Community Evolution & Individual Liberation

Community Evolution & Individual Liberation

I read an article the other day about the death of the office friendship. As we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic many employees don’t plan to return to working full time in an office. Some employees will stay in the office, but a lot of employees are considering working flex schedules and some companies have found that they can go fully remote. One consequence is that we may lose our close office friendships.
 
 
The article reflected the inherent tension that is referenced in the title of this post. Humans are evolved to live and operate in communities and groups. But increasingly in many parts of the world we are becoming more and more focused on the individual. Our current work situation reflects that. We can now work from home with greater ease and have more freedom and flexibility in our daily individual lives. But we lose the close interactions with other people that the office provides. The hallway run-ins, the break room chat, the pre-meeting banter while we wait for the person running late. These things can all semi-happen through messaging platforms and video calls, but not to the same extent.
 
 
In his book Sapiens, written in 2015, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “millions of years of evolution have designed us to live and think as community members. Within a mere two centuries we have become alienated individuals.” Humans evolved in tribes and for millions of years humans experienced the world as part of a small pack. Our reliance and dependence on one another was obvious. Today, however, we may live in huge cities but we don’t always feel that same reliance on others. We can sit inside by ourselves for an entire week, have food delivered to us, and spend our time without others in a way that wasn’t possible before. We can forget our reliance on others and turn inward entirely on ourselves. We can let our office (and other) friendships die.
 
 
“The liberation of the individual comes at a cost,” writes Harari, “many of us now bewail the loss of strong families and communities and feel alienated and threatened  by the power the impersonal state and market wield over our lives.” While we could work from home, go a whole week without seeing others in person, and live self-contained lives away from other people, we might not be happy. We evolved to have close relationships with a small group of people. We evolved to be part of a community, not isolated individuals. We have our individual desires and our current world validates our individual differences and experiences, but it doesn’t always do a good job of helping us build and maintain social relationships. We have failed to build the institutions we need to truly connect and be part of a community while we simultaneously liberate and celebrate the individual. This is a new challenge for human beings, and will require new inventions, new social norms, and new institutions to enable us to be individuals within a community.
The Location of Human Knowledge - Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens - Joe Abittan

The Location of Human Knowledge

“The average forager had wider, deeper, and more varied knowledge of her immediate surroundings than most of her modern descendants,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens. Individual human hunter-gatherers had to know a lot about their environment, and they were not learning from text books and schools. They were learning by trial and error, by being shown what was edible and what was not edible older members of their tribe, and they had to develop a plethora of skills in order to do all the things necessary for survival.
Humans today are not very likely to be able to weave baskets from reeds (as much as we joke about basket weaving courses for college athletes). They also likely can’t sharpen a flint arrowhead, don’t know what animals are around their location and how to hunt them, and don’t know what wild plants are helpful or harmful. Individually, modern humans don’t seem to have the same regionalized knowledge as the ancient humans that came before them. But today we definitely know far more than the humans before us as a whole.
The difference, Harari explains, is that the location of human knowledge has changed. We no longer all hold the same helpful regional information in our heads. Instead, we have a collective knowledge spread across humanity. Each of us is an expert in our own little niche. For example, I studied political science and Spanish. I know a bit about theories of policy processes, such as the Multiple Streams Framework, and I know a bit about medieval literature from the Iberian Peninsula. On the other hand, I don’t really know much about how nuclear submarines work, how my city’s sewage system works, and I don’t really know what migratory birds can be found in the area during the spring versus the fall. Someone else in the collective of human knowledge is an expert in each of those things.
“The human collective,” writes Harari, “knows far more today than did the ancient bands. But at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skillful people in history.” This quote may be a broad overgeneralization, but it is nevertheless interesting and thought provoking. Some of us are incredibly skilled with a variety of things and have a great deal of knowledge about much of the world around us. Others don’t seem to have as much skill, and know more about celebrities than we do about what is happening in the world. Overall, the important thing to consider is that the modern world has seen a shift in the distribution of knowledge. We don’t all have to hold information about our immediate surroundings in our heads, and we don’t all have to be able to produce the things necessary for our survival. Only some humans need to know those things and have the skills to produce the basic necessities for life. The rest of us can then go off and explore different areas and learn different things, constantly increasing the collective human knowledge and skill base, even if we individually seem more narrowly skilled and less immediately knowledgeable compared with our ancient forager ancestors.
Thoughts on Monogamy - Evolutionary Psychology & Becoming WEIRD

