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.
Friendships

Friendships

Friendships for children always seem so easy, but as we get older, friendships seem to grow more and more difficult. One reason for why it may be so difficult to keep friends as adults is that we are just so busy and have to manage all our resources. We have to keep track of our time, our money, keep-up the space where we live, fix and repair things that break with our cars, and replace worn-out items and consumer goods. We get used to thinking of things in terms of what we get from them, and it is easy for us to start thinking of our friends in the same way.

 

In Letters from a Stoic, Seneca writes, “one who is chosen for the sake of utility will be satisfactory only so long as he is useful.”

 

The problem for us is that friendships are about more than just utility. Having lots of friends just because you receive some benefit from their friendship leaves you with a series of superficial relationships, none of them robust enough or strong enough to actually provide you any real utility during a time of hardship. In this way, a utility approach to friends backfires. If you only remain friends with someone when they have something they can provide for you, then you won’t actually have a real friendship.

 

The reality is that friendships require work and effort. Seneca also quotes a philosopher named Attalus in writing, “It is more pleasant to make than to keep a friend, as it is more pleasant to the artist to paint than to have finished painting.” New friendships are exciting, spontaneous, and offer promise of new allies for future situations. Maintaining a friendship requires lugging around baggage and figuring out how to adjust as people, times, and places change. Friendship requires real effort to stay invested in the lives of others.

 

But in the end, keeping a friend helps us better understand ourselves, helps us develop better understandings and connections with other people, and makes us more pleasant and thoughtful human beings. Keeping a friend requires that we think about more than just ourselves and what we get from a friendship. It requires that we think about what we can do for others, knowing that we might not get the same material benefits back from the other. This is why friendships are hard as you get further into your busy and hectic life, but the same challenges reveal why friendships are so valuable.
Help Them Build a Better Life

Help Them Build a Better Life

It is an unavoidable reality that we are more motivated by what is in our immediate self-interest than we would like to admit. This idea is at the heart of Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson’s book The Elephant in the Brain and can be seen everywhere if you open your eyes to recognize it. I’m currently doing a dive into reading about homelessness, and I’m working through Elliot Liebow’s book Tell Them Who I am. Liebow writes about American society’s belief that people will become dependent on aid if it is offered unconditionally. In a passage from his book where he reflects on the barriers that homeless women face in obtaining services and aid, and how those barriers can often become abuse, Liebow writes:

 

“One important source of abuse lies much deeper, in a widespread theory about human behavior that gets expressed in various forms: as public policy, as a theoretical statement about rehabilitation, or simply as common sense. Whatever the form, it boils down to something like this: We mustn’t make things too easy for them (mental patients in state hospitals, welfare clients, homeless people, the dependent poor generally). That just encourages their dependency”

 

What is incredible with the sentiment in the paragraph above is how well it seems to justify what is in the immediate self-interest of the people with the resources to help those in need. It excuses inaction, it justifies the withholding of aid, and it places people with material resources on a moral high ground over those who need help. Helping others, the idea posits, actually hurts them. If I give up some of my hard earned money to help another person, I don’t just lose money, that person loses motivation and loses part of their humanity as they become dependent on the state. They ultimately drag us all down if I give them unconditional financial aid. What is in my best interest (not sharing my money) just also happens to be the economic, moral, and personal best thing to do for another person in less fortunate circumstances.

 

This idea assumes that people have only one singular motivation for ever working, making money to have nice things. It ignores ideas of feeling respected and valued by others. It ignores the human desire to be engaged in meaningful pursuits. And it denies our needs as humans for love, recognition, and basic necessities before we can pull ourselves up by our boot straps.

 

Johann Hari’s book Chasing the Scream is an excellent example of how wrong this mindset is and of the horrors that people can face when the rest of society thinks this way and won’t offer them sufficient help to reach a better place in life. Regarding drug addicts and addiction, Hari quotes the ideas of a Portugese official, “addiction is an expression of despair, and the best way to deal with despair is to offer a better life, where the addict doesn’t feel the need to anesthetize herself anymore. Giving rewards, rather than making threats, is the path out. Congratulate them. Give them options. Help them build a life.”

 

Helping someone build a life requires a financial investment in the other person, a time and attention investment, and also requires that we recognize that we have a responsibility to others, and that we might even be part of the problem by not engaging with those in need. It is in our selfish interest to blame others for the plight of society or the failures of other people. From that standpoint punishment and outcasting is justified, but as Hari, Liebow, and the Portugese official suggest, real relationships and getting beyond fears of dependency are necessary if we are truly to help people reach better places and get beyond the evils we want to see eliminated from the world. We can’t go out of our way to find all the ways in which things that are in our self-interest are good for the rest of the world. We have to acknowledge the damages that our self-interests can cause, and find ways to be responsible to the whole, and help other people build their lives in meaningful ways.
Making People Feel Valuable

Making People Feel Valuable

Toward the end of his book Dreamland, Sam Quinones quotes a the VP of sales from a shoelace factory in Portsmouth Ohio named Bryan Davis. Speaking of the company that Davis helps run, and discussing how Davis and a few others took over a failing shoelace company and reinvented it, Davis says, “It’s all been about money, the mighty dollar. The true entrepreneurial spirit of  the U.S. has to be about more than that. It has to be about people, relationships, about building communities.”

