The Results of Social Learning

The Results of Social Learning

The results of Social learning are not always positive. We learn a lot from our friends, our culture, and the people around us that we are not always aware of. We are greatly influenced by what we see others doing and believing, and this includes the things we learn and come to believe as true facts about the world. This is easily demonstrated by polling the opinions of people who get their news from traditional news outlets relative to people who get their news from fringe sources with political biases. But it is also true in spaces you would not expect.

 

To describe problems in social learning results, Gerd Gigerezner in Risk Savvy writes, “All in all, social learning leads to a paradoxical result. In France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States, doctors’ beliefs about diet and health – such as taking vitamin supplements or exercising – more closely resemble those of the general public in their country than of doctors in other countries.”

 

When it comes to general knowledge and an ability to distinguish between accurate information and fads, trends, or beliefs without evidence, we like to imagine that we are smart and capable of identifying the truth. We like to believe that our beliefs are based on reality, that we have carefully considered the facts, and that we hold our beliefs for good reason. We won’t admit that we believe the things we do because others hold those same beliefs, but as the doctor example above indicates, that is often the case. The Dartmouth Atlas Project shows differences across the USA in treatments for certain conditions and rates of diagnosis for different conditions. Some of that may be genetic and reflect real health differences across the country, but some of the differences reflect different treatment approach beliefs by doctors trained in and practicing in different regions of the country.

 

Social learning results are good when they bring people together in support of democratic norms or help people understand that sitting on a couch all day and eating pizza for dinner every night are unhealthy behaviors. However, social learning results can be negative when doctor’s group around wasteful medical practices. The results of social learning can also just be random and strange, such as when people fall into fad diets or exercise programs that have no discernable health benefits or harms. What we should take away from Gigerenzer’s quote is that our knowledge is not always as rock solid and evidence based as we would believe. We should be honest with ourselves and make an effort to investigate whether our beliefs are based on real evidence or based on the people in our social groups who happen to hold the same beliefs. Perhaps our beliefs are still justifiable after strict scrutiny, but perhaps some beliefs can be let go when we see they are based on little more than the opinions and feelings of people around us.
The Social Imitation of Fear

The Social Imitation of Fear

“Why do people fear different things?” asks Gerd Gigerenzer in his book Risk Savvy. Many Americans are afraid of clowns, actor Kevin Hart is afraid of basically all bugs and animals, and as Gigerenzer writes in his book, I (like most Americans) would be afraid to go pick mushrooms in the wild to eat for dinner. The social imitation of fear, Gigerenzer explains, is often at the heart of many of our phobias. Most Americans probably haven’t had a personal bad experience with creepy clowns, few of us have ever picked the wrong mushroom for dinner and died, and most of us probably haven’t had near lethal encounters with bugs or animals. It is easy to understand why a toddler who was chased or bit by a dog might be afraid of animals, but it is simply comical that Kevin Hart is afraid of harmless butterflies and mice.

 

Much of what we fear comes from social learning, picking up on what others fear, and learning to fear that thing ourselves. Gigerenzer explains that the social imitation of fear can be a benefit and serve as protection for us, but that it isn’t without its own costs. Regarding the psychology of our fear he writes, Fear whatever your social group fears. This simple principle protects us when personal experience might be lethal. At the same time, it can also make us fear the wrong things.”

 

Fears that keep us away from the edge of dangerous cliffs or keep us away from people with dangerous weapons can save our life. We can’t afford to learn to fear something lethal from experience – if you fall from a 100 foot cliff you won’t have a chance to learn to be more careful in the future. Fearing dangerous cliffs because everyone else in your tribe fears cliffs is a safer option.

 

However, this does lead us to fears that are unreasonable. It is very unlikely that any of us will be murdered by a creepy clown in the dead of night. However, a few years back pranksters started standing on street corners dressed as creepy clowns, and they scared lots of people across the country. I know people who had nightmares and were very frightened by the thought of these clowns, and were terrified of even the prospect of seeing a creepy clown on the street corner. Horror movies and common discussions of clown fears prime us to be afraid when there is no threat to us, and no real reason to be afraid. The social imitation of fear which helped our ancestors learn and survive together from the experiences of others, has been hijacked by horror movies and pranksters to create fear and anxiety for no meaningful reason.
Valid Stereotypes

Valid Stereotypes?