Thoughts on Monogamy – Evolutionary Psychology & Becoming WEIRD

Monogamy doesn’t seem to be the natural way for humans to live. Very few species mate with a single partner for life, and while humans in most parts of the world do, it is often not done well. Romantic affairs are the driving plot device in more books and movies than any of us can count. In the real world, we know plenty of people who have cheated on spouses or significant others, or been on the other side of the cheating. Numerous TV show hosts have made a living  by revealing the results of paternity tests.
Yuval Noah Harari makes a suggestion in his book Sapiens that monogamy is so hard for humans today because most of human evolution was not focused on monogamous relationships. Nuclear families are a relatively recent invention. For most of human history, we lived in small social tribes, and raising a child wasn’t the responsibility of two parents who who married and stayed together for the rest of their lives. In some instances, tribes actively practiced fatherhood rituals that were the direct opposite of monogamy. Harari writes,
“The proponents of this ancient commune theory argue that frequent infidelities that characterize modern marriages, and the high rates of divorce, not to mention the cornucopia of psychological complexes from which both children and adults suffer, all result from forcing humans to live in nuclear families and monogamous relationships that are incompatible with our biological software.” Harari describes the ancient commune theory mentioned in the quote as a theory that people in small tribes didn’t understand that a single man’s sperm fertilized an egg. It was not clearly understood that only one person sired a child, and in some tribes women would actively haved sex with multiple men, even throughout a pregnancy, so that her child would gain the qualities of all the men.
When I first read this quote from Harari it made me question whether modern monogamous marriages were really the best thing for humans.  If it contradicted our biology so much, I wondered why we kept it around, especially if it caused so many psychological, social, and emotional problems for so many people.
Joseph Henrich’s book The WEIRDest People in the World, helped me understand why monogamous institutions have become so useful in our modern world, despite the costs that Harari mentions and the incompatibility of monogamy with our evolutionary psychology. When societies do not have a system of single pair bonding, the highest status men tend to accumulate more females to exclusively marry. Regardless as to whether the women want to have sex with many men and partner with them, they often find that it is best for them to stick with just the one highest status man (possibly the wealthiest, strongest, or most politically connected man) for the best chance to raise their children. Pairing with a high status man who already has two or three other wives can often be more advantageous for a woman than pairing with the fourth most high status man, especially as women are pushed toward men further down the status ladder – as happens in strict monogamous societies.
As high status men accumulate more women who exclusively partner with them, even though the man doesn’t exclusively partner with the women, then lower status men do not find a partner. Single men who cannot get a partner are more likely to take large risks and gambles to try to move up the social ladder. They have more testosterone, because married men have a decrease in  testosterone, and they have less reason to invest in the future. Henrich argues that policies which pushed monogamy and broke up polygamy were a driving factor in what made the West WEIRD – Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. Monogamous societies help ensure more men are able to find a partner, decreasing the number of single men without prospects for getting married or having children. This  gave more men a reason to invest in the future and improve their behavior and cooperation with others.
Our monogamous relationships may not be in line with our biology, but they have encouraged a more even distribution of male and female partners, and have helped create more stable societies. The relationships are hard, but at least recently have been a driving force toward WEIRD progress and development. The cost of monogamy that stem from a reproductive and sexual system mismatched to our evolution and biology don’t outweigh the benefits of a more stable, peaceful, and fruitful society.
Injured Veterans, Sex, Divorce, and Suicide

