On Ego - A Response to a Comment from Philip

On Ego – A Response to a Comment from Philip

Philip asked me some thoughts about ego in a recent comment. Several years back I read and wrote about Ryan Holiday’s book Ego is the Enemy and it has been fundamental in shaping how I see and understand myself within our complex social world. In addition to Ego is the Enemy, Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s book The Elephant in the Brain and Daniel Kahneman’s work in Thinking Fast and Slow dramatically shape the way I understand the idea of the self, how we think, and the role of ego in our lives. Here are some of my thoughts on ego, and some specific responses to questions that Philip asked.
 
 
First, Philip said that he sees, “ego as a closed loop of sort, independent of the acting self.”
 
 
I wouldn’t agree with Philip on this point, but that is because I reject the idea of an independent acting self. Yuval Noah Harari is a great person to read on meditation and the idea of the self. If you ever try meditating, you will quickly learn that you don’t truly have control over your thoughts. This suggests that we don’t have an independent self that is doing the thinking in our minds. “Thoughts think themselves,” Harari has said, and if you meditate, you will understand what he means. Thoughts frequently pop into our head without our control. Ego, and the kinds of thoughts we associate with ego and megalomania, are all just thoughts swirling around in what appears to be a chaos of thoughts. Given the nature of thought, I don’t think we should think of ego as anything independent of the other thoughts within our mind.
 
 
Second, Philip says, “if you are in a state of security, you can choose not to act on ego.”
 
 
I also wouldn’t agree with this point. In his Meditations, Aurelius writes about Epictetus, a slave and a pioneer of stoicism. Epictetus was not exactly secure, but he was able to put aside ego and focus on the present moment. His particular brand of stoicism has resonated with prisoners of war and involves the dissolution of personal ego for survival. We can put aside ego at any point, regardless of how secure we are.
 
 
Also pushing against Philips thoughts is Donald Trump. Certainly, at many points in his life, Trump has been secure in terms of money, fame, power, and influence. Yet Trump is clearly an egomaniac who is unable to set his ego aside and will pursue even the smallest slights and insults against him. I don’t think that a state of security is really an important consideration for whether we act in an egotistical way.
 
 
Philip’s third observation on ego is “as a self preserving mechanism, protecting you and helping you in motivating living the life you do.”
 
 
This is a view on our ego that I would agree with. When we think about how the mind works, I think we should always approach it from an evolutionary psychology standpoint. Very likely, our brains are the way they are because at some point in the history of human evolution it was beneficial for our minds to function in one way over another. There could be some accidents, some mental equivalents to vestigial organs, and some errors in our interpretations, but we probably didn’t develop many psychological traits and maintain them throughout generations if they were not helpful for survival somewhere along the way.
 
 
When we view the ego through this lens, it is not hard to see how the ego could help improve our chances of surviving and passing down our genes. If we are egotistical and think that we deserve the best and that we deserve larger amounts of resources, we will be more likely to advocate for ourselves and fight for a better lot in life. This could help our survival, could help us find a better mate, and could help ensure we pass more genes on to subsequent generations. Without the ego, we may chose to settle, we may be complacent, and we may not strive to pass our genes along or ensure that those subsequent genes have sufficient resources to further pass their genes into the following generation. Ego can push us to strive toward the higher salary, the fancier car, more exclusive golf clubs, and other things that are not really necessary for life, but could help ourselves amass more resources and help our kids have better connections to get into Stanford and ultimately find a spouse and have kids. Ego could certainly be antisocial and harmful for us and society, but it could also be important for genetic survival.
 
 
Philip’s fourth point is about a guy who is hurt because his wife forgot his birthday.
 
 
It is possible that an inflated ego is what made this guy upset when his wife forgot his birthday, but it could also be a number of other psychological or relationship issues between him and his spouse. He may have larger issues of self-worth and value independent of his ego. He may be codependent and perhaps need counseling to better manage his relationships with others. Or his wife could have just been having a bad day. This didn’t seem like a great avenue for discussing and understanding ego to me.
 
