Self-deceptive Rationalization

Self-Deceptive Rationalization

I don’t like doing online personality quizzes. Part of the reason why I dislike them is because I believe that three of the cognitive errors and biases identified by Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow are at play when we take online quizzes.
 
 
First, we are influenced by the availability heuristic. Our perception of how common or how accurate something is can be greatly influenced by whether we have an easy or hard time remembering the thing. This can influence how we answer questions about things we normally prefer or normally like to do. We might be answering based on how quickly we remember something, not on how we actually feel about something.
 
 
Second, we might substitute the questions being asked with easier to answer questions. In reality, this is what is happening with the availability heuristic. A difficult self-reflection question might not be answered directly. We might switch the question out and instead answer a simpler question. In the case of the availability heuristic, we are answering how easily something came to mind rather than the original question, but this can happen outside of the availability heuristic as well. The result is that we are not really measuring what the question purports to measure.
 
 
Third, Kahneman argues that we can think of ourselves as having two operating systems for how we act and feel in the present moment versus how we reflect back and remember previous experiences. The remembering self has different perceptions than the experiencing self, as Kahneman terms the two systems. The remembering self doesn’t have an accurate memory for how much we liked or disliked certain experiences. Think about a vacation. You may be feeling burnt out with work and life, and all you want to do, what you would enjoy the most in the world, is to sit on a familiar beach doing absolutely nothing. But your remembering self won’t take any exciting and novel memories from a week sitting on a beach doing nothing. Your remembering self would much rather have you go on an exciting yet stressful vacation to a new foreign country. This tension between your experiencing and remembering selves makes the reliability of online personality quizzes questionable. Your remembering self answers the questions, not your experiencing self, and they don’t always have the same opinions.
 
 
What this means, is that the kind of reflection that goes into online personality quizzes, or really any reflective activity, can potentially be self-deceptive. Quassim Cassam writes about these dangers in his book Vices of  the Mind. He writes, “there is always the danger that what critical reflection produces is not self-knowledge, but self-deceptive rationalization.” Our biases and cognitive errors can lead us to incorrect answers about ourselves during self-reflection. This process can feel honest and insightful, but it can often be nothing more than a rationalization for behaviors and actions that we want to believe are true about ourselves. The only way through, Cassam continues to explain, is to cultivate real epistemic virtues, to see the world more clearly, and to recognize our epistemic vices to become better thinkers.

The Mere Measurement Effect - Joe Abittan

The Mere Measurement Effect

I listen to a lot of politics and policy podcasts, and one thing I learned over the last few years is that asking people to vote and encouraging them to vote isn’t very effective. What is effective, is asking people how they plan to vote. If you ask someone where their polling place is, how they plan to get there, when they plan to complete their mail in ballot, and if they will sit down with a spouse to vote, they actually become more likely to vote.

 

This seems like a strange phenomenon, but it appears that getting people to talk through the voting process helps cement their plans in their mind. The process seems to be related to the mere-measurement effect, which Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein write about in their book Nudge. Writing about individuals who participate in surveys and their behavior after being surveyed they write,

 

“Those who engage in surveys want to catalogue behavior, not influence it. But social scientists have discovered an odd fact: when they measure people’s intentions, they affect people’s conduct. The mere-measurement effect refers to the finding that when people are asked about what they intend to do, they become more likely to act in accordance with their answers.”

 

The mere-measurement effect, just like the questions about how and where a person actually plans to cast their ballot, is a nudge. The brain is forced to think about what a person is doing, and that establishes actual plans, behaviors, and goals within the mind. It is very subtle, but it shifts the thought patterns enough to actually influence behavior. Once we voice our intention to another person, we are more likely to actually follow through compared to when we keep our inner plans secret. This can be useful for a supermarket trying to sell a certain product, a politician trying to encourage supporters to vote, or for charitable organizations looking to get more donations. The mere-measurement effect is small, but can be useful for nudging people in certain directions.
The Value of Objects - Joe Abittan

The Value of Objects

My dad collected Hot Wheels toy cars. He had thousands of cars, all in their packaging, with limited editions and rare valuable cars all collected and organized together. It was a hobby, and an example of how much value an individual can attach to objects that don’t mean anything to other people.

 

On my wife’s side of the family, near-hoarding behavior is not uncommon. With my dad’s collection and my wife’s family’s saving everything just in case, we have both seen the excesses of placing too much value in objects. We try hard to think critically about the things we have in our lives, and try to avoid having too many things and giving them too much value. But still, it is hard to part with things, even when they are gifts that we never really wanted and even when we know that we don’t need it or could replace it easily.