Injured Veterans, Sex, Divorce, and Suicide

I recently published a post about Mary Roach’s book Bonk, where she researched and discussed the researchers and scientists who study sex and sexual physiology. Sex, our sexual desires and urges, and how sex fits into our lives is generally understudied and taboo. This may not seem like a big problem on the surface, but a lack of understanding of human sexual relationships can contribute to divorce, depression, and even suicide.
Roach returns to the idea of our sexual taboo in her book Grunt, specifically asking what happens to wounded soldiers when they get back from war and still have sexual desires, but may be challenged sexually as a result of their injuries? How does an amputee still have a pleasurable sexual relationship with their wife? How does someone with genital injuries engage in sex? Does anyone help these individuals, and what happens to them when they can’t get help or speak with anyone?
In the book, Roach roach asks about the divorce rate for injured veterans. She quotes Christine DesLauriers who founded the Walter Reed Sexual Health and Intimacy Workgroup as saying, “Divorce rate? How about suicide rate. And what a shame to lose them after they’ve made it back. We keep them alive, but we don’t teach them how to live.” This quote shows the seriousness of our society’s sexual taboo when it comes to injured veterans. It is likely that many of the men who go into service fall into the typical macho-man stereotype (though certainly not all!) and it isn’t hard to imagine that many of these men want to have plenty of sex, as would be typical within the stereotype. Failing to help them adapt to injuries, losses of limbs, or reconstructed penises means that we fail to help them adapt to a new life. As DesLauriers was quoted saying, we fail to help them live, and that can lead to depression and a feeling of disappointment that may lead to suicide.
Hopefully our sex taboo doesn’t push most of us to suicide or depression, but it certainly makes it harder for us to have conversations with our sexual partners about what we want in a physical relationship. Without being able to discuss research on sex, we don’t know what is normal, what is abnormal, and how we should handle sexual feelings and urges. At the extreme, this may leave wounded soldiers feeling like they can’t live up to expectations of what it means to be a man, but for many, it may create confusion and dissatisfaction with a sexual lifestyle or a partner. Bonk and Grunt both make a case for being less ashamed to talk about sex, especially within academic, scientific, and medical contexts, so that we can live better lives and better adapt to our sexuality and changes in our physiology throughout our lives.
Confinement in Space

Confinement In Space

Space is vast. The size of space is mind-warping and hard to comprehend. Our brains are able to understand feet and miles (or meters and kilometers) here on Earth, but once we get outside of Earth’s atmosphere and the distances of space shift to lightyears, it is a bit overwhelming and hard to picture. That is why it is so strange that space exploration, for the humans who have been to space, is often dominated by tight confinement within cramped spacecraft. The void outside the ship is enormous, but the space inside, where humans mostly experience space travel, is tiny.
In her book Packing for Mars, Mary Roach explores the tight spaces of space travel and what it means to live and work with other people in such confinement. She describes the lengthy selection process for astronauts for space programs and the physical and mental considerations that selection committees make. It is not enough to be a brilliant scientist, engineer, or pilot, you have to work well with others in isolation, you have to have the right gut to handle the food, and you certainly can’t have bad breath. Writing about the selection process and isolation chamber tests, Roach writes,
“In the previous isolation-chamber test, one applicant was eliminated because he expressed too much irritation and another because he was unable to express his irritation and acted it out passively. [JAXA psychologists Koji] Tachibana and [Natsuhiko] Inoue look for applicants who manage to achieve a balance. NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson strikes me as a good example. On NASA TV recently, I heard someone at NASA tell her that he could not find a series of photographs that she or some member of her crew had recently taken. If I’d spent the morning shooting photographs and the person I’d shot them for then misplaced them, I’d say look again, lamb chop. Whitson said, without a trace of irritation, that’s not a problem. We can do them over.”
The confinement of space exploration means that people have to be comfortable working and living with the same people without a chance to escape them for a long period of time. The success of expensive science experiments, the continued functioning of space equipment, and possibly the lives of everyone onboard are dependent on a good working relationship between each crew member. Small things, such as gross hygiene habits and passive aggressive behaviors could be disastrous. In an environment where physical space is overwhelmingly large, our successful exploration is defined by incredibly cramped spaces, and that changes what personal characteristics are necessary for success.
intelligence - Joe Abittan