 
The fifth point that Philip brings up ties back to his third, by viewing ego as a “fairness calculator.”
 
 
I also think this could be a useful way to view ego and it also seems like it could be understood through a cognitive psychology perspective. We don’t want to feel like we are being cheated, yet we would be happy to bend the rules and cheat a little if we thought we could get away with it. This is a lot of what Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler discuss in The Elephant in the Brain. If we can signal that we are honest and trustworthy, without actually having to be honest and trustworthy, then we are at an advantage. However, if we suspect that another person is all signal and no actual behavior to back up those signals, then we may act in an egotistical way by being defensive and pushing back against the other. Ego does seem to help fuel this mindset and does seem to encourage a type of fairness calculator behavior.
 
 
The final point that Philip makes is that, “ego needs to be controlled in a civilized society.”
 
 
I think here Philip is also correct. We live in very complex social societies and ego helps us individually, but also has negative externalities. Ego certainly helped push Trump to the presidency and the history books, but I’m not sure the world was better for it. By pursuing our own self-interest and acting based on ego, we can damage the world around us.
 
 
Hanson and Simler would argue that much of these harmful effects of ego are moderated by our signaling ability. Hanson has said that his estimate is that up to 90% of what we do as humans is signaling, at least in rich countries like the United States. Signaling both helps us get ahead and tempers our ego. Overt displays are frowned upon, leaving less overt signaling as the way we display how amazing we are. An unchecked ego is going to break the rules for signaling, and unless it is Donald Trump in the 2016 election, such overt egotism will be punished. Ultimately, we do have to control ego because of negative externalities if we want to cooperate and live in complex social communities.
 
 
I hope this helps explain some of how I think about ego!
Epistemic Vices & Self-Reflection

Epistemic Vices & Self-Reflection

“Not realizing that one’s epistemic vices are vices is a form of self-ignorance,” writes Quassim Cassam in his book Vices of the Mind.  A lack of self-awareness can cause someone to fail to recognize their vices.  In the book Cassam demonstrates how epistemic vices are harder to be aware of than other vices, and how recognition and awareness of our epistemic vices is sometimes not possible, directly as a result of our epistemic vices.
For most of us, our vices are probably things we are aware of. You know if you drink too much, eat too much ice-cream, and get in road rage flare-ups on a regular basis. It takes a rather large amount of self-ignorance to fail to recognize these major vices. But it is possible to miss some other vices, especially epistemic vices.
You might not realize that you are closed-minded, that you are guilty of wishful thinking on a regular basis, or even that you are arrogant. These types of behaviors and traits are harder to see and harder to pin down and recognize in ourselves. We live within the stories we tell ourselves, and from our point of view, our behavior is not vicious, but completely reasonable given our situations.
“Reflection on one’s epistemic vices,” writes Cassam, “is what fricker calls active critical reflection, but – and this is the key point – critical reflection requires the exercise of a range of epistemic virtues.”
To see and understand our personal epistemic vices requires that we have epistemic virtues. It takes a practiced skill to recognize when our thinking has crossed over into becoming an epistemic vice. We won’t recognize when our behavior and thinking has become obstructive if we don’t have a way of thinking about our thinking. If we are arrogant we certainly won’t think we need to improve our thinking, and if we are closed-minded we won’t be able to imagine a way to improve our thinking. These epistemic vices prevent us from having the epistemic virtues necessary to even see our epistemic vices.
This puts us in a difficult place where it seems that we are powerless to change our epistemic vices. If our vices prohibit active critical reflection, then we won’t see our errors in order to change them. The way we find out about our epistemic vices probably involves some sort of catastrophic failure where external factors force us to see our vices. A promotion we didn’t get, a divorce, or a costly gamble can force us to recognize our vices. They are not guarantees that we will finally be able to see our epistemic vices for what they are, but without having epistemic virtues, it is hard for us to otherwise come to see our epistemic vices on our own.
Substitution Heuristics

Substitution Heuristics

I think heuristics are underrated. We should discuss heuristics as a society way more than we do. We barely acknowledge heuristics, but if we look closely, they are at the heart of many of our decisions, beliefs, and assumptions. They save us a lot of work and help us move through the world pretty smoothly, but are rarely discussed directly or even slightly recognized.