 

In the book Nudge, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler write the following about the value of objects. “People do not assign specific values to objects. When they have to give something up, they are hurt more than they are pleased if they acquire the very same thing.”

 

People are not actually that good at thinking about value. We will go out of our way for free stuff, we will hoard things to avoid feelings of loss, and we will collect items that don’t have the same economic value as the emotional value we attach to them once they are in our possession. This impulse helps drive our economy, but it can also drive us as individuals into madness.

 

I think that it is important to understand the quote from Sunstein and Thaler. When we recognize that we are not very good at thinking about value objectively, we can recognize irrational ways that we become attached to mere objects. We can start to shift the way we think about the material things in our lives and to really consider if they provide us value. We might find that our Hot Wheels collection really does provide us value, but at the same time, we may recognize that the decorative thing that someone gave us years ago doesn’t provide value. We can look at items that sit around taking up space, requiring cleaning, and cluttering our lives and feel more freedom with parting from those items. Understanding our irrational tendency towards objects and value can help us rethink what we keep, what we fill our lives with, and can help us get beyond the loss aversion we feel when we think about selling something or tossing it out.

Happiness, Well-being, & Money

A question that is always asked and played with in movies, at family dinners, and in our popular culture is can money buy happiness? We will all say that the answer is no, especially when we hear about a wealthy person who commits suicide or has their life unravel in a public manner. Nevertheless, we all pursue a relatively high level of wealth and income, and we recognize that having more money would mean that we could eat out more often, take more vacations, and buy more things. There does seem to be some level of happiness that can be achieved through more money.

 

Daniel Kahneman shared research on the question in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. He writes, “an analysis of more than 450,000 responses to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, a daily survey of 1,000 Americans, provides a surprisingly definite answer to the most frequently asked question in well-being research: Can money buy happiness? The conclusion is that being poor makes one miserable, and that being rich may enhance one’s life satisfaction, but does not (on average) improve experienced well-being.”

 

Kahneman’s quote is incredibly helpful because it splits apart happiness and well-being, particularly our experienced happiness and general well-being. The part of our brain that reflects back on our life and our overall happiness is not the same part of our brain that actually lives the experiences we have. As Kahneman showed earlier in the book, asking students how happy they are and then asking them how many dates they had in the last month gives you two separate responses with no correlation, but ask the questions in reverse, and suddenly those students who haven’t had many dates tend to respond that they are less happy. The reflecting part of our brain will experience happiness differently depending on the frames you place it in. The same thing seems to happen with happiness, well-being, and money.

 

When we think about how happy we are overall, we pause, reflect on our living condition, think about our relative success compared to others, and remember the fun events in our lives. Our happiness is improved when we are more sure of ourselves based on our relative social status and as we have more enjoyable and memorable experiences. However, this doesn’t mean that we are more happy than other people in our experienced well-being from moment to moment.

 

The rich person may feel isolated, may be insecure about losing their wealth, or may have the same family and social problems that anyone else has. The momentary emotional status of an individual is not impacted by wealth as much as our reflective happiness. Kahneman’s quote helps to pull these two aspects of happiness apart to see what is happening and understand the role of money. Kahneman continues to write that experienced well-being stops increasing as dramatically once an individual’s household income reaches about $75,000 in high cost areas. Subjectively, in the course of our lives, money doesn’t make us happier from moment to moment once we have received a high, but relatively reasonable income.
Evaluating Happiness

Evaluating Happiness

If you ask college students how many dates they have had in the last month and then ask them how happy they are overall, you will find that those who had more dates will rate themselves as generally more happy than those who had fewer dates. However, if you ask college students how happy they are overall, and then after they evaluate their happiness ask them how many dates they have had, you won’t see a big difference in overall happiness based on the number of dates that students had in the last month.

 

Daniel Kahneman looks at the results of studies like this in his book Thinking Fast and Slow and draws the following conclusion. “The explanation is straightforward, and it is a good example of substitution,” he writes. Happiness these days is not a natural or an easy assessment. A good answer requires a fair amount of thinking. However, the students who had just been asked about their dating did not need to think hard because they already had in their mind an answer to a related question: how happy were they with their love life?

 

This example is interesting because we are often placed in situations where we have to make a quick assessment of a large and complex state of being. When we buy a new car or house we rarely have a chance to live with the car or house for six months to determine if we really like it and if it is actually a good fit for us. We have a test drive or two, a couple walk-throughs, and then we are asked to make an assessment of whether we would like to own the the thing and whether it would be a good fit for our lives. We face the same challenges with voting for president, choosing a college or major, hiring a new employee/taking a new job, or buying a mattress. Evaluating happiness and predicting happiness is complex and difficult, and often without noticing it, we switch the question to something that is easier for us to answer. We narrow down our overall assessment to a few factors that are more easy to evaluate and hold in our head. More dates last month means I’m more happy.

