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.

Unsure

In my last post, I wrote about how the brain handles danger. When we sense danger, we become less creative, more prone to seeing the world as black and white, and we don’t engage our conscious brain as thoroughly as we should. Our brains evolved this way in small groups over thousands of years because it helped us survive in a dangerous and unpredictable world. Today, however, technology and society have changed the human experience and the danger we face is no longer the same. But nevertheless, our brain still holds on to its evolved danger response.

 

In The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier explains that we are biased toward danger thinking. Our brain approaches new situations with our danger sensors turned up. As Bungay Stanier writes, “In other words, if you’re not sure about a situation, you’ll default to reading it as unsafe. And start backing away.”

 

As in the last post, I don’t want to focus for what this means for ourselves directly. I would rather look at how recognizing this should change the way we with those whom we work with, live with, and encounter on a daily basis. In any given situation that is slightly unfamiliar, we are going to default to danger thinking. By focusing on others and understanding the danger that everyone has evolved to feel when taking new steps and taking risks, we can work to better support them and help create an environment that is less dangerous.

 

Within companies, our efforts to boost our egos and dominate a space to be the smartest, most capable, and most important member of the organization cause other people to feel danger. We increase the threat that they may feel and as a consequence, people begin backing away and stop thinking creatively. If instead, we focus on the best outcomes for the team and the company, and we try to minimize the danger and risk that other people experience, we can get more conscious and courageous thinking from the people around us, and ultimately we can have a better and more diverse organization that thinks in new and innovate ways. We can still create environments where competition helps push people to be their best and put forward their best ideas, but the space in which they take risks and put themselves forward needs to be safe to allow diverse views and opinions to be discussed and experimented with. Ultimately, we must take some ownership ourselves for the danger responses in other people, we cannot simply criticize another for feeling threatened and backing away. After all, our brains evolved for this to be our default. To be strong leaders and coaches, we must understand how the brain works and reacts to the world, and we must do our part daily to reduce the danger and threat that others feel and that we push out into the world.

Trust In Government

People today have lost trust in government. We have too many actors, too many points of view, too many opinions, and too many bad stories about the government. The days when politicians were less ideological, less partisan, and could be more moderate with their views and opinions are behind us. This does not mean, however, that we are stuck in a system of gridlock and argument for ever. We can still challenge our own assumptions and the assumptions of others by better understanding our political system and thinking more deeply about our opinions. Working through our priors and getting beyond our negativity and cynicism gives us a way to improve our own thought process and ultimately to improve government and the ways in which society interacts with government.

 

In Political Realism Jonathan Rauch writes, “Gone is the trust that government will “do the right thing,” replaced by an assumption that transactional politics is a rigged game played by and for special interests.” In our country we hate interest groups and lobbyists. We hate anyone with money who seems to be interfering in our elections or our processes, and cry out against the evils of big money. Except, not always. We only seem to hate special interests and lobbyists when they don’t represent us. Most republicans probably don’t think of the NRA as a special interest or as a lobbying group, and most Democrats probably don’t think of unions as evil big money organizations. When you begin to think about the groups and activists that you support or favor, you start to gain a better understanding of why lobbyists and interest groups exist. By looking inward and trying to understand your own political ideas, beliefs, and assumptions, you can begin to better understand other people’s opinions, beliefs, and assumptions, giving you a way to better relate to people with different thoughts.

 

Reflecting and looking inward also helps us see just how transient our policy beliefs truly are. When we become more self-aware and more self-reflective, we are able to better understand where our beliefs and opinions come from. I try to follow politics actively, trying to focus more on the policy side than on the horse-race political side, and I notice constantly that my opinions are greatly shaped by the person who comes up with an idea. When President Trump says something, I have an almost visceral reaction assuming that his idea is full of self-interest and short sighted thoughts and is undoubtedly the opposite of what we should actually do in terms of policy. At the same time however, I know that my thoughts and opinions on things like national debt are woefully underdeveloped. I can recognize that I have some thoughts and beliefs about how our nation and society should be structured, but those thoughts are not necessarily based on scientific evidence, but general thoughts, my view of my identity, and to some extent my own self-interest. What this means, is that I should back away to some extent when I recognize that  my opinion is influenced by prejudices and judgement about the opposing political party or politician.

 

This may not help us achieve more transactional politics and it may not increase trust in government directly, but this strategy can help us begin to back away from such staunch opposition to opposing parties and people. By recognizing when we don’t have full information and when we are allowing our judgement of the speaker to shape our beliefs of the policy, we can start to be more civil in our discussions. This in turn can help us as a country moderate our discussions and opinions, and ultimately, bring politics back to the center where it can be more transactional and less volatile.

Aliance

Speaking more specifically about romantic relationships, Author Colin Wright in his book Some Thoughts About Relationships said, “Approaching relationships as an alliance, not just as a physical and emotional bond, gives you the excuse to put aside the irrational, vengeful, and hurtful in favor of the practical. It’s an excellent way to view someone you care about as not just a romantic partner, but a partner-in-crime. A confidante.”

 

Wright approaches this idea by detailing some of the negativity and hurt that can accompany the end or breakup of a romantic relationship, and offers this viewpoint to suggest that we can view our relationships through different lenses to have different perspectives and ideas about who and what we and our partner are. Wright’s argument is that by seeing our relationships in a new light, we can change the way we react when things are not going well. Seeking novel viewpoints and ideas can help us understand ourselves and our partner in new ways, and can help us have more positive reactions during challenging and negative times.