 

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman highlights heuristics in the sense of substitution and explains their role as:

 

“The target question is the assessment you intended to produce.
The heuristic question is the simpler question that you answered instead.”

 

I have already written about our brain substituting easier questions for harder questions, but the idea of heuristics gives the process a deeper dimension. Kahneman defines a heuristic writing, “The technical definition of heuristic is a simple procedure that helps find adequate, though often imperfect, answers to difficult questions.”

 

In my own life, and I imagine I am a relatively average case, I have relied on heuristics to help me make a huge number of decisions. I don’t know the best possible investment strategies for my future retirement, but as a heuristic, I know that working with an investment advisor to manage mutual funds and IRAs can be an adequate (even if not perfect) way to ensure I save for the future. I don’t know the healthiest possible foods to eat and what food combinations will maximize my nutrient intake, but as a heuristic I can ensure that I have a colorful plate with varied veggies and not too many sweets to ensure I get enough of the vitamins and nutrients that I need.

 

We have to make a lot of difficult decisions in our lives. Most of us don’t have the time or the ability to compile all the information we need on a given subject to make a fully informed decision, and even if we try, most of us don’t have a reasonable way to sort through contrasting and competing information to determine what is true and what the best course of action would be. Instead, we make substitutions and use heuristics to figure out what we should do. Instead of recognizing that we are using heuristics, however, we ascribe a higher level of confidence and certainty to our decisions than is warranted. What we do, how we live, and what we believe become part of our identity, and we fail to recognize that we are adopting a heuristic to achieve some version of what we believe to be a good life. When pressed to think about it, our mind creates a justification for our decision that doesn’t acknowledge the heuristics in play.

 

In a world where we were quicker to recognize heuristics, we might be able to live with a little distance between ourselves, our decisions, and our beliefs. We could acknowledge that heuristics are driving us, and be more open to change and more willing to be flexible with others. Acknowledging that we don’t have all the answers (that we don’t even have all the necessary information) and are operating on substitution heuristics for complex questions, might help us be less polarized and better connected within our society.
Thoughts on Biases

Thoughts on Biases

“Anything that makes it easier for the associative machine to run smoothly will also bias beliefs,” writes Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. Biases are an unavoidable part of our thinking. They can lead to terrible prejudices, habits, and meaningless preferences, but they can also help save us a lot of time, reduce the cognitive demand on our brains, and help us move smoothly through the world. There are too many decision points in our lives and too much information for us to absorb at any one moment for us to not develop shortcuts and heuristics to help our brain think quicker. Quick rules for associative thinking are part of the process of helping us actually exist in the world, and they necessarily create biases.

 

A bad sushi roll might bias us against sushi for the rest of our life. A jump-scare movie experience as a child might bias us toward romcoms and away from horror movies. And being bullied by a beefy kid in elementary school might bias us against muscular dudes and sports. In each instance, a negative experience is associated in our brains with some category of thing (food, entertainment, people) and our memory is helping us move toward things we are more likely to like (or at least less likely to bring us harm). The consequences can be low stakes, like not going to horror movies, but can also be high stakes, like not hiring someone because their physical appearance reminds you of a kid who bullied you as a child.