 

“The present state of mind looms very large when people evaluate their happiness,” writes Kahneman.

 

We often judge the president based on the economy in the last months or weeks leading up to an election. We may chose to buy a home or car based on how friendly our agent or salesperson was and whether they did a good job of making us feel smart. Simple factors that might influence our mood in the moment can alter our perceived level of happiness and have direct outcomes in the decisions we make. We rarely pause to think about how happy we are on an overall level, and if we do, it is hard to untangle the things that are influencing our current mood from our perception of our general life happiness. It is important to recognize how much the current moment can shape our overall happiness so that we can pause and adjust our behaviors and attitudes to better reflect our reality. Having a minor inconvenience should not throw off our entire mood and outlook on life. Similarly, if we are in positions we dislike and find unbearable, we should not put up with the status quo just because someone flatters us but makes no real changes to improve our situation. Ultimately, it is important for us to be able to recognize what is happening in our minds and to be able to recognize when our minds are likely to be influenced by small and rather meaningless things.
Blind to our blindness

Blind to Our Blindness

I remember the first time I watched the Gorilla Attentiveness Study, as a freshman in college, and to this day it is one of my favorite studies and examples of the ways in which our brains can let us down. Writing about the study in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman states, “The gorilla study illustrates two important facts about our minds: we can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness.” Kahneman uses the study to show that we can’t always trust what we see, or what we experience in the world more broadly. Our minds are limited in what they take in, especially when we are engaged with one task and our mind is filtering out the other noise and extra information in our environment.

 

Kahneman uses the study to support two major ideas that he presents in his book. The first is that our brains can only operate on the information they take in. Most of the time, our general perception of the world is guided by System 1, the term Kahneman uses to describe the automatic, fast, and intuitive functioning part of our brain. It is not literally a separate part and structure of the brain, but it does seem to be a system with specific functions that generally runs in the background as we go about our lives. That system filters out unimportant information in the world around us, like the feeling of our clothes on our skin, low level traffic noise outside our office, or a bee buzzing around at the edges of our peripheral outside a window. That data is ignored as unimportant, allowing us to instead engage System 2 on something more worthy of our attention.

 

System 2 is used by Kahneman to describe the attentive, energy demanding, logical part of our brain. The modules in the brain which allow us to write blog posts, to count basketball passes, and to thread string through a needle comprise what Kahneman describes as System 2. However, System 2 can only focus on a limited number of things at one time. That is why we can’t write blog posts on a subway and why we miss the gorilla. We have to ignore the noise in order to focus on the important things. What is worse, however, is that System 2 is  often dependent on information from System 1, and System 1 is subject to biases and blind spots and has a bad habit of using inferences to complete the full picture based on a limited set of information. System 1’s biases directly feed into the intense focus and logical thinking of System 2, which in turn causes us to reach faulty conclusions. And because the inferences from System 1 are usually pretty good, and do an adequate job completing the picture, our faulty conclusions appear sound to us.

 

Kahneman writes that we are blind to the obvious, meaning that we often miss important, crucial, and sometimes clearly important information simply because  we don’t look for it, don’t recognize it for what it is, or and fill in gaps with intuition. Quite often we are not even aware of the things we are blind to, we literally are blind in regard to our blind spots, making it harder to see how we could be wrong, where our cognitive biases and errors may be, and what could be done to make our thinking more accurate.

 

I try to remember this in my own life and to ask myself where I think I could be wrong. I try to be aware of instances where I am deliberately creating blind spots in my life, and I try at least marginally to push against such tendencies. It is important that we remember our biases and errors in thinking, and consider how our thinking is often built on blind spots and faulty conclusions. Doing so will help us be more generous when thinking of others, and will help us become better thinkers ourselves. It will help us pause when we reach a conclusion about an argument, think more broadly when we become upset, and shift away from System 1 biases to have more accurate and complete pictures of the world.
Our Opinion Shapes Our Experience

Our Opinion Shapes Our Experience

A funny thing happened with people’s thoughts about the economy following the 2016 presidential election in the United States. Supporters of Hillary Clinton prior to the election had strong feelings about the economy, while Republican supporters of Donald Trump thought the economy was terrible. In the days and weeks following the election, perceptions of the economy switched. Nothing economically speaking had really changed in the immediate days after we discovered that Donald Trump would become the 45th president of the United States, but suddenly those who voted Republican in 2016 had a positive outlook on the economy, while those who had voted for Clinton thought the country’s economy was in trouble.

