the future may seem like obvious choices if you live in constant scarcity.
Combined, the misperceptions about the cost of work and the psychological short-termism resulting from scarcity show us that we have to approach poverty differently from how we approach lazy middle class individuals. I think we design our programs for assisting those in poverty while thinking of middle class lazy people. We don’t think about individuals who are actually so poor that the costs of work that most of us barely think about become crippling. We  don’t consider how scarcity shapes the way people think, leading them to make poor decisions that seem obvious for us to critique from the outside. Deep poverty creates challenges and obstacles that are separate from the problem of free loading and lazy middle class children or trust fund babies. We have to recognize this if we are to actually improve the lives of the poorest among us and create a better social and economic system to help integrate those individuals.
Loss Aversion & Golf

Loss Aversion & Golf

Daniel Kahneman presents research from University of Pennsylvania economists Devin Pope and Maurice Schweitzer to demonstrate the power of loss aversion in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. Pope and Schweitzer specifically look at golf, and how professional golfers perform when putting to demonstrate that loss aversion factors into the golfers’ performance, a conclusion that to me feels both obvious and surprising at the same time.

 

Professional golfers don’t seem like the kind of people who should  be subject to loss aversion on the course. Their performance doesn’t seem like it should be subject to the knowledge that a putt will earn them a birdie, or prevent them from scoring a bogie. However, Pope and Schweitzer challenge this thinking. Kahneman writes:

 

“Pope and Schweitzer reasoned from loss aversion that players would try a little harder when putting for par (to avoid a bogey) than when putting for a birdie. They analyzed more than 2.5 million putts in exquisite detail to tests that prediction.
They were right. Whether the putt was easy or hard, at every distance from the hole, players were more successful when putting for par than for birdie.”

 

Golfers don’t want to shoot over par. They perform better when they face the possibility of being over par rather than when they have a chance to be under par. Exceeding par is viewed as a loss which the golfers want to avoid while putting for birdie is an achievement to gain. Somewhere along the lines, golfers understand this and their physical performance is altered, decreasing the likelihood of a successful birdie putt, but increasing the likelihood of a successful par putt. Loss aversion is a powerful force, even in places we would not expect, like professional golf putting performance. If even professional golfers, who practice continually and are paid for their performance on the course are not able to avoid loss aversion, then we should recognize that it can play a huge role in our own lives, and we should invest in systems and structures to help us avoid making costly mistakes in our own lives from biases related to loss aversion.

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.
Creativity and our environment

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 - Priming Effects

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.