 

What is important to note here is that biases are natural and to some extent unavoidable. They develop from our experiences and the associations we make as move through life and try to understand the world. They can be defining parts of our personality (I only drink black coffee), they can be incidental pieces of us that we barely notice (my doughnut choice order is buttermilk bar, maple covered anything, chocolate, plain glaze), and they could also be far more dangerous (I have an impulse to think terrible things about anyone with a bumper sticker for a certain political figure – and I have to consciously fight the impulse). Ultimately, we develop biases because it helps us make easier decisions that will match our preferences and minimize our chances of being upset. They are mental shortcuts, saving us from having to make tough decisions and helping us reach conclusions about entire groups of things more quickly.

 

The goal for our society shouldn’t be to completely eliminate all instances of bias in our lives. That would require too much thought and effort for each of us, and we don’t really have the mental capacity to make so many decisions. It is OK if we are biased toward Starbucks rather than having to make a decision about what coffee shop to go to each morning, or which new coffee shop to try in a town we have never visited.

 

What we should do, is work hard to recognize biases that can really impact our lives and have negative consequences. We have to acknowledge that we have negative impulses toward certain kids of people, and we have to think deeply about those biases and work to be aware of how we treat people. Don’t pretend that you move through the world free from problematic biases. Instead, work to see those biases, and work to push against your initial negative reaction and think about ways that you could have more positive interactions with others, and how you can find empathy and shared humanity with them. Allow biases to remain when helpful or insignificant (be biased toward vegetarian take-out for example), but think critically about biases that could have real impacts in your life and in the lives of others.
Autonomous Actors

Autonomous Actors

“We now know that the effects of priming can reach into every corner of our lives.” Daniel Kahneman writes this in his book Thinking Fast and Slow while demonstrating the power of priming factors. An example he uses in the book to demonstrate the power of priming has to do with voting and school support. A study from Arizona showed that people are more likely to support ballot propositions to increase school funding when their polling place is in a school. The difference between supporting the proposition or not was greater for people voting within a school building versus those who voted elsewhere than the difference was between parents of school aged children and non-parents. Simply where we happen to cast our ballot is not something most of us would consider to be a big influencing factor in our preference for school funding, but it is. We are not the autonomous actors that we like to believe we are.

 

Priming factors influence a lot of our behaviors, often without our awareness. In the past I wrote about priming and creativity and the power of our environment from research that Richard Wiseman presented in his book 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot. Small factors in our environment can change our emotional valance and can influence how creative we are, even if we don’t notice those factors directly. What our brains are doing is sometimes under our control, like when we focus on writing, doing math problems, or skiing downhill, but even then, our performance and ability can be influenced by things external to our brain that seemingly have no significance to our lives or the task at hand.

 

This raises the question about how autonomous we are, how much self-control and self-determination can we exercise, and whether there any potential for free will. The debates around free will are complex, and most people who study consciousness seem to be telling us that free will, at least as popularly conceptualized, cannot exist. Brain scans and studies show that an action potential builds up in the brain before we make a conscious decision to do something. Add to that the fact that priming studies show that the decisions we make are often influenced by factors beyond our immediate discretion, and we have to conclude that we do not have the kind of will, control, and autonomy that we typically perceive ourselves as having.

 

Kahneman writes, “Studies of priming effects have yielded discoveries that threaten our self-image as conscious and autonomous authors of our judgments and our choices.” Our environments and the priming factors around us shape who we are and how we behave. Social norms and cues dictate our responses to many events. We don’t behave rationally and autonomously, we respond to stimuli and the world, and don’t have the control that we associate with the autonomous actors we believe ourselves to be.
Expert Intuition

Expert Intuition

Much of Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow is about the breakdowns in our thinking processes, especially regarding the mental shortcuts we use to make decisions. The reality of the world is that there is too much information, too many stimuli, too many things that we could focus on and consider at any given time for us take in everything and make a comprehensive decision. Instead, we rely on short-cuts, use our intuition, and make estimates that help us with our decision-making. Usually we do just fine with this whole process, and that is why we rely so much on these short-cuts, but sometimes, cognitive errors and biases can drive us off a cliff.

