Curious Conversations

In The Elephant in the Brain authors Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson investigate human communication and ask why we are so quick to speak, communicate, and share information we have acquired, even if we acquired that information at great personal costs. Humans communicate a lot, and we generally like to be the one talking and expressing something about ourselves and our experiences. The problem however, is that it would make more sense for us to do all the listening, and only talk when absolutely necessary or when we were getting a reward.

 

If I spend a lot of time reading a book and learning something interesting and useful, I should desire a reward for the cost of learning the information I know. Before I write a blog post about interesting information, pontificate at the water cooler, or tell my family something I find fascinating, I should ask to be compensated. Instead, what we usually see, is that we can’t wait to tell people about the interesting thing we have learned. We expend a lot of effort in learning new information, and then we give that information away as quick as we can to anyone.

 

We also don’t do a great job listening. Rather than spending a lot of time absorbing what the other is saying, we prepare ourselves for what we are going to say next, missing the entire thing that is actually being said as we mentally prepare for our turn to talk. From an economic standpoint, this does not make sense.

 

“We aren’t lazy, greedy listeners. Instead we’re both intensely curious and  happy to share the fruits of our curiosity with others.” Write Simler and Hanson, “In order to explain why we speak, then, we have to find some benefit large enough to offset the cost of acquiring information and devaluing it by sharing. If speakers are giving away little informational ‘gifts’ in every conversation, what are they getting in return?”

 

I’ll explore this idea a little more in coming posts, but the authors argue that conversation is not really (at least not solely or even primarily) about conveying information. We do a lot of group and alliance signaling in our conversation. We show how creative and insightful we are. We demonstrate to others that we are willing to go learn new and useful information that can benefit the whole group and we show how altruistic we are by sharing this information which we acquired at a great cost. These are important but often unrecognized or unacknowledged parts of our communication. When we speak and when we share information, we are doing much more than just telling people what is inside our head.

Present in Mind and Body

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca writes, “You must be not only present in the body, but watchful in mind, if you would avail yourself of the fleeting opportunity.” I am always surprised by how hard it is to actually be present at any given moment. Our minds think far faster than we can talk or do any physical activity. From what I remember from a psychology class in college, our minds can think somewhere around 400 words per minute. We talk at about 200 words per minute when talking quickly and our pulse is much closer to about 60-ish beats per minute when just sitting around relaxed (just off memory so double check those numbers if you are really curious). Our brains are seriously quick, and that gives the mind extra time to jump around outside of our body and outside of our current setting.

 

I started reading the first Harry Potter book as a little break from non-fiction and one of the surprising things about the book is how quickly I detach from the present moment. Throughout the series, which I am now reading as quickly as possible it seems, I have found myself completely unaware of my physical surroundings and I have noticed my mind continually wanders away from the present in a day-dream. I will admit that I have enjoyed the books and the time that has flown by while reading them, but I do find it a little concerning how quickly my mind will jump out of my body into the story and steal away 10 minutes, an hour, or an entire evening in story, absent of the present moment and the things that my mind originally intended to do.

 

Seneca’s quote is about opportunity, and this morning I am reading it more as a quote about intention and doing meaningful things that we want to do. A good quick example to illustrate my thoughts comes from the world of sports. When we really train for something in a serious manner, we know that we have to put in deliberate practice. If we are just trying to stay fit then it is fine to hit the gym with our music, listen to a podcast while lifting weights, or lose ourselves in our thoughts or music while jogging comfortably. However, if we want to train to be a great martial artist, if we want to train to make a free throw when the game is on the line, and if we really want to stick that ski jump landing, then we need to focus on our physical body and what we need to do to perfectly execute our desired sports performance. If we are not also mentally present, then we miss the opportunity to apply ourselves in a serious way.

 

Presence is a sense of awareness of where we are, of the time, and of the opportunities in front of us. This is what the Harry Potter series, while I have enjoyed it, has stolen from me. I am physically present and where I need to be, but my mind has been running at 400 words per minute through a fictional world and magical fantasy. I think it is great to read fiction and get some story exposure in our minds, but we should remember the opportunities we miss if we can’t bring ourselves back to a mental presence. We need to be aware of our physical situation and also our mental situation if we really want to make the most out of the time we have on our planet.

Sharing Knowledge

The informational age that we live in today is interesting. We feel (at least I feel) a great urge to share the knowledge we gain from reading, interacting with smart people, and by simply being present in the world. Personally, I have also almost always felt that I was supposed to have some type of an opinion about any given topic. The world, it seemed, always wanted me to say one thing or another and have thoughts about one thing, even if I didn’t know much about it.

