Anecdotal Versus Systematic Thinking

Anecdotal Versus Systematic Thinking

Anecdotes are incredibly convincing, especially when they focus on an extreme case. However, anecdotes are not always representative of larger populations. Some anecdotes are very context dependent, focus on specific and odd situations, and deal with narrow circumstances. However, because they are often vivid, highly visible, and emotionally resonant, they can be highly memorable and influential.
Systemic thinking often lacks many of these qualities. Often, the general reference class is hard to see or make sense of. It is much easier to remember a commute that featured an officer or traffic accident than the vast majority of commutes that were uneventful. Sometimes the data directly contradicts the anecdotal stories and thoughts we have, but that data often lacks the visibility to reveal the contradictions. This happens frequently with news stories or TV shows that highlight dangerous crime or teen pregnancy. Despite a rise in crime during 2020, we have seen falling crime rates in recent decades, and despite TV shows about teen pregnancies, those rates have also been falling.
In Vices of the Mind, Quassim Cassam examines anecdotal versus systematic thinking to demonstrate that anecdotal thinking can be an epistemic vice that obstructs our view of reality. He writes, “With a bit of imagination it is possible to show that every supposed epistemic vice can lead to true belief in certain circumstances. What is less obvious is that epistemic vices are reliable pathways to true belief or that they are systematically conducive to true belief.”
Anecdotal versus systematic thinking or structural thinking is a useful context for thinking about Cassam’s quote. An anecdote describes a situation or story with an N of 1. That is to say, an anecdote is a single case study. Within any population of people, drug reactions, rocket launches, or any other phenomenon, there are going to be outliers. There will be some results that are strange and unique, deviating from the norm or average. These individual cases are interesting and can be useful to study, but it is important that we recognize them as outliers and not generalize these individual cases to the larger population. Systematic and structural thinking helps us see the larger population and develop more accurate beliefs about what we should normally expect to happen.
Anecdotal thinking may occasionally lead to true beliefs about larger classes, but as Cassam notes, it will not do so reliably. We cannot build our beliefs around single anecdotes, or we will risk making decisions based on unusual outliers. Trying to address crime, reduce teen pregnancy, determine the efficacy of a medication, or verify the safety of a spaceship requires that we understand the larger systemic and structural picture. We cannot study one instance of crime and assume we know how to reduce crime across an entire country, and none of us would want to ride in a spaceship that had only been tested once.
It is important that we recognize anecdotal thinking, and other epistemic vices, so we can improve our thinking and have better understandings of reality. Doing so will help improve our decision-making, will improve the way we relate to the world, and will help us as a society better determine where we should place resources to help create a world we want to live in. Anecdotal thinking, and indulging in other epistemic vices, might give us a correct answer from time to time, but it is likely to lead to worse outcomes and decisions over time as we routinely misjudge reality. This in turn will create tensions and distrust among a society that cannot agree on the actual trends and needs of the population.
Causal Links Between Unconnected Events

