Prioritizing Bad News

Prioritizing Bad News

I hear a lot of criticism of news and the tendency of news organizations to operate under a model of “if it bleeds, it leads.” The idea is that news is too negative, that it focuses too much on violent crime, corruption, and scandal rather than important but often somewhat boring news and developments. The negativity bias within the news is cited for our misunderstandings of violent crime, for tainting our views of politics, and for making us more cynical. But research that Daniel Kahneman presents in his book Thinking Fast and Slow suggests that maybe we shouldn’t blame news organizations for prioritizing bad news.

 

Kahneman writes, “the brains of humans and other animals contain a mechanism that is designed to give priority to bad news.” There appears to be physiological structures in the brain that allow our brains to react at super speeds to threats and injuries. If you hear a lion roar, your body is going to react to the threat immediately, before you consciously recognize exactly what you just heard. Similarly, if you touch a hot stove your body is going to react by jerking your hand back before you even feel the pain from the burn.

 

There is an evolutionary psychology explanation to the immediate reaction of our brain to threats and injuries. If you are deep at work and concentrating intensely on something, you don’t want your brain to be slow to shift gears and respond to the sound of an approaching predator. You want your brain and body to begin reacting to a dangerous sound immediately, to help you survive a potentially fatal attack. Animals, and early human ancestors, that could respond at a subconscious level to threats and injuries were more likely to survive and and reproduce, passing their super quick response system to the next generation.

 

Today we don’t have to run from lions as often as our ancestors, and despite what we might sense from action movies and the news, violent crime is actually rather low compared to historic levels. Our super quick threat detection system is still with us, but many of the evolutionary pressures that built it have been left in the past. Our threat and injury detectors are still operating, and Kahneman’s quote suggests that we see their influence in our lives reflected in the news we prioritize. Bad news may activate the same threat responses in our brain, and we may have an instinctual drive to know about understand threats and dangers. “If it bleeds, it leads” is not a grim decision made by news executives, it is a driving force of our evolutionary past, a part of our brain which once served us well, but now prioritizes bad news and biases our media.
Scared Before You Even Know It

Scared Before You Even Know It

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman demonstrates how quick our minds are and how fast they react to potential dangers and threats by showing us two very simple pictures of eyes. The pictures are black squares, with a little bit of white space that our brains immediately perceive as eyes, and beyond that immediate perception of eyes, our brains also immediately perceive an emotional response within the eyes. They are similar to the simple eyes I sketched out here:

In my sketch, the eyes on the left are aggressive and threatening, and our brains will pick up on the threat they pose and we will have physiological responses before we can consciously think through the fact that those eyes are just a few lines drawn on paper. The same thing happens with the eyes on the right, which our brains recognize as anxious or worried. Our body will have a quick fear reaction, and our brain will be on guard in case there is something we need to be anxious or worried about as well.

 

Regarding a study that was conducted where subjects in a brain scanner were shown a threatening picture for less than 2/100 of a second, Kahneman writes, “Images of the brain showed an intense response of the amygdala to a threatening picture that the viewer did not recognize. The information about the threat probably traveled via a superfast neural channel that feeds directly into a part of the brain that processes emotions, bypassing the visual cortex that supports the conscious experience of seeing.” The study was designed so that the subjects were not consciously aware of having seen an image of threatening eyes, but nevertheless their brain perceived it and their body reacted accordingly.

 

The takeaway from this kind of research is that our environments matter and that our brains respond to more than what we are consciously aware of. Subtle cues and factors around us can shape the way we behave and feel about where we are and what is happening. We might not know why we feel threatened, and we might not even realize that we feel threatened, but our heart rate may be elevated, we might tense up, and we might become short and defensive in certain situations. When we think back on why we behaved a certain way, why we felt the way we did, and why we had the reactions we did, our brains won’t be able to recognize these subtle cues that never rose to the level of consciousness. We won’t be able to explain the reason why we felt threatened, all we will be able to recall is the physiological response we had to the situation. We are influenced by far more than our conscious brain is aware, and we should remember that our conscious brain doesn’t provide us with a perfect picture of reality, but nevertheless our subconscious reacts to more of the world than we notice.
Thinking Fast and Evolution

Thinking Fast and Evolution

I have written in the past about how I think I probably put too much emphasis on evolutionary biology, especially considering brains, going all the way back to when our human ancestors liven in small tribes as hunter-gatherers. Perhaps it is because I look for it more than others, but I feel as though characteristics and traits that served us well during that time, still influence much of how we behave and respond to the world today. Sometimes the effects are insignificant, but sometimes I believe they do matter, and sometimes I believe they drive negative outcomes or behaviors that are maladapted to today’s world.

