Associative Thinking

Associative Thinking

I had a few linguistics classes in college and I remember really enjoying studies about associative thinking, or priming, where one word would trigger thoughts about another related thing. If you read stop sign, and someone then asked you to name a color, you are likely to say red. Our minds hover around a set of words associated with a topic, and words further away from the topic probably won’t register as quickly. If you read jellyfish then your mind is going to be set up for more ocean words like water, seaweed, or Nemo. Words like cactus, x-ray, or eviction, would take an extra second for your brain to register because they don’t seem to belong with jellyfish. If you watch Family Feud, then you will get to see great examples of linguistic priming and associative thinking in process. The first person in a family will say their answer, and it will be hard for the rest of the family to jump into a different category to get the final item on the list.

 

Associative thinking is even more interesting and complicated than just linguistic priming. Daniel Kahneman writes about it in his book Thinking Fast and Slow:

 

“An idea that has been activated does not merely evoke one other idea. It activates many ideas, which in turn activate others. Furthermore, only a few of the activated ideas will register in consciousness; most of the work of associative thinking is silent, hidden from our conscious selves. The notion that we have limited access to the workings of our minds is difficult to accept because, naturally, it is alien to our experience, but it is true: you know far less about yourself than you feel you do.”

 

Associative thinking reveals a lot about our minds that we don’t have access to. This is why implicit association tests (IAT) have been used to measure things like racial bias in individuals and societies. Your conscious mind might know it is wrong to think of people of color as criminals, but your unconscious mind might implicitly connect words like crime, drugs, or violence to certain racial groups. Even though you can consciously overcome these biases, your immediate reaction to other people might be enough to show them that you don’t trust them and might reveal implicit fears or negative biases. A clenching fist, a narrowing gaze, or an almost imperceptible backing away from someone might not be conscious, but might be enough for someone to register a sense of unease.

 

I don’t know enough about the benefits of racial bias training to say if it is effective in counteracting these implicit associations or immediate and unconscious reactions. I don’t know just how truly bad it is that we harbor such implicit associations, but I think it is important that we recognize they are there. It is important to know how the brain works, and important that we think about how much thinking takes place behind the scenes, without us recognizing it. Self-awareness and knowledge about associative thinking can help us understand just how we behave and interact with others, so that hopefully we can bring our best selves to the conversations and interactions we have with people who are different from us.
Accepting Unsound Arguments

Accepting Unsound Arguments

Motivated reasoning is a major problem for those of us who want to have beliefs that accurately reflect the world. To live is to have preferences about how the world operates and relates to our lives. We would prefer not to endure suffering and pain, and would rather have comfort, companionship, and prosperity. We would prefer the world to provide for us, and we would prefer to not be too heavily strained. From pure physical needs and preferences all the way through social and emotional needs and preferences, our experiences of the world are shaped by what we want and what we would like. This is why we cannot get away from our own opinions and individual preferences in life, and part of why motivated reasoning becomes the problem that it is.

 

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes about how motivated reasoning works in our minds, in terms of the arguments we make to support the conclusions we believe in, or would like to believe in. He writes, “When people believe a conclusion is true, they are also very likely to believe arguments that appear to support it, even when these arguments are unsound.”

 

We justify conclusions we would like to believe with any argument that seems plausible and fits the conclusion we would like to believe. Our preference for one conclusion leads us to bend the arguments in favor of that conclusion. Rather than truly analyzing the arguments, we discount factors that don’t support what we want to believe, and we disregard arguments that come from people who are reaching an alternative conclusion. Our preferences take over, and the things we want become more important than reality. Motivated reasoning gives us a way to support what we want to believe by twisting the value we assign to different facts.

 

Even in our own mind, demonstrating that an argument in favor of our preferred conclusion is flawed is unlikely to make much of a difference. We will continue to hold on to our flawed argument, choosing to believe that there is something true about it, even if we know it is flawed or contradicts other disagreeable facts that must also be true if we are to support our preferred conclusion.