Causal Links Between Unconnected Events

As a kid I grew up attending basketball camps at UCLA. I played in the old gym that used to host UCLA games in front of a few thousand fans, played on the current court in main stadium, and slept in the dorms. With my history of basketball at UCLA, I have always been a fan of the men’s basketball team, rooting for them and the Nevada Wolf Pack – where I actually went to school. With the UCLA team making a deep run in the NCAA March Madness tournament, I have been reminded of all the superstitious thinking that surrounds sports and that I used to indulge in.
Sports seem to bring out superstitious thinking in even the most rational of people. I try very hard to think about causal structures and to avoid seeing non-existent causal links between unconnected events, but nevertheless, it is hard to not let superstitious thinking creep in. When you are watching a game it is hard not to feel like you have to sit in the right spot, have to watch from a certain room, or have to avoid certain behaviors in order to keep your team in the lead. However, it is absolute nonsense to think that your actions on your couch, miles away from the sporting venue where the game is taking place, could have any causal link to the way that a sports team performs.
In the book Vices of the Mind, Quassim Cassam spends time examining what is happening within our mind when we engage in superstitious thinking. He explains that superstitious thinking qualifies as an epistemic vice because it gets in the way of knowledge. It prevents us from forming accurate beliefs about the world. “Superstitious thinking,” Cassam writes, “isn’t a generally reliable method for forming true beliefs about the future; it won’t generally lead to true beliefs because it posits causal links between unconnected events. … beliefs based on superstitious thinking aren’t reasonable.”
Cassam gives the example of superstitions about walking under ladders in the book. Someone with a superstition believing that bad luck will befall them if they walk under a ladder will probably avoid walking under ladders, and as a result they won’t be as likely to have paint drip on them, to have something fall on their head, or to knock over the ladder and anyone or anything on top of it. Their superstition will lead to better outcomes for them, but not because the superstition helped them create true beliefs about the dangers of walking under ladders. The individual ends up with the correct answer, but interprets the wrong causal chain to get there.
Thinking about rational and plausible causal chains is a way to escape superstitious thinking. You can rationally examine the risks, harms, and benefits of certain behaviors and actions with rational connections between events to see when a superstition is nonsense, and when it pulls from real-life causal chains to help improve life. Trying not step on cracks will not prevent you from starting a causal chain that leads to your mother’s broken back, but it will help ensure you have more stable and steady footing when you walk. Wearing the same basketball jersey for each sports game has no causal connection with the team’s performance, and wearing it or not wearing it will not have an impact on how your favorite team performs. We should strive to have accurate beliefs about the world, we should work to see causal connections clearly, and we should limit superstitious thinking even if it is about trivial things like sports.
Standard Stories

Standard Stories

No matter who you are, what you do for a living, or where you live, your life is made up of stories. We use narratives to understand ourselves and our places in the world. We imagine grand arcs for ourselves, for others, and for the planet. We create motivations for ourselves and others, impart goals to people and societies, and create meaning between events. But what does it mean for us all to live in stories?
In Vices of the Mind, Quassim Cassam looks at one aspect of stories, the fact that they are not perfect reflections of reality. They can only include so much, and they focus on certain aspects of life over others. He writes, “the problem with standard stories, it might be argued, isn’t that they ignore trivial situational influences on human conduct but that they ignore very far from trivial structural influence.”
This quote comes within the context of Cassam discussing situationists and structuralists. Situationists argue that who we are and how we behave is in many ways influenced by the particulars of the situations we find ourselves in. In our personal narrative we may be calm, rational, and kind, but in a stressful situation we may be impulsive, cruel, and rash. Contrasting situationists are structuralists, who look at larger social and systemic factors that influence our lives. We might be cheerful, energetic, and optimistic people, but being forced into a dead-end job to earn enough to get by could crush all of those character traits. Larger structural forces can influence the situations we find ourselves in, ultimately shaping who we are and how we behave.
What Cassam is specifically highlighting in the quote is the idea that our narratives often rely too much on the particulars of given situations and ignore the larger structural systems that shape those situations. Our stories highlight individual level motivations and desires, but those are in turn situated within a larger context that becomes the background of our narratives. We focus on the individual conflicts, struggles, and arcs without recognizing how larger forces create the environments and rules within which everything else takes place. Standard stories fall short of reality and fall short of helping us understand exactly what is possible and exactly what shapes our lives because they don’t recognize structural forces. Without acknowledging those larger structural forces standard stories can’t help us understand how to change the world for better.
Knowledge and Perception