Intelligence

“Intelligence is not an abstract number such as an IQ, but similar to a carpenter’s tacit knowledge about using appropriate tools,” writes Gerd Gigerenzer in his book Risk Savvy. “This is why the modern science of intelligence studies the adaptive toolbox that individuals, organizations, and cultures have at their disposal; that is, the evolved and learned rules that guide our deliberate and intuitive decisions.”

 

I like Gigerenzer’s way of explaining intelligence. It is not simply a number or a ratio, but it is our knowledge and ability to understand our world. There are complex relationships between living creatures, physical matter, and information. Intelligence is an understanding of those relationships and an ability to navigate the complexity, uncertainty, and connections between everything in the world. Explicit rules, like mathematical formulas, help us understand some relationships while statistical percentages help us understand others. Recognizing and being aware of commonalities between different categories of things and items and identifying patterns help us understand these relationships and serves as the basis for our intelligence.

 

What is important to note, is that our intelligence is built with concrete tools for some situations, like 2+2=4, and less concrete rules of thumb for other situations, like the golden rule – do to others what you would like others to do to you. Gigerenzer shows that our intelligence requires that we know more than one mathematical formula, and that we have more than one rule of thumb to help us approach and address complex relationships in the world. “Granted, one rule of thumb cannot possibly solve all problems; for that reason, our minds have learned a toolbox of rules. … these rules of thumb need to be used in an adaptive way.”

 

Whether it is interpreting statistical chance, judging the emotions of others, of making plans now that delay gratification until a later time, our rules of thumb don’t have to be precise, but they do need to be flexible and adaptive given our current circumstances. 2+2 will always equal 4, but a smile from a family member might be a display of happiness or a nervous impulse and a silent plead for help in an awkward situation. It is our adaptive toolbox and our intelligence that allows us to figure out what a smile means. Similarly, adaptive rules of thumb and intelligence help us reduce complex interactions and questions to more manageable choices, reducing uncertainty about how much we need to save for retirement to a rule of thumb that tells us to save a small but significant amount of each pay check. Intelligence is not just about facts and complex math. It is about adaptable rules of thumb that help us make sense of complexity and uncertainty, and the more adaptive these rules of thumb are, the more our intelligence an help us in the complex world of today and into the uncertain future.
Stable Relationships

Stable Relationships

“We all know that a friendship that may take years to develop can be ruined by a single action,” writes Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow. I quit Facebook for 2020 to get away from political ads and posts, but I imagine that this year many friendships and relationships have been ended with just a single post advocating for or against a candidate. People who have known each other for a long time have probably been surprised to see political posts from friends that don’t match what they had expected, creating friction within friendships.

 

At a high minded level, we don’t generally think that friendships should be influenced by something as small as a political post. True friendships, our stories and Disney movies tell us, are built on more than just liking the same sports team, belonging to the same political party, or lending something to our neighbors every now and then. Real life, however, seems to suggest that those things are exactly what friendship is about. We are constantly doing a mental calculation, keeping score of favors and interactions, and cutting out friends who don’t measure up and don’t bring us happiness or don’t appear to be useful allies.

 

Describing research from John Gottman, Kahneman writes, “Gottman estimated that a stable relationship requires that good interactions outnumber bad interactions by at least 5 to 1.” If we think about our relationships with others from a Disney movie standpoint, this sounds a little bleak. It sounds like all of our relationships are transactional, as though we are willing to ditch a spouse, an ally, or a close friend as soon as things start to turn a little negative and as soon as we get the sense that we are doing more for the friendship than the other person.