 

As I have begun writing about Daniel Kahneman’s research as presented in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, I have generally given System 1, or what Kahneman describes as our quick, automatic, and reactive part of our brain, a bad rep. But the reality is that it serves an important purpose, and likely served an especially important role over the course of human evolution, getting us to the place we are at today. Knowing that I tend to weigh our evolutionary past heavily (and perhaps too heavily), it is not surprising to me that I view System 1 as an important piece of how we got to where we are, even if System 1 is easy to pick on in our current world.

 

In his book, Kahneman writes, “Any task that requires you to keep several ideas in mind at the same time has the same hurried character. Unless you have the good fortune of a capacious working memory, you may be forced to work uncomfortably hard. The most effortful forms of slow thinking are those that require you to think fast.”

 

Anyone who has had to remember a couple of phone numbers without the benefit of being able to write them down or save them immediately, and anyone who has had to remember more words than Person, Woman, Man, Camera, TV, knows that we feel super rushed when we are suddenly given something important to hold in our working memory. We try to do what we can as quickly as possible to get the information out of our head, stored someplace other than our working memory. We feel rushed to complete the task to ease our cognitive load. Why would our brains work this way? Why would it be that we become so rushed when we have something meaningful that we need to hold in our mind?

 

The answer, as I view it, might go back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. They mostly needed System 1. They had to react quickly to a noise that could be a dangerous predator. They had to move fast and on instinct to successfully take down dinner. There were not as many things that required deep focus, and the things that required deep focus were not dense academic journal articles, or spreadsheets, or PowerPoints, or a guy with a clip-board asking you to count backward from 200 by 13. You don’t have to worry about pop-ups or advertisements when you are skinning an animal, grinding seeds, or doing some type of work with your hands in a non-digital world. You didn’t have phone numbers to remember and you were not heading into a business meeting with four people you just met, whose names you needed to memorize as quick and fluidly as possible.

 

Slow thinking developed for people who had time for slow thinking. Fast thinking developed when survival was on the line. Today, the slow thinking might be more likely to help us survive than our fast thinking, presuming we don’t have dangerous drives to work each day and are eating safely prepared foods. Slow thinking is a greater advantage for us today, but we also live in a world where slow thinking is still difficult because we have packed more distractions into our environments. We have literally moved ourselves out of environments for which our brains are optimized by evolution, and this has created the challenges and conflicts we face with System 1 and System 2 in our daily lives and in the work we do.
The Challenge with Low N Events

The Challenge with Low “n” Events

There are a handful of things we only do once or twice in our lives. Many of us probably aspire to only get married a single time, only select a single school to attend for college, and only take a vacation to a foreign country one time. These low “n” experiences, or low frequency occurrences,  are hard to predict and prepare for. It is hard to know exactly what we will want, exactly what risks we might face, and how we will respond in experiences that we can’t always practice and experiment with. Sometimes the consequences are huge, as in the case of a marriage or picking the right college major, and sometimes the consequences are rather trivial, like picking the right beach to visit during your Spanish vacation (hey, in the age of COVID-19 we can still dream right?).

 

In the face of these one time experiences (whether big or trivial) we seem to fall into two paths. The first path is one of detailed and conscious study. Some of us will agonize for hours over which beach to go to on our vacation, which food trucks we should hit up, what time of year to travel, and where to stop for that hidden Instagram gem of a waterfall. Others of us will follow the second path, giving almost no thought to the decisions we face, big or small. We will just go with our guy and jump into a career, a relationship, or a lake.

 

On the one hand, these low “n” events don’t offer a lot of room for trail and error. If you are not likely to ever get a second vacation to Hawaii, then you probably want to seize every moment of your trip, making sure you check out whales, enjoy the shopping and beaches, and avoid that long road trip to Hana (it just isn’t worth it – trust me). You only get one shot, so you should do your best to prepare yourself to make the best decision. As Seneca wrote in Letters From a Stoic, “You may deem it superfluous to learn a text that can be used only once; but that is just the reason why we ought to think on a thing.”

 

But at the same time, should we really stress ourselves over a decision that we will potentially only make one time? If we constantly worry about our single decision, will we then second guess ourselves the whole time and wonder if we made the right choice? Will we ever truly move on from that single decision and adjust to the the choice we made and find a way to be happy where we end up? Is it really worth the time to focus all our energy on a single decision point when we know we will have other high “n” events that might be more meaningful than the low “n” event we spend all our time thinking about?