Arguments about stereotypes are common in the world today. In the United States we have worked very hard to push back against stereotypes by bringing them into view so that we can address them directly to dispel incorrect and harmful prejudices. In the circles I am usually a part of, eliminating stereotypes is universally applauded, and people who reveal an inner stereotype, even if harmless, are often castigated for applying a characteristic or trait to an entire group of people and failing to recognize diversity and randomness within a group of people.

 

What I almost never hear, at least among the circles I am a part of, is that stereotypes can have validity and help improve some level of judgment. However, Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow suggests that maybe we should acknowledge some valid and helpful stereotypes. He writes,

 

“The social norm against stereotyping, including the opposition to profiling, has been highly beneficial in creating a more civilized and more equal society. It is useful to remember, however, that neglecting valid stereotypes inevitably results in suboptimal judgments. Resistance to stereotyping is a laudable moral position, but the simplistic idea that the resistance is costless is wrong. The costs are worth paying to achieve a better society, but denying that the costs exist, while satisfying to the soul and politically correct, is not scientifically defensible.”

 

I have a couple of thoughts in response to the quote from Kahneman. First, is about the way in which rejecting stereotypes that helps with judgment makes society more cohesive, and the second is about how we can use stereotypes to actually make the world more inclusive.

 

First, Kahneman states that society has become more equal and more civilized with stereotype rejection. The benefits of rejecting stereotypes comes from rejecting invalid stereotypes – prejudices that outcast other people and groups as inferior and inadequate. When we throw out stereotypes, we eliminate a lot of barriers from prejudices, even if it makes some roles and interactions with people who are not like us a little more challenging. The cost, as Kahneman notes, of abandoning stereotypes is that we have a little more friction in some of our interactions with others, but through deliberate effort this can be overcome and reduced.

 

The second note, is that embracing some valid stereotypes can help us have a better world. My initial thought in this regard is bright colored sand-paper strips at the edge of stairs. Many public buildings will add a strip of sand-paper like material, often bright yellow or a contrasting color, to the edge of stairs in public walkways. We might stereotype senior citizens or people with vision disorders and assume they need extra help walking up stairs, and we might be correct in these stereotypes. The stereotypes can become valid if they enable us to build a better world and accurately reflect the reality of the people we are making assumptions or pre-judgments about. The end result, if we embrace the stereotype instead of dismissing or ignoring it, is that we build staircases that are more safe and actually better for everyone. Able bodied young people will also benefit from stairs that are responsive to stereotypical concerns about the elderly. Perhaps this isn’t what Kahneman is referring to in his thoughts of valid stereotypes, perhaps this is just good design of the built world, but I think it can be considered a way of using stereotypes in a positive direction.

 

In most instances, our stereotypes have been negative factors that outcast people who are not like us, and serve to create more social animosity among people. Certainly these stereotypes should be discarded, however, Kahneman would argue that some stereotypes can be valid, and we can use them to construct more inclusive and overall better worlds for ourselves and others. There is a cost to ignoring all stereotypes, even if ignoring the vast majority of stereotypes actually is helpful for our societies.

Recognize Your Thinking When You Are Displeased

A great challenge for our society is finding ways to get people to think beyond themselves. We frequently look for ways to confirm what we already believe, we frequently think about what we want and, and we frequently only consider only ourselves and how things make us feel in the present moment. Shifting these mindsets in the United States is necessary if we are going to find a way to address major problems that impact the lives of every citizen, and in some cases impact the entire globe.

 

In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie provides advice for people who want to better connect with others and have a greater impact with their lives. We are social creatures, and understanding how to improve our social connections with others is important if we want to be successful, take part in meaningful activities, and enjoy living with other people. Early on in the book, he provides a warning about how we will often fall short of the advice he recommends in the following chapters.

 

“You will probably find it difficult to apply these suggestions all the time. … For example, when you are displeased, it is much easier to criticize and condemn than it is to try to understand the other person’s viewpoint; it is frequently easier to find fault than to find praise; it is more natural to talk about what you want than to talk about what the other person wants; and so on.”

 

Remembering these points where our minds go astray is important if we want to avoid them. Most people probably won’t systematically make an effort to be considerate and to change their behavior towards others, but for those who do want to improve their social interactions and create new companies, groups, and social events that bring people together, remembering the points that Carnegie highlights as potential failures for being more considerate are important.