 

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca briefly touches on this same point. He often started many of his letters in a build-up to the advice that he was passing along. One of those sections opening one of his letters read, “Nothing will ever please me, no matter how excellent or beneficial, if I must retain the knowledge of it to myself. And if wisdom were given me under the express condition that it must be kept hidden and not uttered, I should refuse it. No good thing is pleasant to possess, without friends to share it.”

 

Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler, in their book The Elephant in the Brain, explain why Seneca felt this way 2,000 years ago and why I feel this way today. They explain that communication is not really about sharing valuable information. If it was, we would only want to share our valuable information if someone else shared their valuable information first. In a sense, our society would be kick-ass at listening, and Ted Talks probably wouldn’t be a thing. What is really happening in our social worlds is that we evolved to show off. We want to show people how much useful information we have, what unique insights our experiences have given us about the world, and what new knowledge we have. Possessing new, unique, and helpful information 50,000 years ago meant that we could help ourselves and others survive. Sharing that information freely showed an abundance of knowledge and resources on our part, and made us a useful ally which helped us thrive in social groups.

 

We probably should not turn against this urge to share useful knowledge. Books, insightful anecdotes, and Ted Talks seem to have worked out pretty good for humans in terms of sharing and passing along useful information. We should recognize, however, that often the desire to share our knowledge is not as altruistic as Seneca might have you think. Our urge is a bit self-serving, so before we post on Facebook about how obviously correct our political views are relative to others, we should recognize the evolutionary forces driving us to have an opinion and encouraging us to blast those ideas out into the world in an attempt to show off. Ultimately, if you are going to share your thoughts, try to spend some time developing them so that they provide real value to the person who may encounter them.

Talking to People We Disagree With

It is hard to talk to people you disagree with and I’m sure that each year across the United States thousands of Thanksgiving dinners are ruined when someone kicks off a bitter argument with their uncle. Colin Wright gives us a template to use when talking to someone with whom we disagree in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be:

 

“There’s a discussion method I like to use when I’m having a conversation with someone with whom I disagree, but who seems to be open to sharing their thoughts and learning about my opposing view-points. The rules are that neither of us will aim to offend or assume offense is intended by the other, that we primarily ask questions and give answers, focusing on saying why we believe what we do rather than saying why we don’t believe the opposite, and we avoid using labels. If we do use labels at any point, they have to be thoroughly defined.”

 

I think these are terrific rules to use for having a meaningful conversation with someone. The final point, avoiding labels, is really crucial. Our labels are often quite mean without us intending them to be mean. To people we disagree with, our labels are often ways to straw-man their entire set of views or identity (calling someone a Bible-Thumper is a clear example which implies they are unthinkingly fanatical about religion). Forcing yourself and your communication partner to define labels helps you to both draw out new connections you previously had not made. When you have to define what you mean by the labels you offhandedly use, you will become more precise with your thinking and your own arguments will become more clear for people who don’t always use the same label that you so casually use.

 

Wright’s other rules help ensure the disagreement moves in a reasonable direction. When you only say, “I don’t believe XYZ” and don’t offer a different interpretation or understanding of reality, then you are really just causing havoc. It should also be acceptable for you or someone else to say, “I don’t believe XYZ, but I don’t know exactly what would replace it.” Being honest about your doubts and your lack of complete alternatives is a better way to have a conversation than to engage in a back and forth version of “your idea is stupid.”

 

One suggestion I would have for anyone trying to implement Wright’s disagreement model is to be very careful with the types of questions that you ask. It is important not to ask fake “gotcha” questions. I wrote about fake questions in the context of coaching, and it is easy in debate to do the same thing. When you ask a fake question you are not trying to get more information from the other person, but instead trying to make them look dumb. Certainly you will both ask each other questions that reveal areas of thought that are not fully developed, but the key is not to reveal these areas in an attempt to win an argument, but to find the boundary of well thought versus unconsidered possibilities.

Definitions

In his book Becoming Who We Need To Be, author Colin Wright has a chapter about freedom versus security. The ideas we have for freedom and security run against each other and are sometimes very contradictory. One of the things that Wright described, which really stood out to me, about the conflicts between freedom and security is the difference in the definitions and the terms we attach to our ideas of freedom and security. Wright wrote, “What makes this discussion, and many discussions, all the more difficult to have is that opposing sides are often using different definitions of the words in question, and resultantly we might think we’re talking about the same thing, when in fact we’re merely speaking past each other.”