 

He does not argue that physical and emotional bonds are not important in relationships, but embraces those ideas and includes further connections that help to safeguard us in times of friction. If we see our partner as a true ally, then we will be less likely to cause them harm, or desire to cause them harm, during a break-up or challenging time. Thinking of our partner in new ways and thinking of our relationship to our partner in ways that help up build positive connections can give us new ways of being with them. The alliance viewpoint helps us see that we are not competing against them, but rather building who we are together and advancing for a shared cause and purpose. We can become less deceitful of the other, building trust between us both, and we can grow more fully as a couple.

Becoming the Master of Our Own Destinies

Why do we hesitate before taking on new opportunities, especially when those opportunities are ones that we tell people we have wanted? Why do we wait for another person to be a catalyst for action in our own lives? These are questions that Colin Wright asks in his book Come Back Frayed. He looks at our hesitation during times of opportunity and our lack of self belief during  times of challenge, and encourages us to be the ones who drive and dictate our lives instead of leaving our lives to be shaped by people beyond us.  He writes,

 

“We create our own continuity. We mustn’t depend on someone else to construct our frame works for us. … But we are the masters of our destinies and direction. We are the most capable, competent, correct people for this particular job. All we have to do is recognize this and accept the responsibility.”

 

Wrights quote comes after an explanation of how our reactions to struggles either provide us with opportunity for growth or keep us from being able to change for the better. By adapting to the obstacles we face and using the experiences and challenges as building blocks for growth, we can make sure that our personal evolutions are marked by positive changes. When we do this, we create our own future. We decide how we will react to the world around us and build our own scaffolding toward the success we desire.

 

Throughout his writing, Wright seems to acknowledge how much of the world and universe truly lies beyond our control. We cannot shape how other people will behave, we cannot control natural disasters, and we cannot truly predict any future event, but this does not mean that we must surrender our lives and allow ourselves to be pushed in any direction by the forces outside ourselves. Instead, by controlling our mind (the only thing we can possibly have control over) we can shape the direction of our journey through the choices and reactions to those outside factors.

 

The first step in this process is accepting responsibility for our decisions, actions, and thoughts. From this point we begin to decide how we will react to what goes on around us and if we will use adversity to propel us forward. It requires that we stop looking at limitations in our lives as reasons not to move forward or pursue a goal, and it requires that we elevate our vision of what we believe possible for ourselves, recognizing that our mental framing will determine how creative our future can be, and how persistent we can be on our path forward.

 

I want to also push back against Wright’s quote and some of the suggestions that this perspective may create. Controlling the faculties of our mind and accepting responsibility for our own agency does not mean that we will find economic success, which is the default version of success that American’s refer to.  Epictetus certainly believed in his own agency in his thoughts, decisions, and reactions, but he lived as a slave for much of his life without an opportunity to pursue wealth. The forces that are beyond us may be so limiting as to squash any hopes that we have of reaching specific goals, especially in a world so easily shaped by inherent bias, but nevertheless, we can thoroughly evaluate our motivations and goals, and always find a reasonable measure of success which does not tie in with monetary figures set by people external to us. Wright’s suggestion encourages us to pursue great goals and to be the agents driving toward those goals, and while it is important to practice building that mindset, what we also must consider is how arbitrary those goals can become, especially if not set by ourselves and our own true reflection.

Immediate Reactions

Author Colin Wright discusses the ways in which our unconscious brain picks up on small cues and differences about people that we meet before we are able to form complete judgements of others as human beings. These small cues and differences shape the way we think about other people and influence our behavior, often times without us ever realizing.  In his book, Come Back Frayed, Wright explains this phenomenon by writing the following:

 

“It’s remarkable how our peculiarities can set us apart so dramatically and rapidly. Even before we truly recognize each other as humans, as complete people with depth and density, we recognize things about strangers that help us categorize the world. These biases, and sometimes prejudices, color the world around us with tones that guide our actions and opinions.”

 

Before we have met someone we are already preparing ourselves for what we expect our interactions with them to be like. These biases are huge because they prevent us from treating everyone as openly and fairly as we would like, and they exist within ourselves and within the other person at the same time. The way we frame the other person and the types of expectations we bring to a  conversation shape the actions and behaviors that we will have. If we instantly feel negative feelings at the sight of another, it is unlikely that our interactions with them will be positive.

 

Wright would encourage us to become more self-aware and to develop processes of self-recognition so that we can acknowledge those moments when we have immediate reactions to another person. We can develop skills to notice when the tribal part of our brain labels someone as an outsider, and drives us to act in ways that push the other person away. Becoming self-aware helps us see the ways in which these small cues influence much of the way we interact with the world, and gives us the power to better control the world around us.

 

If we fail to gain perspective over our instant reactions to other people, then we will never allow people who are different from us to truly participate in society. Our actions will be colored by the reactionary perceptions of our brain, and we will never develop the empathy needed to improve the world for all of those around us. Accepting  that we judge others before ever meeting them, and before we ever consider who they are as human beings, give us the ability to overcome biases, and to help society become more connected and unified regardless of race, ideology, age, or gender.