 

First, when we are upset or displeased with something, we will simply condemn others. However, a more constructive approach to improve the situation and treat the other person with more respect is to think about and try to understand why they did what they did and how they understand the world. We might not agree with their decision in the end, but hopefully we can find a point of common humanity from which we can have a better discussion than simply telling the other person who has upset us that they are an awful monster.

 

Second, finding ways to provide others with praise, thinking about what other people want, and understanding their viewpoints helps us have better conversations and develop better relationships. If we are engaging with other people in social endeavors then we will need to cooperate with them and hopefully work with them in some capacity for the long term. This requires that we find ways to motivate, develop real connections, utilize the strengths of others. To do that, we have to think about what others want and what motivates them. Allowing ourselves to be self-centered prevents us from doing this, and will lead to us criticizing those who we think fail to measure up, and ultimately won’t help us build great things. Thinking about the ways that our minds default toward this negativity will help prepare us to be more considerate and help us drive toward better outcomes for ourselves and our society.

The Benefits of Joining a Choir?

I have never been much of a singer, and the last memory I have of singing in a group (besides a happy birthday here or there) is from elementary school, when I got in trouble and had a parent teacher conference with my mother and the music teacher because I was inserting inappropriate lyrics into the song You Are My Sunshine (I’ll let you guess what kind of lyrics a fourth grade boy came up with for that one on your own).

 

Public singing, however, might be something that is really good for human beings, especially when done in a group. Dan Pink highlights the benefits of choral singing in his book When, “The research on the benefits of singing in groups is stunning. Choral singing calms heart rates and boosts endorphin levels. It improves lung function. It increases pain thresholds and reduces the need for pain medication. It even alleviates symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. Group singing – not just performances but also practices – increases the production of immunoglobulin, making it easier to fight infections. In fact, cancer patients who sing in choirs show and improved immune response after just one rehearsal.”

 

That is a huge range of benefits from something as simple as just singing in tune and rhythm with other people. Pink presents the study in his book when talking about synchronicity with other people. He also highlights rowing competitions and the benefits that individuals receive when working in concert with other people. Being part of a group engaged in a singular activity and actively synchronizing your physical body in time with others seems to be something that brings humans a lot of benefits.

 

When specifically looks at choirs and row teams, but I would not be surprised if you saw similar benefits from people who run together in groups, play Hungry Hungry Hippos together, or engage in flash mob dances. I would expect that anything involving social interactions and coordination among people will begin to build the types of health benefits that researchers have found with choral singing. Physical activities probably boost our health more than board games, but I would not be surprised if studies of social board games would show reduced stress and improved physical health markers as well.

 

I think this is an under-explored area, especially in the United States. We really like our individual super heroes, who carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. We subscribe to the Great Man of History view and if you look at this year’s presidential election you will see arguments from the Democrats about which candidate is the one who can deliver and unseat the current president, but you won’t hear arguments about who can bring together the best team of thinkers and policy makers. Our country, with a foundation of Protestant work-ethic and a capitalistic culture that tells you that you can purchase everything to make your life fulfilling, is stuck on individual interventions and choices to health and happiness.

 

Choral singing and rowing and Hungry Hungry Hippos (ok no research on that last one) shows us that we need groups and benefit from social interactions and synchronicity. Despite the way we think about ourselves and our role in society in the United States, we depend on others and when we coordinate with social groups, we feel better. My suspicion is that any research into the health benefits of activities done socially will yield positive health results. This is an area we should explore more broadly, and in our individual lives, I believe we all need to take more steps to join choirs, do our exercising with other people when we can, and set up our own Hungry Hungry Hippo board game groups. It is not just our individual selves who will benefit and who need these groups, but all of society.

When Are We Happy?

“During any given day people are typically least happy while commuting and most happy while canoodling,” writes Dan Pink in his book When. I currently have a long commute, and I have found that a long drive makes me more irritable, makes me feel more rushed in general, and really does lower the quality of my day. I’m working to make changes so that my commute is reduced, and it has me thinking about how I spend my time in general.

 

I like to be busy and active, but often end up working on things individually. I spend a good amount of time listening to podcasts by myself while doing dishes, cleaning my car, and putting away laundry. These things beat TV, but still don’t bring me a lot of deep value.

 

As Pink’s quote above suggests, we are more happy when doing things with other people. We like to do social things, to interact with friends and family, and to be around others. The time when we are by ourselves – isolated from the world, not engaging in deep ways with other people – is when we are at our lowest. In our daily lives we should consider what we are doing in isolation and what we are doing as a social group, and shift toward the latter.