Knowledge and Perception

We often think that biases like prejudice are mean spirited vices that cause people to lie and become hypocritical. The reality, according to Quassim Cassam is that biases like prejudice run much deeper within our minds. Biases can become epistemic vices, inhibiting our ability to acquire and develop knowledge. They are more than just biases that make us behave in ways that we profess to be wrong. Biases can literally shape the reality of the world we live in by altering the way we understand ourselves and other people around us.
“What one sees,” Cassam writes in Vices of the Mind, “is affected by one’s beliefs and background assumptions. It isn’t just a matter of taking in what is in front of one’s eyes, and this creates an opening for vices like prejudice to obstruct the acquisition of knowledge by perception.”
I am currently reading Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now where Pinker argues that humans strive toward rationality and that at the end of the day subjectivity is ultimately over-ruled by reason, rationality, and objectivity. I have long been a strong adherent to the Social Construction Framework and beliefs that our worlds are created and influenced by individual differences in perception to a great degree. Pinker challenges that assumption, but framing his challenge through the lens of Cassam’s quote helps show how Pinker is ultimately correct.
Individual level biases shape our perception. Pinker describes a study where university students watching a sporting event literally see more fouls called against their team than the opponent, revealing the prejudicial vice that Cassam describes. Perception is altered by a prejudice against the team from the other school. Knowledge (in the study it is the accurate number of fouls for each team) is inhibited for the sports fans by their prejudice. The reality they live in is to some extent subjective and shaped by their prejudices and misperceptions.
But this doesn’t mean that knowledge about reality is inaccessible to humans at a larger scale. A neutral third party (or committee of officials) could watch the game and accurately identify the correct number of fouls for each side. The sports fans and other third parties may quibble about the exact final number, but with enough neutral observers we should be able to settle on a more accurate reality than if we left things to the biased sports fans. At the end of the day, rationality will win out through strength of numbers, and even the disgruntled sports fan will have to admit that the number of fouls they perceived was different from the more objective number of fouls agreed upon by the neutral third party members.
I think this is at the heart of the message from Cassam and the argument that I am currently reading from Pinker. My first reaction to Cassam’s quote is to say that our realities are shaped by biases and perceptions, and that we cannot trust our understanding of reality. However, objective reality (or something pretty close to it that enough non-biased people could reasonably describe) does seem to exist. As collective humans, we can reach objective understandings and agreements as people recognize and overcome biases and as the descriptions of the world presented by non-biased individuals prove to be more accurate over the long run. The key is to recognize that epistemic vices shape our perception at a deep level, that they are more than just hypocritical behaviors and that they literally shape the way we interpret reality. The more we try to overcome these vices of the mind, the more accurately we can describe the world, and the more our perception can then align with reality.
The Remembering Self and Time - Joe Abittan

The Remembering Self and Time

Time, as we have known it, has only been with human beings for a small slice of human history. The story of time zones is fascinating, and really began once rail roads connected the United States. Before we had a standardized system for operating within time, human lives were ruled by the cycle of the sun and the seasons, not by the hands of a watch. This is important because it suggests that the time bounds we put on our lives, the hours of our schedules and work days, and the way we think about the time duration of meetings, movies, a good night’s sleep, and flights is not something our species truly evolved to operate within.

 

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman shows one of the consequences of human history being out of sync with modern time. “The mind,” he writes, “is good with stories, but it does not appear to be well designed for the processing of time.”

 

I would argue that this makes sense and should be expected. Before we worked set schedules defined by the clock, before we could synchronize the start of a football game with TV broadcasts across the world, and before we all needed to be at the same place at precisely the right time to catch a departing train, time wasn’t very important. It was easy to tie time with sunrise, sunset, or mid-day compared to a 3:15 departure or a 7:05 kick-off. The passage of time also didn’t matter that much. The difference between being 64 and 65 years old wasn’t a big deal for humans that didn’t receive retirement benefits and social security payments. We did not evolve to live in a world where every minute of every day was tightly controlled by time and where the passage of time was tied so specifically to events in our lives.

 

For me, and I think for Daniel Kahneman, this may explain why we see some of the cognitive errors we make when we remember events from our past. Time wasn’t as important of a factor for ancient humans as story telling was. Kahneman continues,

 

“The remembering self, as I have described it, also tells stories and makes choices, and neither the stories nor the choices properly represent time. In storytelling mode, an episode is represented by a few critical moments, especially the beginning, the peak, and the end. Duration is neglected.”