 

Quinones writes about how the decline of manufacturing has harmed cities across the United States. He understands why companies have relocated oversees, and in some ways accepts that businesses move and that economies change, but he sees the abandonment of American workers and the lack of supports for those workers when opportunities disappear as a major contributing factor to the Nation’s current opioid epidemic. When people suddenly lose the job they have held for years, when there is no clear alternative for them to turn to in order to feel useful, valuable, and like a contributing member of society, an alternative to ease the pain of their new reality is often pain killing opioid medications. It is an easy recipe for widespread addiction.

 

I don’t understand economics well enough to place criticism on businesses and factories that move operations to different cities, different states, or different countries altogether. I won’t criticize or praise these companies, but what is clear to me, is that we need to find ways to be more respectful of the people who work for and with us. We need to find real ways to make people feel valuable in their jobs, whether they are call center staff, healthcare workers, or a VP of a successful company. We can’t set out with a goal to make money and then withdraw ourselves from the lives of our fellow Americans and communities. We have to develop real relationships with people across the political, economic, and cultural spectrum of the communities where we live, otherwise we turn toward isolation, which isn’t helpful or healthy for ourselves or others in the long run.

 

This is the idea that Bryan Davis expressed. We can be inventive, creative, and push for economic success, but we should do so in a way that supports our community and values relationships with those around us and in our lives. If we only drive toward our own wealth and bottom line, we risk exploiting people, and that ultimately leaves them in a vulnerable position where isolation, depression, and isolation are all the more possible.
Limits in What We Do

Do We Need Some Type of Limit?

I’ve recently watched The Hobbit trilogy, and images of Tolkien’s dwarf kings consumed with greed and gold have stuck with me. For whatever reason, the image of King Thror spinning around in a state of dazed confusion among his treasure, and the image of Thorin becoming corrupted by the same gold bounty have replayed through my mind. Tolkien and the artistic creators of The Hobbit are using the dwarf kings to show the negatives of greed, of lust for power, and the danger in pursuing wealth over people and relationships. They also show what can go wrong in the mind when we have everything.

 

The Hobbit came back to mind as I looked over quotes I highlighted and notes I took in Dreamland by Sam Quinones. My last two posts were about our efforts to avoid pain, suffering, and negativity and about how we try to fill our lives with consumer products that promise to make us happy. Mixed in with those ideas, Quinones adds, “man’s decay has always begun as soon as he has it all, and is free of friction, pain, and the deprivation that temper his behavior.”

 

Thror and Thorin show us what Quinones means. When the kings were at the top, when there were no constraints in their power or wealth, they used other people for their own gain. Their minds turned to selfish impulses, and turned away from doing what was right for the good of their people. When they reached the top, they atrophied, with nothing to work toward but the preservation of their own grandeur.

 

A curious phenomenon that Quinones highlights throughout his book is how opioid addiction cuts across all socioeconomic status levels. The sons and daughters of esteemed judges and doctors just as well as men and women who have grown up in poverty all seem to be victims of opioid addiction. For some reason we expect addiction among the second group, but find it inconceivable that the first group might face the same challenges. In some ways, the quote above from Quinones answers part of why we see addiction among middle class families and among the children of talented professionals.

 

When we have no limits in what we do, when our lives are tailored, curated, but isolated, we begin to lack purpose. Our lives might look full from the outside, but be void on the inside. When we seem to have it all, the value of our lives can decay, and without friction under our feet to push us forward, we can’t move anywhere. Just as our excesses produce terrible externalities, our having it all, or at least thinking we can buy it all, produces a feeling of purposeless that can lead to drug use to blunt the meaninglessness of self-indulgence.

 

My recommendation is to remember Thorin and his grandfather. To remember that our selfish desires can become our own downfalls, and to turn instead toward community building and relationships with others. To strive for our own greatness will leave us on an empty throne, but to work with others for shared goals will help us develop real structures in our lives that last and have real value.

Consider Other People’s Opinions Seriously

A principle that Dale Carnegie expresses in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People is, “Show respect for the other person’s opinions. Never say, You’re Wrong.”

 

Telling someone directly that they are wrong doesn’t do much for us. What it does is put the other person in a defensive position by threatening their status and identity. Directly criticizing them and labeling them as wrong, even if it is obvious, doesn’t actually get the other person to recognize their error and change their opinion.

 

To say that someone missed a point, that they committed a logical error, or to say that their conclusion should have fallen elsewhere is a way to get around direct criticism. Better yet is trying to understand where the person came from and why they think the way they do. By doing that, we can actually connect with them and help them examine their thinking and potentially make a change.

 

Carnegie writes, “Remember that other people may be totally wrong. But they don’t think so. Don’t condemn them. Any fool can do that. Try to understand them. Only wise, tolerant, exceptional people even try to do that. There is a reason why the other man thinks and acts as he does. Ferret out that reason – and you have the key to his actions, perhaps to his personality.”

 

When we stand back and tell people they are wrong, we implicitly broadcast how right we are. We don’t consider that other people have different points of view, different experiences, and different backgrounds that shape their views and beliefs. If we can work to better understand these factors and how people ended up where they are with their beliefs, then we have a better possibility of having a real conversation with them. Failing to do so only leads to polarization and an inability to communicate. Remember also that you are probably wrong about many points, and that you have the same capacity as the other person to be wrong in one way or another.