 

This doesn’t make us humans look very good. We can’t reason our way to new beliefs and we can’t rely on facts and data to change minds. In the end, if we want to change our thoughts and behavior as well as those of others, we have to shape people’s preferences. Motivated reasoning can support conclusions that do not accurately reflect the world around us, so for those of us who care about reality, we have to heighten the salience of believing and trusting science and expertise before we can get people to adopt our arguments in favor of rational evidence. If we don’t think about how preference and motivated reasoning lead people to believe inaccurate claims, we will fail to address the preferences that support problematic policies, and we won’t be able to guide our world in a direction based on reason and sound conclusions.
Thinking Statistically

Thinking Statistically

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman personifies two modes of thought as System 1 and System 2. System 1 is fast. It takes in information, processes it rapidly, and doesn’t always make us cognizant of the information we took in. It reacts to the world around us on an intuitive level, isn’t good at math, but is great at positioning us for catching a football.

 

System 2 is slow. Its is deliberate, calculating, and uses a lot of energy to maintain. Because it requires so much energy, we don’t actually active it very often, not unless we really need to. What is worse, System 2 can only operate on the information (unless we have a lot of time to pause specifically for information intake) that System 1 takes in, meaning, it processes incomplete information.

 

System 1 and System 2 are important to keep in mind when we start to to think statistically, something our minds are not good at. When we think back to the 2016 US Presidential election, we can see how hard statistical thinking is. Clinton was favored to win, but there was a statistical chance that Trump would win, as happened. The chance was small, but that didn’t mean the models were all wrong when he did win, it just means that the most likely event forecasted didn’t materialize. We had trouble thinking statistically about win percentages going into the election, and had trouble understanding an unlikely outcome after it happened.

 

“Why is it so difficult for us to think statistically?” Kahneman asks in his book, “We easily think associatively, wee think metaphorically, we think causally, but statistics requires thinking about many things at once, which is something that System 1 is not designed to do.”

 

System 1 operates quickly and cheaply. It takes less energy and effort to run on System 1, but because it is subject to bias and because it makes judgments on incomplete information, it is not reliable for important decisions and calculations based on nuance. We have to engage System 2 to be great at thinking statistically, but statistical thinking still trips up System 2 because it is hard to think about multiple competing outcomes at the same time and weight them appropriately. In Risk Savvy, Gerd Gigerenzer shows that statistical thinking can be substantially improved and that we really can think statistically, but that we need some help from visual aids and tools so that our minds can grasp statistical concepts better. We have to help System 1 so that it can set up System 2 for success if we want to be good at thinking statistically.

 

From the framework that Kahneman lays out, a quick reacting System 1 running on power save mode with limited informational processing power and System 2 operating on incomplete information aggregated by System 1, statistical thinking is nearly impossible. System 1 can’t bring in enough information for System 2 to analyze appropriately. As a result, we fall back on biases or maybe substitute an easier question over the challenging statistical question. Gigerenzer argues that we can think statistically, but that we need the appropriate framing and cues for System 1, so that System 2 can understand the number crunching and leg work that is needed. In the end, statistical thinking doesn’t happen quickly, and requires an ability to hold competing and conflicting information in the mind at the same time, making it hard for us to think statistically rather than anecdotally or metaphorically.
Seneca on Quotes

Seneca on Quotes

In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca writes, “give over hoping that you can skim, by means of epitomes, the wisdom of distinguished men. Look into their wisdom as a whole; study it as a whole. They are working out a plan and weaving together, line upon line, a masterpiece, from which nothing can be taken away without injury to the whole.”

 

I really like this quote and the idea that Seneca presents. He is saying that simple quotes and sayings are insufficient if we hope to actually build knowledge and construct a concrete mental framework for thinking about life. There are many inspirational quotes from famous and influential people, but reading them in isolation is often inadequate for developing a real philosophy of life.

 

This is an idea that I agree with. I actively try to avoid individual quotes, even though I present quotes from books, writers, and thinkers on this blog. My hope is that diving deeper into the meaning for an interesting quote and exploring the ideas it represents will help the quote be more valuable and meaningful for me and anyone else. I try to present some context and how a quote may or may not relate to different aspects of life or perspectives on the world.  Based on Seneca’s quote, I suspect he would approve of this approach. What he would not approve of is simple quotes in isolation, or layered over background sunrises.

 

Individual quotes in isolation become trite, and trying to attach undue meaning to an individual quote or phrase can be harmful, especially when it is taken out of context or applied in an overly broad way. Quotes can only truly be helpful when we consider them within the larger body of work of the individual or culture from which they originate.