 

When we think back on our lives, on moments that meant a lot to us, on times we want to relive, or on experiences we want to avoid in the future, we remember the salient details. We don’t necessarily remember how long everything lasted. My high school basketball days are not remembered by the hours spent running UCLAs, by the number of Saturdays I had to be up early for 8 a.m. practices, or by the hours spent in drills. My memories are made up of a few standout plays, games, and memorable team moments. The same is true for my college undergrad memories, the half-marathons I have raced, and my memories from previous homes I have lived in.

 

When we think about our lives we are not good at thinking about the passage of time, about how long we spent working on something, how long we had to endure difficulties, or how long the best parts of our lives lasted. We live with snapshots that can represent entire years or decades. Our remembering self drops the less meaningful parts of experiences from our memories, and holds onto the start, the end, and the best or worst moments from an experience. It distorts our understanding of our own history, and creates memories devoid of a sense of time or duration.

 

I think about this a lot because our minds and our memories are the things that drive how we behave and how we understand the present moment. However, duration neglect helps us see that reality of our lives is shaped by unreality. We are influenced by cognitive errors and biases, by poor memories, and distortions of time and experience. It is important to recognize how faulty our thinking can be, so we can develop systems, structures, and ways of thinking that don’t assume we are always correct, but help guide us toward better and more realistic ways of understanding the world.
Experiencing Versus Remembering

Experiencing Versus Remembering

My last two posts have been about the difference in how we experience life and how we remember what happens in our life. This is an important idea in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow. Kahneman explains the ways in which our minds make predictable errors when thinking statistically, when trying to remember the past, and when making judgements about reality. Kahneman describes our mind as having two selves. He writes,

 

“The experiencing self is the one that answers the question: Does it hurt now? The remembering self is the one that answers the question: How was it on the whole? Memories are all we get to keep from our experience of living, and the only perspective that we can adopt as we think about our lives is therefore that of the remembering self.”

 

In my post about the Peak-End Rule I highlighted findings from Kahneman that show that the remembering self isn’t very good at making accurate judgments about a whole experience. It more or less averages out the best (or worst) part of an experience with the ending of the experience. The ups and downs throughout, the actual average quality overall, isn’t that relevant to the way we think back on an experience.

 

Duration Neglect also demonstrates how the remembering self misjudges our experiences. A long monotonous experience with a positive ending can be remembered much more fondly than a generally positive short experience with a bad ending.

 

When I think about the experiencing and remembering self, I try to remember that my remembering self is not able to perfectly recall the reality of my experiences. I try to remember that my experiencing self is only alive in the present moment, and when I am experiencing something great, I try hard to focus on that moment, rather than try to focus on something I want to remember (this is the difference between sitting and watching a beautiful sunset versus trying to capture the perfect picture of the sunset for social media). Keeping in mind the distinctions between the experiencing and remembering self is helpful for avoiding the frustration, guilt, and pressure that the remembering self heaps on you when you don’t feel as though you have done enough or accomplished enough. The remembering self is only one part of you, and its revisionist view of your history isn’t real. There is real value in finding a balance between living for the experiencing self and living with the knowledge of what fuels the remembering self. Tilting too far either way can make us feel frustrated and overwhelmed, or unaccomplished, and we all want to be somewhere between the two extremes, giving up a little to prop up the other in different ways at different times of our lives.
Frame Bound vs Reality Bound

Frame Bound vs Reality Bound

My wife works with families with children with disabilities and one of the things I learned from her is how to ask children to do something. When speaking with an adult, we often use softeners when requesting that the other person do something, but this doesn’t work with children. So while we may say to a colleague, a spouse, or a friend, “can you please XYZ,” or “lets call it a night of bowling after this frame, OK?” these sentences don’t work with children. A child won’t quite grasp the way a softener like “OK” is used and they won’t understand that while you have framed an instruction or request as a question you are not actually asking a question or trying to give someone a choice. If you frame an instruction as a choice the child can reply with “no” and then you as a parent are stuck fighting them.

 

What happens in this situation is that children reject the frame bounding that parents present them with. To get around it, parents need to be either more direct or more creative with how they tell their children to do things. You can create a new frame for your child that they can’t escape by saying, “It is time to get ready for dinner, you can either put away your toys, or you can go set the table.” You frame a choice for the child, and they get to chose which action they are going to take, but in reality both are things you want them to do (my wife says this also works with husbands but I think the evidence is mixed).