 

I remember hearing Tyler Cowen on a podcast say that joining a social group that meets once a month is equivalent in terms of happiness production as doubling one’s income. If this is accurate, then we should shift our jobs so that we don’t take careers (or stay in careers) where we are pushed toward isolation (in terms of commute or other factors) and ultimately have our time wasted instead. We should try to find ways to open more time for ourselves, and then we should try to fill that time by participating in social endeavors. If Cowen is correct, starting new clubs and participating in groups will not just increase our happiness, but the happiness of others who can join in.

 

We shouldn’t necessarily just pursue a life of continuous canoodling, but we can pursue a life of real world connections by limiting our isolationism. It is hard, especially if one lives in a sprawling suburb, to maintain good connections, but by being intentional about our time and lifestyle, we can slowly shift ourselves back to a more communal lifestyle. Some of us are lucky enough to decide we don’t want to keep the job that forces us into a miserable commute, and some of us are lucky enough to be able to move to different cities or parts of town where the traffic isn’t so bad. The research from Pink on happiness, and Cowen’s thoughts on social connection suggest that a cut in pay may make us much more happy if it frees our time and allows us to connect with others. Prioritizing social connections over cash might be the best thing for our happiness.

Defining New Leadership

Leaders today are not what we have always thought of. Both in public spheres and in private businesses, leaders are those who can pull lots of strings together, without being a commanding drill sergeant type of personality. When I think back on historical leaders that influenced and shaped the world, I think of dictators who took control of their land and directed society in their own way. I  think of pharaohs who ruled over their subjects and drove them to great accomplishments. However, today’s leaders are flexible, inspiring visionaries of what we can be as a collective, rather than generals who drive society toward their own aim.

 

In The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak write about this new form of leadership and what it means in our new economies and new governance structures, “The exercise of power is also not what it used to be. The ability to get things done has shifted from command-and-control systems to the collective efforts of civil society, government, and private institutions. It is vested in an affected by leaders and institutions that convert market and civic power into fiscal, financial, and political power.”

 

In order to get things done in today’s complex world, multiple factors have to come together. Government has to align with private actors and pro-social groups need to join to help fill the gaps where for profit businesses and public agencies cannot play a role. Leaders must understand the challenges that each of these groups face and find ways to build bridges between them. Leaders develop a shared goal of what is possible, but allow actors to find the path forward, without micromanaging everyone’s actions. In this way, there is no single individual who is calling all the shots. There is no system that drives all actors toward the same end. There are multiple goals, multiple desires, and multiple streams to reach various ends. Leadership’s role is one of coordination, working to figure out what each actor wants, who has the ability to push for new directions, and finding ways to get actors to mesh together, make compromises, and align on plans for the future.

Factionalized

“Whenever and issue becomes factionalized,” write Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in The Elephant in the Brain, “framed as Us against Them, we should expect to find ourselves behaving more like an apparatchik competing to show loyalty to our team.”

 

The human mind is exceptionally good at creating in-group and out-group perspectives. There are Ford Drivers versus Chevy Drivers. Raiders fans versus non-Raiders fans. Runners versus cross-fitters. Country folk versus urbanites. For whatever reason, we have a tendency to look for division across many areas of our lives, even when those areas are completely meaningless and inconsequential. Naturally, we assign good qualities to the groups that we belong to, and we start to assign all kinds of negative qualities and traits to the out-groups to which we don’t belong.

 

There is no meaningful difference between Ford and Chevy trucks, but talk to a guy who just bought a new truck and they will explain all about the positive qualities of their truck and people like them who buy their particular brand of truck. There is no way they could ever buy the other brand of truck and it is not a long jump for them to describe people who do buy other brands to be described as dumb, lazy, or lacking taste.

 

In politics we see this behavior the most clearly. When a president or party leader raises a particular item on the agenda and states that something is very important to them, the party loyalists (the apparatchiks) will instantly congeal to their opinion. The opposing party, meanwhile, will align themselves staunchly against the other party and their opinions. Any middle ground will get gobbled up by our in-grouping and out-grouping. This trickles down to the public and we don’t think deeply about issues, but simply recognize which line we are supposed to adopt to be on the correct team.