 

Our opinion of a circumstance can shape the experience we have of many aspects of our lives. The economic outlook of people following the election in 2016 demonstrates this ability. We can experience a great economy based on whether our favored candidate wins an election, or we can experience an economic downturn if our candidate does not, even if actual economic trends don’t change. We don’t exist in an independent or objective place outside of the world around us. Instead we take in cues about how others are doing, about our identity relative to others, and about the position of groups like us and start to create the reality we experience. Whether we want to or not, we measure our social standing against other people that we see or interact with on a daily basis and the stories we tell ourselves matter to how we feel about our place in the world and our future.

 

Being aware of this, however, can help us tone down negative impulses and thoughts that might be triggered by this type of social comparison. As Seneca wrote in Letters From a Stoic, “what does your condition matter, if it is bad in your own eyes?” If we constantly look around and see others who have more than us, who look better than us, and who in one way or another demonstrate a higher social status than us, then we will never be content with ourselves and our position. A solution is to step back and consider ourselves without defining ourselves as successful or as a failure relative to others. We can consider ourselves more fully, redefining what we need to be successful in our lives, and basing success on factors that don’t involve our relative social position to others. Through self-awareness and reflection, we can begin to focus more on what matters, on the things that actually make people valuable, and change how volatile our notion of good or bad can be.
Time

Think More About Your Time

A little over a year ago I took a job that had a long commute, a little over 30 miles one way, 60+ miles daily for the round trip. Mornings were usually pretty quick, because I would be out of the house early for a work out and would beat a lot of traffic, but afternoons were often brutal for me, with a minimum 45 minute drive home. If there was an accident on the freeway, it easily became and hour and half drive home in the afternoon. The time I spent by myself in the car, listening to podcasts, occasionally calling a friend, or maybe listening to some music made me think about just how important the good use of ones time is. Each day, I spent at least one hour and fifteen minutes in a car by myself. I had to dress professionally, which meant that I had to have gym bag packed with slacks, a belt, a dress shirt, and from time to time a tie. In the mornings I woke up early to write and blog, and then I was out of the house quickly to get to the gym on time. I had to rush through work-outs and a post-work shower to make sure I had enough time to change into my business clothes for the remainder of the drive to work. After work, I felt a pressure to get out the door as quick as possible and get across the 30 miles of road to my house, minimizing the time I was on the road and the chance I would get caught in a traffic jam from an accident. In the evening I had to spend at least 30 minutes prepping my lunch for the next day and making sure I had all my clothes set in my gym bag and ready to go. As it turns out, I’m not great at this, and I frequently forget my lunch or to pack my shoes when I am on a time crunch and will need to have a bunch of stuff ready and with me.

 

I was feeling first hand, until the pandemic started and I shifted to working from home, what it is like to not have enough time. I have heard on a few podcasts (I searched but couldn’t find where exactly) that the word time is the most frequently used word in the English language. It is the one thing that we always have, but never have enough of. It is the one thing we can never get more of, and it is important that we use it well. However, as I look around at the people in my life, I see that we rarely think of how we use our time as critically as we should. As Seneca wrote to his friend in Letters From a Stoic, “Nothing, Lucilius, is ours, except time. We were entrusted by nature with the ownership of this single thing, so fleeting and slippery that anyone who will can oust us from possession.”

 

We can lose our possession of time if another person takes our life. We can lose our ability to use our time if someone creates some major obstacle for us that we have to climb through (like working through identity theft). And on top of that we can squander our time in a meaningless way (like by commuting long distances by ourselves in our cars).

 

My recent experiences have forced me to re-think how I have used time, experienced time, and what it means to be aware of time. When we think about our time, we can change our approach to our day and re-shape our habits, routines, and activities so that we don’t waste our time and let it slip through our fingers without control. I know I am lucky to be in a place to make changes in my life to adjust how I spend my time, and I know not everyone has the same privileges to adjust their lives in relation to time, but for those of us who can, I think it is important that we think more about our time. We should make adjustments to give time back to our lives by spending more time with loved ones or with meaningful activities that engage us with others and build a sense of community. We should avoid long commutes, we should focus on spending our time doing things that help improve our communities, and we should not be willing to trade too much of our time for money, if we are in a position to say no to the extra money we get for the time we give up.

The Case for Doubting Oneself

Our actions always make more sense to us than they do to others. To us, what we do and why we do the things we do fit in with an internal narrative that is always running through our head and playing out in our lives. We understand the world in a way that is logically coherent based on our experiences and perceptions of the world.