 

Seneca thinks it is worth the effort to think through the big low “n” events, to make sure our decision making is as comprehensive and self-aware as possible. But he, and other Stoics, would likely advise that we don’t put too much pressure on ourselves to make a perfect decision. I think he would simultaneously recommend that we approach low “n” events with an open mind to the outcomes, recognizing that our reactions to the outcomes will often determine whether we find the end state to be unbearable or something where we can still thrive. In the end we should think critically on our decisions, including low “n” events and choices, but we should be flexible in how we respond to outcomes and in how we think the world should be.
Shifting Away From The Drug War

Shifting Away from the Drug War

In the context of supporting the war on drugs, Johann Hari, in his book Chasing the Scream, describes most people as, “admirable people who have a series of understandable worries about the alternative. They support the drug war out of compassion for all the people they fear might become victims if we relaxed the laws. They are good people. They are acting out of decency.”

 

However, Hari believes that support for the drug war is actually more costly in the long run, and damages the lives of those who use drugs to an unreasonable extent. In the book, Hari looks at recreational drug users who don’t develop addictions and don’t generally cause a lot of harms through drug use. He compares these individuals to those who do develop addictions, and who contribute to crime and public health problems as a result of their drug dependencies. A key difference between the groups is that many of the people who develop addictions also have severe trauma in their lives. They are often isolated, have had adverse childhood experiences, and are suffering from physical or psychological pain without a supportive community to aid them. Not all harmless recreational drug users are free from pain and trauma, and not all addicts have a traumatic past, but the frequency of past trauma and ongoing psychological pain is a substantial difference between the two groups. Punishment and making life harder for drug addicts who have experienced pain hurts them and makes it more likely they will feel stuck and isolated, with no alternatives to alleviate their suffering besides the temporary relief of continued drug use.

 

The idea of punishment for drug use makes sense when we think about recreational drug users who we want to prevent from causing problems as a result of drug use. But those individuals, aside from contributing to an illicit economy, are not  contributing to the major drug use problems that we see. We can see this in our alcohol policy. Responsible recreational drinkers are not problems, but people who either have trouble consuming alcohol responsibly or simply chose not to consumer responsibly (perhaps college binge drinkers fit in both categories) do create problems for the rest of us. Helping an alcoholic is often understood as helping them develop a safe social setting where they can avoid alcohol or use it responsibly with people who understand their addiction and/or other alcohol challenges.

 

At another point, Hari writes, “We all want to protect children from drugs. We all want to keep people from dying as a result of drug use. We all want to reduce addiction. And now the evidence strongly suggests that when we move beyond the drug war, we will be able to achieve those shared goals with much greater success.” Moving beyond the drug war means that we will develop real, meaningful treatments and supports for drug addicts. It means we can have safe, legal drugs that people can use in supervised settings. It means that people with a history of drug use won’t be barred from ever finding even the most menial of jobs, and will be able to reintegrate back into society, rather than being forced out into situations where continued drug use is almost inevitable. Our approach to drug policy via the drug war has had disastrous consequences, and Hari encourages us to reconsider the path we are on.

How to Describe a Norm

What inputs drive what types of behaviors in humans? This is a question I think about at an incredibly basic level all the time, but that I don’t really hear much insightful discussion about in general. We all like to believe we (and everyone else) is in complete conscious control of our thoughts, minds, and decisions all the time, but we know that can’t be true. If you leave someone in a room with a plate of freshly baked cookies in front of them, they will almost invariably eat a cookie, even if they had woken up that day determined not to eat any cookies. If you deprive someone of sleep for a whole day while they travel across the country from Seattle to Orlando with multiple layovers and tired and cranky kids, you are bound to hear a few exasperated yells, even if that person was determined not to yell at their children (or anyone else). At  a certain point, the inputs that make their way into our mind have a big influence on the resulting behaviors that we see in the world.

 

Norms are one way that we establish certain inputs associated with certain behaviors. They help us regulate what kinds of behaviors are acceptable and desired. As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write in The Elephant in the Brain, “The essence of a norm then, lies not in the words we use to describe it, but in which behaviors get punish and what form the punishment takes.” Norms are guidelines for nudging behaviors by changing the inputs into the minds of individuals.