 

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes, “Unless there is an obvious reason to do otherwise, most of us passively accept decision problems as they are framed and therefore rarely have an opportunity to discover the extent to which our preferences are frame-bound rather than reality-bound.”

 

The examples I gave with talking to children versus talking to adults helps demonstrate how we passively accept the framing for our decisions. We don’t often pause to reconsider whether we should really purchase an item on sale. The discount that we are saving outweighs the fact that we still face a cost when purchasing the item. Our thinking works this way in office settings, in politics, and on the weekends when we can’t decide if we are going to roll out of bed or not. The frame that is applied to our decisions becomes our reality, even if there are more possibilities out there than what we realize.

 

A child rejecting the framing that a parent provides, or conversely a parent creating new frames to shape a child’s decisions and behaviors demonstrates how easily we can fall into frame-bound thinking and how jarring it can be when reality intrudes on the frames we try to live within. Most of the times we accept the frames presented for us, but there can be huge costs if we just go along with the frames that advertisers, politicians, and other people want us to adopt.
Imaginary Reference Points

Imaginary Reference Points

My last post was about reference points and how they can create subjective experiences that differ from person to person. If my refence point is dramatically different than another person’s, then our experience of the same objective fact or reality can be quite different. If I suddenly won $1 million dollars my life might change dramatically, but if an incredibly wealthy person suddenly won $1 million, they might not care at all.

 

Reference points can get even more complicated than the example I just shared which was borrowed from yesterday’s post. Sometimes reference points don’t need to be real in order to shape our subjective experiences of the world. In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman uses the example of an expected raise. If someone knows that their colleagues have received a raise, and expects to get a similar raise but does not, then they can feel as though they have really lost. Their financial situation has not changed, but they created an imaginary reference point in their mind which has shaped the way they think about their current situation.

 

We all have certain expectations about the world that we adopt as reference points. These reference points don’t have to reflect anything real about the world, but they can still greatly impact our subjective opinions and considerations of the world. They can be vain, such as how attractive we expect our spouse to be, or more positively aspirational, such as how much we expect everyone in society to participate in social causes to help those who are the most needy.  There is no real reference point that we are using, just hazy ideas of the way we think things should be, but nevertheless, these imaginary reference points can guide a lot of our thinking and behavior.

 

In my own life, examining these imaginary reference points has been incredibly helpful for making me a more happy and confident person. It is easy to let imaginary reference points fall to the background, where they run our lives without being considered in a critical way. By thinking deeply about our reference points we can better consider what we should and should not strive for, how much effort or money we need to put toward certain endeavors, and whether our behaviors are really reasonable and worthwhile. Through self-reflection and self-awareness we can recognize goals that serve as reference points which are unreasonable, desires which are vain and should be discarded, and ideas about who we are supposed to be that don’t truly align with our lives and what would help us live in a meaningful and fulfilling manner. Imaginary reference points matter, and they can greatly influence how we live our lives. We should make sure we think about them and let go of those which drive us in the wrong direction.
Understanding the Past

Understanding the Past

I am always fascinated by the idea, that continually demonstrates validity in my own life, that the more we learn about something, the more realize how little we actually know about it. I am currently reading Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and I am continually struck by how often Harari brings in events from mankind’s history that I had never heard about. The more I learn about the past, or about any given subject, the more I realize how little knowledge I have ever had, and how limited, narrow, and sometimes just flat out inaccurate my understandings have been.

 

This is particularly important when it comes to how we think about the past. I believe very strongly that our reality and the worlds in which we live and inhabit are mostly social constructions. The trees, houses, and roads are all real, but how we understand the physical objects, the spaces we operate, and how we use the real material things in our worlds is shaped to an incredible degree by social constructions and the relationships we build between ourselves and the world we inhabit. In order to understand these constructions and in order to shape them for a future that we want to live in (and are physiologically capable of living in) we need to understand the past and make predictions about the future with new social constructs that enable continued human flourishing.