 

I don’t think Gottman’s findings are as negative as they might first appear based on the stories we create about true friendship. I think his research presents some hope. His findings show us that we can maintain friendships and good marriages when we find ways to structure more positive than negative interactions with others. To do this, we can think about others rather than about our selves, and we can do things to help create more positive experiences for the other person. This will get us thinking beyond ourselves and about the people we want to be close to and want to connect with. If we can create many positive interactions and limit the negative interactions then we will maintain strong relationships with others (even if an occasional social media post turns other people off). We will develop the strong friendship and trust that we believe relationships are all about. Having a mental accounting system of good and bad interactions doesn’t have to diminish the quality of the relationships we have, at least not if we find ways to create more positive interactions with others and use it in genuine and non-manipulative ways.
Why We Talk About Human Nature

Why We Talk About Human Nature

I entered a Master’s in Public Administration program at the University of Nevada in 2016. I started the same semester as the 2016 election of President Donald Trump. I was drawn toward public policy because I love science, because I have always wanted to better understand how people come to hold political beliefs, and because I thought that bringing my rational science-based mind to public policy would open doors and avenues for me that were desperately needed in the world of public administration and policy. What I learned, and what we have all learned since President Trump took office, is that politics is not about policy, public administration is not about the high minded ideals we say it is about, and rationality is not and cannot be at the heart of public policy. Instead, politics is about identity, public administration is about systems and structures that benefit those we decide to be deserving and punishing those who are deviant. Public policy isn’t rational, its about self-interest and individual and group preferences. And this connects to the title of this post. We talk about human nature, because how we can define, understand, and perceive human nature can help us rationalize why our self-interest is valuable in public policy, why one group should be favored over another, and why one system that rewards some people is preferable over another system that rewards other people.

 

In Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow, he writes, “policy is ultimately about people, what they want and what is best for them. Every policy question involves assumptions about human nature, in particular about the choices that people may make and the consequences of their choices for themselves and society.” The reason why we talk about human nature is because it serves as the foundation upon which all of our social systems and structures are built upon. All of our decisions are based in fundamental assumptions about what we want, what are inherently inclined to do, and how we will behave as individuals and as part of a collective. However, this discussion is complicated because what we consider to be human nature, is subject to bias, to misunderstandings, and motivated reasoning. Politics and public policy are not rational because we all live with narrow understandings of what we want human nature to mean.

 

Personally, I think our conceptions and ideas of human nature are generally too narrow and limiting. I am currently reading Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens, and he makes a substantial effort to show the diversity and seeming randomness in the stories that humans have created over tens of thousands of years, and how humans have lived in incredibly different circumstances, with different beliefs, different cultures, and different lifestyles throughout time. It is a picture of human nature which doesn’t quite make the jump to arguing that there is no human nature, but argues that human nature is a far more broad topic than what we typically focus on. I think Harari is correct, but someone who wants questions to religion to be central to human nature, someone who wants capitalistic competition to be central to human nature, or someone who wants altruism to be a deep facet of human nature might disagree with Harari.

 

Ultimately, we argue over human nature because how we define human nature can influence who is a winner and who is a loser in our society. It can shape who we see as deserving and who we see as deviant. The way we frame human nature can structure the political systems we adopt, the leaders we favor, and the economic systems that will run most of our lives. The discussions about human nature appear to be scientific, but they are often biased and flawed, and in the end what we really care about is our personal self-interest, and in seeing our group advance, even at the expense of others. Politics is not rational, we have all learned in nearly four years of a Donald Trump Presidency, because we have different views of what the people want and what is best for them, and flawed understandings of human nature influence those views and the downstream political decisions that we make.
First Impressions Matter

First Impressions Matter

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes a research study that shows the power of the halo effect. The halo effect is the phenomenon where positive traits in a person outshines the negative traits or characteristics of the individual, or cause us to project additional positive traits onto them. For example, think of your favorite celebrity. You know they are good looking, talented at whatever they do, and you most likely also ascribe a number of positive traits to them that you don’t really have evidence for. You probably believe they have the same political beliefs as you, that they probably pay their taxes and don’t litter. If you discovered they did one of these things, your brain would want to discredit that information, or you might face some cognitive dissonance as you square the negative characteristic with the fact that the person looks good and is talented.