 

The problem for each of us, however, is that our experiences, perspectives, and perceptions are woefully inadequate to actually understand the way the world operates. In Letters from a Stoic, Seneca includes a short piece that explains how we should think about our thinking given these inadequacies of our mind:

 

“Crates, they say, … noticed a young man walking by himself, and asked him what he was doing all alone. I am communing with myself, replied the youth. Pray be careful, then, said Crates, and take good heed; you are communing with a bad man!”

 

The point here is not that the youth is actually a bad person, but it is that the narrative and story within our own heads is misleading. It makes judgments and assumptions based on limited, often biased information and creates stories that it claims to be true. We are tricked into believing the falsehoods of our own mind, and if we give our mind too much trust, it can lead us astray.  The advice from Crates conveyed by Seneca is to recognize that our minds are not wholly trustworthy, and to be careful when we are consumed by our own thoughts.

 

In my own life, I have found it to be helpful, but at times almost paralyzing to recognize how little information my mind actually has when it is making decisions and reaching conclusions. I find that I often doubt why I feel a certain way about another person or an event, and that I often pause to consider the information my mind is acting on before I do something, even when my actions or the outcomes are trivial. Occasionally this puts me in a place where I feel that I cannot take action, because I cannot entirely support my reason for doing or believing (or wanting to believe) something. On the whole, however, I feel that it does make me a more considerate person. I recognize times when I want to be outraged at something, just to signal to others how virtuous of a person I am that something outrages me. I often find that I want to complain about others, just to raise my own status, and I try my best to pull back from those urges. These are positive notes stemming from my self-awareness induced hesitation, but my hesitation also leads to situations where I am not as outspoken or decisive as I should be. As an example, I should probably be more outspoken about the importance of climate change legislation or science in general. I am not as willing to take a visible stand in an effort to say that, regardless of policy or party/identity, the behavior and language of our president is unbecoming of the nation’s chief executive and unacceptable in our public discourse (ever here is another example of me hesitating to be as direct as I think I should be).

 

A recognition that the mind cannot possibly observe, analyze, and act on every piece of information available is powerful in being a more thoughtful and considerate person, but it can be paralyzing in negative ways. When we pause to think while others impulsively act, we give away some of the power we gain through self-awareness. The bombastic who dominate conversation through impulsive outbursts have an advantage in controlling the narrative when we hesitate to be more thoughtful in our discourse. We would all rather be the rationally calm individual in our lives, but it feels that the ignorantly loud person will always dominate the conversation when we choose this approach. I think we should nevertheless strive for greater self-awareness and calmness in our thinking, and as a society we need to do a better job of recognizing the importance of these skills, so we can be better at socially rewarding individuals who can control their impulses.

To See Our Own Face

Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet is exactly what the title suggests. It is a disquieting look at the world around us, making us think, question the every-day, and second guess what it is we believe and accept. Pessoa dealt with sever depression, and writes about his challenges with depression in stark and honest terms. He pulls apart experience in a way that is unique to him, and makes us question the experiential sums of the filaments of reality that we perceive.

 

Included in the book’s translation by Margaret Jull Costa, is a short piece about seeing ourselves in the mirror: “Man should not be able to see his own face. Nothing is more terrible than that. Nature gave him the gift of being unable to see either his face or into his own eyes. 
    He could only see his own face in the waters of rivers and lakes. Even the posture he had to adopt to do so was symbolic. He had to bend down, to lower himself, in order to suffer the ignominy of seeing his own face.
    The creator of the mirror poisoned the human soul.”

 

We easily become self-obsessed in our world today. We can spend hours looking at just pictures of ourselves if we wanted to. We have so many ways to capture our image and post it where we want. We can place mirrors and reflective surfaces throughout our world, to constantly look at ourselves and dress up the outside answer to the question, “Who am I?”

 

In Pessoa’s mind, we were never supposed to look at ourselves from the outside to try to answer and define that question. His quote shows that he believes we ourselves cannot provide an answer to the outside question of who we are, and that it should be publicly shameful to try. To turn inward, to become self-obsessed is a curse. To remain ignorant of the self, to be focused outside oneself and to exist as part of the social group of others to which we belong is where the human mind was supposed to be. The mirror split us and our definition of self from that collection, and poisoned the mind by forcing us to always consider ourselves first. Our ancestors from whom we evolved could not look back at themselves with a clear view of who they were and wanted to be as an individual. It is only with human created technology that we can focus the light back at ourselves, and take control to define ourselves as the outward image that is presented to the rest of the world.