 

However, Kahneman stresses that all is not lost. Our intuition can be very reliable if we develop true expertise in the area where we are putting our intuition to the test. As Kahneman writes, “Valid intuitions develop when experts have learned to recognize familiar elements in a new situation and to act in a manner that is appropriate to it.”

 

We can make predictions, we can learn to recognize commonalities between situations, and even on a subconscious level we can absorb and recall information to use in decisions. The key to using our intuition successfully is a careful line between mastery and arrogance. It requires self-awareness to know what we know, to understand an area well enough that we can trust our intuition, and to know what we don’t know, so that we don’t make judgments beyond our area of expertise.

 

While much of Kahneman’s research (the majority of which I’m going to be writing about) is focused on problematic heuristics, predictable cognitive errors, and hidden mental biases, it is important to know when we can trust our intuition and where our thinking doesn’t lead us astray. There are times where developing expertise through practice and experience can help us make better decisions. Even if we are not the expert, we can recognize and learn from those who do have expertise, paying attention when their intuitions forecast something important. Getting a sense for how well the mind can work, and how well humans can think and forecast when they have the right information and knowledge is powerful if we want to think positively about what our future might hold. At the same time, we have to also understand how thinking fast can get us in trouble, and where our expert intuitions may fail us.
Gossip Machines

Gossip Machines

Humans are gossip machines. We like to talk about  and think about other people, especially the negative traits and qualities of others. At the same time, we are self-deception machines. We downplay our own faults, spend little time thinking about our mistakes, and deny any negative quality about ourselves. Even when we are the only audience for our thoughts, we hide our own flaws and instead nitpick all the things we dislike about other people.

 

As Daniel Kahneman writes in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, “it is much easier, as well as far more enjoyable, to identify and label the mistakes of others than to recognize our own.”

 

But gossip isn’t necessarily as bad as we usually make it out to be. It is definitely not a good thing to constantly talk bad about other people, to find faults in others, and to ignore our own shortcomings. It can make us vain, destroy our relationships with friends and family, and give us a bad reputation among the people in our lives. And yet, we all engage in gossip and it pops up on social media today, in movies from the 80’s and 90’s, and even in journals from our nation’s founding fathers. Gossip seems to have always been with us, and while we are quick to highlight its evils, it seems to also be an important part of human society.

 

Kahneman continues, “The expectation of intelligent gossip is a powerful motive for serious self-criticism, more powerful than New Year resolutions to improve one’s decision making at work and at home.”

 

We do not live in a vacuum. We are not isolated from society and other humans, and as a result we understand ourselves and think about ourselves in relation to other people. We partake in gossip and we know that other people gossip about us. This creates an important constraint on our actions and behaviors, shaping the way we live our lives. Knowing that other people will judge us prevents many negative behaviors such as reckless driving, living in unsanitary conditions, or being deliberately mean to other people. While gossip certainly has a lot of problems, it does in some ways shape how we behave in societies with other people in positive directions.

 

We might not want to think about our own flaws, but knowing that humans are gossip machines forces us to at least consider how we will appear to other people some of the time. This can drive us to act in accordance to social norms, and can be the bedrock of a society that can cooperate and coordinate efforts and goals. Without gossip, we might have a harder time bringing ourselves together to live in harmony.
On Travel as a Cure for Discontent - Joe Abittan

On Travel as a Cure for Discontent

Does travel help us be more happy? Seneca did not think it did. In Letters From a Stoic, he included a quote from Socrates, “Why do you wonder that glob-trotting does not help you, seeing that you always take yourself with you? The reason which set you wandering is ever at your heels.”

 

Seneca writes that escapism is not a path toward happiness. We must focus on ourselves and use self-awareness, Seneca would argue, to become happy with ourselves and our situations wherever we may be. If we cannot be happy as ourselves and with one given situation, then how can physically moving ourselves from one place to another increase our happiness? We will still be ourselves, with all the same troubles that created our discontent where we initially were. On travel as a cure for discontent, Seneca saw little promise.