 

We can applaud, ignore, or punish a behavior to change the likelihood of an action taking place again. If I send out a tweet with terrible insults, and that tweet is re-tweeted and I receive encouragement for speaking out against the people I insulted, I am receiving cues that suggest I should do more of that. If however, I see an old lady walking to the register at the grocery store, and I use my youthful speed to quickly jump in front of her, I am likely to receive angry looks and possibly be forced out of line if a big enough person sees me jump ahead of the little old lady. If the punishment in this situation is embarrassing enough, I likely won’t repeat this behavior the next time I am at the store.

 

Our minds and, consequently it seems, our brains are changed by the norms we use. What is possible in our wold is shaped by how we know other people will respond to what we do. The agency we feel when we think about the world is constrained by the thoughts, looks, and actions of other people. We rarely talk about all the inputs that may change our thinking and decision-making, but it is clear that we operate in a space where many physical and non-physical things can shape what we do, believe, and think. The mind absorbs many inputs and we are not always at liberty to decide how we will respond to those inputs if we are constrained or encouraged by specific norms.

Do What Is In Us

Lord of the Rings can be read as a reaction against the industrial age, a reaction against military might, and a reaction against colonial conquests. The most clean, well functioning, and happiest places in the book are places of nature, where hobbits live peacefully with plenty in the shire, and where elves live with wisdom and respect for trees, forests, rivers, and valleys. Tolkien seems to express the idea that we should live a bucolic life that is more connected with nature, tending to it to receive the gifts that nature gives us as opposed to laying down our black mastery of the planet and bending it to our will as we do with roads, railroads, dams, and the machinery of war.

 

In the story, Gandalf says, in a reaction to Sauron trying to rule everything, “Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”

 

Succor is defined, according to the dictionary in my Kindle, as “assistance and support in times of hardship and distress.” Gandalf says that we should live our lives in a way that sets the world up to be more successful and bountiful in the future. We should strive to remove bits of evil from the world, to constantly make small improvements or do our little part to make the world a better place. We should not do this just for ourselves and for our happiness, but so that future generations can inhabit a world that can still provide for their needs.

 

This message is important for me. We can set out to be the best, to always have more, to accumulate as much fame and notoriety as possible, and to rule the world with golden towers and green acres everywhere we go. Or, we can accept that the world is not ours, we can strive toward mastery of a few things without spreading ourselves too thin, and we can focus on our corner of the world and what is in our power right now to make the world a better place. This may look like picking up trash along our local street, it may look like calling our grandma, or it may look like smiling at that person smoking outside the Walmart and saying hi rather than giving them a contemptuous look and treating them like trash. We can strive to be great and to make lots of money and influence the world, but what really matters is if we take small steps daily in the ways we can to make the world better for the future, even if that means we inconvenience ourselves a little to do the good work.

Feeling Threatened

When we feel jealous of another person, what do we actually feel about ourselves? In his book, Some Thoughts About Relationships, author Colin Wright writes, “Jealousy, at its core, is about feeling threatened.” Many of our reactions to the world and people around us, in my opinion, tie back to tribal forces that have been brought with us through human evolution. Jealousy is related to our status in the group, and when others have something we want, live a way we would like to live, or receive some benefit that we did not receive, our position of status appears to diminish in our tribal brain.

 

Wright continues in his book to explain that we can overcome jealousy with better awareness of our feelings and reactions. In personal relationships this means a better focus on how we feel, awareness of what causes certain emotions to bubble up, and a recognition of what places and people cause us to feel a certain way. Gaining a better handle on what actions and behaviors help us feel good and what actions and behaviors lead to negative feelings, such as jealousy, will give us the chance to craft our life in a more considerate direction.

 

This focus will help us begin to analyze our thoughts and feelings and begin to act in a less impulsive manner. Focusing beyond ourselves, slowing down our actions as responses to observations and feelings, and bringing a rational approach to how we think about our feelings can allow us to overcome negative impulses. Assessing why we feel a certain way can give us the chance to decide whether we should be upset, whether our emotions are the result of a lack of sleep, or whether we should act to correct an injustice.

 

As a public policy student, I see this ability and a deeper understanding of jealousy as critical in deciding how we should react to policies that unavoidably direct scarce resources to some groups and not others. Recognizing that our jealousy regarding certain programs may not be influenced by the efficiency or effectiveness of a program, but on our thoughts of how deserving we find the beneficiaries of a program is important in crafting and evaluating policy. We can understand that our jealousy is a reaction based on our perceived status relative to others in our complex society, and can begin to evaluate our opinions by moving past our initial reactions based on jealousy, status, and threat.