 

To some extent, this feels easy and natural to us. We all have a story and we learn and adopt family stories, national stories, and global stories about the grand arc of humanity. But while our stories seem to be shared, and while we seem to know where we are heading, we all operate based on individual understandings of the past, and where that means we are (or should be) heading. As Daniel Kahneman writes in his  book Thinking Fast and Slow, “we believe we understand the past, which implies that the future also should be knowable, but in fact we understand the past less that we believe we do.”

 

As I laid out to begin this post, there is always so much more complexity and nuance to anything that we might study and be familiar with than we often realize. We can feel that we know something well when we are ignorant of the nuance and complexity. When we start to really untangle something, whether it be nuclear physics, the history of the American Confederacy, or how our fruits and veggies get to the supermarket, we realize that we really don’t know and understand anything as well as we might intuitively believe.

 

When we lack a deep and complex understanding of the past, because we just don’t know about something or because we didn’t have an accurate and detailed presentation of the thing from the past, then we are likely to misinterpret and misunderstand how we got to our current point. By having a limited historical perspective and understanding, we will incorrectly assess where our best future lies. It is important that we recognize how limited our knowledge is, and remember that these limits will shape the extent to which we can make valid predictions for the future.
The Emotional Replica of Reality in our Brains

The Emotional Replica of Reality Within Our Brains

It feels weird to acknowledge that the model for reality within our brains is nothing more than a model. It is a construction of what constitutes reality based on our experiences and based on the electrical stimuli that reach our brain from various sensory organs, tissues, and nerve endings. The brain doesn’t have a model for things that it doesn’t have a way of experiencing or imagining. Like the experience of falling into a black hole, representations of what the experience is like will never fully substitute for the real thing, and will forever be unknowable to our brains. Consequently, the model of reality that our brain uses for every day operations can only include the limited slice of reality that is available to our experiences.

 

What results is a distorted picture of the world. This was not too much of a problem for our ancestors living as hunter-gatherers in small tribes. It didn’t matter if they fully understood the precise risk of tiger attacks or poisonous fungi, as long as they had heuristics to keep them away from dangerous situations and questionable foods. They didn’t need to hear at the frequency of a bat’s echolocation pulses, they didn’t need to see ultraviolet, and they didn’t need to sense the earth’s magnetic field. Precision and completeness wasn’t as important as a general sense of the world for pattern recognition and enough fear and memory to stay safe and find reliable food.

 

Today, however, we operate in complex social structures and the narratives we tell about ourselves, our societies, and how we should interact can have lasting influences on our own lives and the lives of generations to come.  How we understand the world is often shaped by our emotional reaction to the world, rather than being shaped by a complete set of scientific and reality based details and information. As Daniel Kahneman writes in Thinking Fast and Slow, “The world in our heads is not a precise replica of reality; our expectations about the frequency of events are distorted by the prevalence and emotional intensity of the messages to which we are exposed.”

 

Kahneman writes about news reporting of strange and extreme phenomenon, and how that leads us to believe that very rare events like tornado deaths are more likely than mundane and common causes of death such as those resulting from asthma complications. Things that are dramatic and unique feel more noteworthy, and are likely to be easier for us to remember and recall. When that happens, the events feel less like strange outliers, and more like normal events. The picture of reality operating in our mind is altered and distorted based on our experiences, the information we absorb, and our emotional valence to both.

 

For a social species, this can have dramatic consequences. If we generalize a character trait of one person to an entire group, we can develop dangerous stereotypes that influence our interactions with hundreds or thousands of people. A single salient event can shape how we think about problems or opportunities in our communities and societies. Rather than fully understanding our reaction and the event itself, we are going to struggle through narratives that seek to combine thousands of individual perceptions of reality, each influenced in unique ways by conflicting emotions and opinions of what has happened. Systems and structures matter, especially when our brains operate on inadequate versions of reality rather than concrete versions of reality and can be shaped by our emotional reactions to such systems and structures.