 

In the world of politics this can have disastrous consequences. In our personal lives, the stakes are not as high, but the consequences can still be ugly and should be pushed against. There is no reason to be pressured into feeling that you can or cannot eat something simply because people who are not like you also enjoy (or dislike) eating that thing. There is no reason our vehicle purchasing decision needs to be influenced by these meaningless groups that we create. We can take these pressures off our shoulders and try to be more connected with all people, not just with a small group that has something in common with ourselves. If we do better at recognizing these biases and pushing against them, then maybe we can build up to having more constructive relationships and build more cooperation into high stakes environments like politics.

Beliefs Are Not Always in the Driver’s Seat

I am not a religious person. I can explain to you all the reasons why I don’t believe there is a deity who created the universe or interjects into our lives, but according to Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, that might not be a particular meaningful thing to try to communicate. If I set out to explain what I believe about the world as a rational for the beliefs that I hold, I might be missing a more fundamental but less appealing reason for my atheism. I don’t come from a religious family, and to be a good part of my familial group and our friend groups, I adopted their beliefs and have found justification for those beliefs through the years. I may think those justifications are sound, but that doesn’t mean I should ignore the part of my brain that set me down the path I am on.

 

In The Elephant in the Brain, Simler and Hanson write, “as we’ve seen throughout the book, beliefs aren’t always in the driver’s seat. Instead, they’re often better modeled as symptoms of the underlying incentives, which are frequently social rather than psychological. This is the religious elephant in the brain: We don’t worship simply because we believe. Instead we worship (and believe) because it helps us as social creatures.”

 

Hanson and Simler explain the ways in which both theists and atheists approach religion following a belief-first model. In this model, we develop beliefs about the world and universe from what we see and experience and then we adjust our behaviors to align with those beliefs. This is the model, the authors suggest, that is at work in debates between most theists and atheists. This is why we argue over the veracity of religious claims and the implications of ever growing scientific understandings of the universe.

 

But what might really be going on, and this is a view you might see from an anthropologist but might not hold front and center in your views, is that religious views help us be part of a social group and community of people who cooperate, share common values, and can provide support to one another. Religion has social values that can draw people toward it, and increasingly today, atheism seems to have many of  the same social qualities.

 

I have been in very religious contexts and circles though I am most comfortable among atheists. In both groups I have noted a tendency to characterize the other group as deviants. Religious people are mocked as morons while atheists are scoffed at as selfish and amoral trouble-makers. Both groups use the other as an out-group of villains to create more cohesion internally.

 

There is surely a part of religious beliefs that is driven by our experiences and how we think about and understand the world, but whether we want to admit it or not, a large part of our religious identity is shaped by our relationships and social groups surrounding the idea of religion. We can use religion as a model and a guide for our lives that provides us with social connections and social benefits, and we can also use our lack of religious beliefs to do the same. The true nature of the universe and the reality of the world around us often come second, and that is part of why it is so hard to change someone’s religious beliefs and why we tend to hold the same beliefs as our parents and family.

Weapons for Our Early Ancestors

Weapons are in interesting consideration for early human evolution and how we ended up in the place we are with large brains and strong social groups. Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson address the importance of weapons in their book The Elephant in the Brain. Weapons change the value of physical strength and the nature of conflict on the individual and group levels. They altered the threats and defenses that our early ancestors faced and could mount.

 

“Weapons are a game changer for two reasons.” write Hanson and Simler, “First, they level the playing field between weak and strong members of a group. … Another way weapons alter the balance of power applies to projectile weapons like stones or spears. Such distance weapons make it much easier for a coalition to gang up on a single individual.”

 

Physical force has been a dominating aspect of human relationships (and probably early proto-human ancestors’ relationships), but we don’t live in societies where just the most physically dominant individuals rule. Weapons are a big part of why this is the case. Once we could hurl projectiles, even just heavy or sharp rocks, at opponents, our social grouping had to change. Coalitions could push back against a dominant individual who did not care about the well being of the group or of others. The role of politics and cooperation could naturally be expected to rise in a system where physical dominance was not the sole determinant of leadership and power.

 

What weapons did, Hanson and Simler argue and I will discuss more tomorrow, is create a system that favored brain development. Social intelligence and intellectual capacity became more valuable when coalitions could rule with weapons, and that created a space where the brain could evolve to become larger and more complex. If pure physical dominance was the best predictor of power and of passing along our genes, then we would not have expected our early ancestors to begin evolving in a way that favored the development of a large and highly energy dependent brain. By bringing physical prowess down a level, weapons it seems, helped further the evolutionary growth of the human brain.