 

His letter continued, “What pleasure is there in seeing new lands? Or surveying cities and spots of interest? All your bustle is useless. Do you ask why such flight does not help you? it is because you flee along with yourself.”

 

In a narrow sense, Seneca is correct. We bring baggage with us when we travel. We bring baggage in the form of our actual luggage, the stuff we bring to present ourselves to the outside world and to make the environment we find ourselves in a little more familiar. Simultaneously, we bring mental baggage in the form of thoughts, fears, expectations, and anything in our mind when we left the place we were at. We are still ourselves and a simple transplantation cannot solve deeply held fears, anxieties, habits, or behaviors.

 

But even before a global pandemic (I originally highlighted and read these quotes in June of 2019), I recognized that Seneca’s thinking on travel is too narrow and misses an important point. Travel changes our perspectives, disrupts the routine thoughts that occupy our minds, and can serve as a temporal break to allow us to make a change in who we are and what we do. Colin Wright describes it this way in his book Come Back Frayed, “Travel frays. Not just our stuff, but us. It pushes us, rubs us against uncomfortable realities, the friction creating gaps in our self-identity, loosening and then tightening our structure over and over and over again.”

 

It doesn’t matter what (or who) we bring with us when we travel. The journey changes us, alters us physically and mentally, shifts perspectives, and interrupts our experience of the passage of time. Our voyage is not useless if we can use the self-awareness that Seneca prescribes to help us see how travel is changing us and to take away important lessons from where we go. Happiness can be found in travel because we don’t just take ourselves with us, we don’t just flee and escape ourselves and our spot on earth, we literally fray apart who we were, and loosen and tighten the structures which bind ourselves over and over. In the end, travel changes us, and that can help us find new avenues toward happiness.
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.
Crowds Change Who We Are

Crowds Change Who We Are

When writing about being in crowds, Seneca states, “I never bring back home the same character that I took abroad with me.” He is writing about the ways that crowds change us. They change our behavior, they can stir-up emotions we work to keep at bay, and they can drive us to think in new ways. Crowds change who we are in a way that seems to be beyond our control.

 

“Certainly, the greater the mob with which we mingle, the greater the danger.” 

 

I remember first seriously thinking about crowds and our reactions to them during a psychology class in my undergraduate degree. We talked about people who don’t call the police when they see an act of violence, illegal activity, or someone in an emergency medical situation when they are in a crowd. When we are not clearly the person responsible for calling first responders, we seem to think that someone else will. If you do rush in to help, one of the best things you can do is point directly at another person and say, “you, call 9-1-1.”

 

In addition to this form of paralysis, crowds also change who we are by inciting great energy and action within us. Certainly on our own most of us would not throw something at a statue, even if the statue commemorated a deplorable figure from the past. We might see the statue and loath what it represents, but on our own, we are not likely to do anything about it. In a large crowd, however, our anger and energy seems to be released more easily, and whether it is chanting something we wouldn’t say on our own or tearing down a statue, we seem to be capable of things we normally couldn’t bring ourselves to do.

 

There are a lot of directions to go with the reality that we are not ourselves (or maybe more accurately the same version of ourselves) when we are within crowds. What I would like to consider is how this knowledge should shape the way we think about ourselves. Introspection and self-awareness is important, and part of that is an awareness that we are not exactly the people we tell ourselves we are. We can come to understand ourselves as being someone or some type of person in most of the settings in which we find ourselves, but crowds and unique circumstances can reveal that we are also other people. We are not a static entity that is consistent across space and time. We change in response to other people, in response to activities, and in response to success or threat. Strive to be the best version of who you can be, but remember, who you think you are is a myth, and the fact that crowds change who we are reveals that we don’t have the control over ourselves and our stories in the way that we like to believe we do. We can turn this recognition onto others as well, and see them as not a single static entity, but someone who can be influenced by forces beyond their control, and who can change for better or worse depending on the circumstances we (or society or life) put them in.