You Are Not Just Yourself

“Much harm is done by a single case of indulgence or greed,” Seneca wrote in a letter saved in the book Letters From a Stoic, “the familiar friend, if he be luxurious, weakens and softens us imperceptibly; the neighbor, if he be rich, rouses our covetousness; the companion, if he be slanderous, rubs off some of his rust upon us, even though we be spotless and sincere. What then do you think the effect will be on character when the world at large assaults it!”

The way we think about ourselves is that we are conscious actors in control of our behaviors, beliefs, worldviews, and actions. Who we are and what we do is under our control. We decide if we want to engage with people, shut ourselves in our room and read all day, be nice to strangers, gossip about our co-workers, and eat at Taco Bell. The reality however, is that much of who we are and what we do is influenced by the people and situations around us. I was recently listening to Rob Reid’s podcast, After On, and his guest described a study looking at the neighbors of people who win new cars as prizes. The number of people who purchase a new car within a short time period after their neighbor wins a car is larger than you would expect just by chance. People seem to be changing their car buying habits when their neighbor gets lucky and wins a new car.

We are never the version of ourselves that is in control of our decisions and behaviors. How we think about the world and what we see when we look at ourselves, the people around us, and the situations we find ourselves in is influenced by the people around us. As Seneca describes, our friends and neighbors can make us feel certain ways, even if we never wanted to feel the way they make us feel. Situations that seem meaningless, like a neighbor buying a new car, can change the way we feel about ourselves.

This idea can be liberating in the sense that we don’t have to believe that we are fully in control of everything. We don’t have to believe that we operate as a completely independent and objective CEO, rationally making perfect decisions about everything. We can take some pressure off of ourselves.

At the same time, this idea can be frustrating. It says that no matter how much you try, things are going to influence you whether you want them to or not. It means that you may be out of luck if you try to change your behavior or try to see the world in a new way. You may have too many forces pushing on you for you to really get outside of the situation that you find yourself in.

Seneca continues, “You should not copy the bad simply because they are many, nor should you hate the many because they are unlike you. Withdraw into yourself, as far as you can. Associate with those who will make a better man of you. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve. The process is mutual; for men learn while they teach.” The advice Seneca gives as a reaction to our susceptibility to be influenced so heavily by the people and world around ourselves is to build to our self-awareness. Reflect deeply on how we act and behave and think about the ways we wish to act and behave. Find people who can be mentors and guides in living the life you think is meaningful, and then turn around and do what you can to help others, because you will learn more by helping others than just by doing. Recognize that you don’t have it all figured out on your own, and that you won’t always see everything happening around you, but try to build your awareness and try to focus on continual improvement. Not in a flashy way, but in a confident way that is always available for those wish to tap into it.

The Mind Observing the Mind

I am not a scientist in the sense that I don’t work at a laboratory, I don’t publish academic papers, and I am not going out into a field to make observation about the nature of the world to experiment with and report back on. But I do love science. I listen to a handful of science podcasts and I like to approach the world from a scientific point of view. This has lead me to look at objects and observers and to be aware of the relationship between an object and the observer recording the object. Scientists try to be as objective as possible, independent of the thing they are studying, but this is not always possible. When it comes to the human mind, and the observations we make about our thoughts, we must accept that we cannot split the mind from our thoughts and our emotions, even though we can observe both.

 

Thich Nhat Hanh writes about this in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness. He uses a metaphor of a guard standing at a gate, observing everyone who enters and leaves to describe the typical vision we have for our mind. Hanh explains that this is a limited view of the mind because we are both the guard and the people going through the gate. The mind cannot truly be separated from the thoughts and emotions going through it.

 

He describes the importance of this by writing, “We are both the mind and the observer of the mind. Therefore, chasing away or dwelling on any thought isn’t the important thing. The important thing is to be aware of thought. This observation is not an objectification of the mind: it does not establish distinction between subject and object. … Mind can only observe itself. This observation isn’t an observation of some object outside and independent of the observer.”

 

Our observations of the mind can change the mind as much as cake, a traffic accident, or the birth of a child can. We only have our thoughts inside our mind, but we don’t exactly control every thought, emotion, and feeling. Being unaware of our thoughts leads us to being whipped around as in a hurricane, but trying to be too controlling of our mind drives us mad and frustrates us at our inability to shut down the thoughts and emotions we don’t wish to have. Recognizing the reality of the mind as being one with its thoughts helps us see that our best option is simply to observe and accept the thoughts and emotions that run through our mind so we can choose to be more constructive with how we react to thoughts and structure the environment in which our mind operates.