 

What really stood out about his idea is that it applies in almost any public debate we have. Across the United States we use a lot of different words to say and mean the same thing. Our country has a lot of variation in what words we use depending on where we find ourselves and what the culture has grasped onto. In our political lives, we do the same thing based on our political beliefs. Someone who is in favor of expanding access to abortion services is likely to use the term fetus while someone who does not believe that anyone should ever have an abortion is more likely to say unborn child or baby. In the abortion debate, it is clear to see that both sides are using different words to stir up different emotional responses.

 

In other cases, our varying use of definitions in political contexts can be more subtle, nuanced, and confusing. A lot of internet sub-cultures exist and have specific ways of referring to groups of people, to the positive outcomes they want to see, or the negative things that are going on around them. In some ways using the right definition for an uncommon word is unnecessary but shows that you are part of the inside crowd and that you are on the right side (or at least understand one side) of the discussion. If you are not aware of these definitions, there is a good chance you could use a term in a way that seems reasonable to you, but that reveals that you don’t know what the inside group is talking about and that you don’t actually think they way they do about a given issue.

 

When we have conversations, we should work to be very clear about the definitions we use for specific terms. We should be aware of times when our definition of a word is an insider’s definition from a subgroup of the population. We might be using a definition that is only used by some Twitter group, a definition that is only used by people who have studied a topic in college, or a definition that is only used by either Republicans or Democrats. For us to be effective communicators and to make sure we don’t isolate people around us (or ourselves) we have to recognize how these definitions work and how certain words will either bring people into our discussion by signaling we are part of their tribe, or will push people away by signaling that we don’t agree with their beliefs.

Talking, Taking Action, Working Hard, and Being Afraid

I remember listening to a podcast a while back and learning about a study that examined what happened with children’s performance on tests when they received praise. After being given a test, a group of students were praised for their hard work in studying and preparing for the test and told that they did well and got a good grade. Another group of students took the test and were praised for being very smart and doing well on the test. In the end, on a follow-up test, the group of students praised for working hard ended up outperforming the group who was told they were smart.  The group that was told they were smart ended up performing worse on the second test than they had on the first test. What the researchers found was that children who were told they were smart and special were afraid to make mistakes on the second test, as if not doing well on the second test would reveal that they were not as smart as they had been told. The students who were praised for their hard work on the other hand did not have the same fear of making mistakes and doing worse. As a result, the group praised for effort was more willing to take chances on hard questions and apply themselves on the second test.

 

This experiment comes back to my mind frequently. This morning I was reminded of it after reading a quote in Ryan Holiday’s book, Ego is the Enemy. Holiday writes about the way that our ego wants instant gratification and success. It does not want to work hard to achieve the things that bring us glory, attention, and praise. We just want to do well and be rewarded.

 

The quote that brought the experiment with children back to my mind is specifically about the time and effort we spend talking about how great our goals and plans our. It is easy, and somewhat comforting, to think about our big exciting goals, but it is hard to actually get started with working toward our goals. We can tell people all about what we want to do and even how we are going to do it, but taking the first step and actually doing things to move forward, is much more of a challenge than all our talk would make it seem. Holiday writes,

 

“Our ego wants the ideas and the fact that we aspire to do something about them to be enough. Wants the hours we spend planning and attending conferences or chatting with impressed friends to count toward the tally that success seems to require. It wants to be paid well for its time and it wants to do the fun stuff – the stuff that gets attention, credit, or glory.”

 

All our time spent talking makes us look great. Our big plans impress people and may even inspire the people around us. The action to achieve our goals however, is dangerous and scary. Once we start working, putting one foot in font of the other and making efforts to move forward, we risk failure. Just like the children in the experiment I started this post with, when we are praised for having such good ideas, we risk failure in round  two if we actually try to be smart and do well on the next test. If what we remember to be important is the hard work that we put toward solving the big problems that prevent us from reaching our goal, then we can shift our mindset and overcome the obstacles in our way. By understanding that we might not succeed, but that we can put forward our best effort and learn along the way, we can overcome the paralysis that prevents us from turning our talk into action. The ego wants to just enjoy the time we spend having great ideas and it wants the thoughts of ideas to equal the action toward our big ideas, but we know it does not. We must remember that accomplishing (or making progress toward a goal) is what really matters, not whether our goal and the way we talk about it inspires other people.