 

The study Kahneman references shows the power of the halo effect by giving people 6 descriptions of a fictitious person. Some people were shown 3 positive characteristics followed by 3 negative traits. Another group of people were shown a different fictitious person, with the same 6 traits, but listed in reverse, with the negative traits first followed by the positive. Kahneman writes, “The sequence in which we observe characteristics of a person is often determined by chance. Sequence matters, however, because the halo effect increases the weight of first impressions, sometimes to the point that subsequent information is mostly wasted.”

 

The study shows that first impressions matter a lot, even when we are not actually meeting someone in person. When the first thing we learn about a person is something positive, it can be easy to overlook negative traits that we discover later, and this is true in reverse. This idea is part of what drove Malcolm Gladwell to write his new book Talking to Strangers. I have not read Gladwell’s book, but I have listened to him talk about it on several podcasts. He discusses the death of Sandra Bland, and the interaction she had with law enforcement that led to her arrest and subsequent suicide. First impressions matter, and the first impression she made on the police officer who pulled her over was negative, shaping the entire interaction between Sandra and the officer, and ultimately causing her arrest. Gladwell would also argue, I believe, that first impressions can be formed before you have even met someone, simply  by absorbing racial or other stereotypes.

 

Gladwell also discusses Bernie Madoff in his book. A savvy conman who relied on the halo effect to swindle millions. He charmed people and seemed successful, so people who trusted him with investments had trouble seeing through the lies. They wanted to believe the positive traits they first observed from him, and any hints of fraud were easily missed or ignored.

 

The best we can hope for is awareness of the halo effect, and remembering how much our very first impressions can matter. How we put ourselves forward can shape the interactions we have with others. But we can remember to give people a break, and give people second chances when our first impressions of them are not great. Remember to look beyond the first observed trait to see the whole picture of other people in your life, and try to set up situations so that you don’t judge people immediately on their appearance, and can look further to know and understand them a little better.
Detecting Simple Relationships

Detecting Simple Relationships

System 1, in Daniel Kahneman’s picture of the mind, is the part of our brain that is always on. It is the automatic part of our brain that detects simple relationships in the world, makes quick assumptions and associations, and reacts to the world before we are even consciously aware of anything. It is contrasted against System 2, which is more methodical, can hold complex and competing information, and can draw rational conclusions from detailed information through energy intensive thought processes.

 

According to Kahneman, we only engage System 2 when we really need to. Most of the time, System 1 does just fine and saves us a lot of energy. We don’t need to have to think critically about what we need to do when the stoplight changes from green to yellow to red. Our System 1 can develop an automatic response so that we let off the gas and come to a stop without having to consciously think about every action involved in slowing down at an intersection. However, System 1 has some very serious limitations.

 

“System 1 detects simple relations (they are all alike, the son is much taller than the father) and excels at integrating information about one thing, but it does not deal with multiple distinct topics at once, nor is it adept at using purely statistical information.”

 

When relationships start to get complicated, like say the link between human activities and long term climate change, System 1 will let us down. It also fails us when we see someone who looks like they belong to the Hell’s Angels on a father-daughter date at an ice cream shop, when we see someone who looks like an NFL linebacker in a book club, or when we see a little old lady driving a big truck. System 1 makes assumptions about the world based on simple relationships, and is easily surprised. It can’t calculate unique and edge cases, and it can’t hold complicated statistical information about multiple actors and factors that influence the outcome of events.

 

System 1 is our default, and we need to remember where its strengths and where its weaknesses are. It can help us make quick decisions while driving or catching an apple falling off a counter, but it can’t help us determine whether a defendant in a criminal case is guilty. There are times when our intuitive assumptions and reactions are spot on, but there are a lot of times when they can lead us astray, especially in cases that are not simple relationships and violate our expectations.