 

Seneca’s writing is less valuable on its own than when it is considered alongside other stoic thinkers such as Marcus Aurelius or modern day writers who have a similar focus like Colin Wright or Ryan Holiday. Deep study is what helps us truly understand the world and develop a better understanding of how ideas relate to the world around us. Deep study is necessary if we want to develop our own framework for the world – an amalgamation of quotes from across the web won’t do.
How to Think It Out

How to Think it Out

Our thoughts are a jumbled mess. Things tend to repeat with subtle variations and they tend to jump around at random points in an inconsistent manner. Keeping our mind on a single thing is hard and our thoughts are not as logically consistent as we might think, despite the fact that our thinking and though processes feel perfectly rational and deliberate to us. We don’t think in a steady, rational, and linear way, even though we usually think that we do. Our thoughts are often incomplete, pick up right to the middle of an idea rather than at the start, and sometimes are just nebulous and hazy.

 

It is funny how often you can pick up on people having trouble with their thoughts, revealing this inner jungle gym, if you look for it. Podcasts and every day conversations are great places to hear people start to organize the thoughts flying through their head. They are not reading from a perfect mental bullet point list, they don’t have an essay prepared in their mind, and their thoughts don’t flow logically in order from point A to point B and down the line. Podcasters will often say things like, “I’m still trying to work this out in my head, so this might not come out right.” In conversation, you may have had the experience where you are talking to someone about something, and they bring up a starting point factor that you had never considered. Often, for me at least, it is a huge factor that I knew about, but just hadn’t quite connected to my larger point and seriously thought about.

 

The reality for people is that our thoughts cannot be orderly and cannot be made sense of if we don’t do something to think our thoughts out. Speaking and writing are great ways to think something out. You have to take your ideas, put actual words to them, and then think about how the words will convey the idea in your head so that the ideas will make sense in the mind of another. You have to start thinking about order and logic, and how you will present what you think and feel for someone else. It is a complicated effort, and if you break down this seemingly natural process, you see how difficult each step can be.

 

Different forms of thinking it out have different advantages. In writing, the great part is that you can do practice messaging in writing, editing and deleting what doesn’t quite fit or doesn’t best communicate your thoughts. Speaking is faster than writing, which is helpful, but leads to more mistakes and isn’t as friendly for trial and error. Nevertheless, it helps us take what is in our head as incomplete and often disconnected thoughts and ideas, and begin to align them in a more stable and rational manner. Sometimes we don’t really know exactly what we think until we go through this process, either speaking or writing out our thoughts to get them out of our head, but also to make sense of them in our head for no audience other than ourselves. As Seneca wrote to his friend Lucilius in Letters From a Stoic“I am admitting you to my inmost thoughts, and am having it out with myself, merely making use of you as my pretext.”

Forgetting

I am always amazed with just how much I fail to remember. I generally remember the large details, what I did yesterday, what big sporting events I went to last year, and the date of my anniversary, but the amount of small details I fail to remember that seem like they would be something I would remember is incredible. I forget things said in conversations within a day or two, I forget small things that I have done such as gestures or what I ate, and I forget who I was with at different places or events.

 

As Dale Carnegie wrote in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, “The rapidity with which we forget is astonishing.”

 

Recently I have been doing a lot of reading focused on cognitive psychology and the way we think. What I find surprising is just how often our thinking is not what we expect it to be. We make lots of assumptions, act on shortcuts and heuristics, and filter out a lot of data and information when making decisions and coming to conclusions. What I have learned from all this reading is that we cannot fully trust what our minds believe.

 

Carnegie’s quote fits in with the research I have recently been focused on and strengthens my argument. We forget a lot. We don’t remember specific details of conversations and we don’t perfectly remember the sequence of events from things that we have been a part of or a witness to. Our minds simply don’t operate in a way to help us perfectly understand and think about the world. There is too much information out there for our brains to try to do this, and instead, we take short cuts, focusing on the important information to start with, and quickly forgetting the unimportant details along the way.

 

The takeaway from Carnegie’s quote is simply that our minds are not perfect. Don’t expect yourself to remember every single detail, and instead set up systems to remember the big things. Being aware of how much we will forget will help us take steps to remember what we need to remember, whether that is using notes, mental heuristics for remembering key information, or outsourcing our memory to photos, videos, or our own personal scribe. Be prepared to forget a lot of information, and take steps to retain that which matters most.

Our Devious Minds

“We now realize,” write Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in their book The Elephant in the Brain, “that our brains aren’t just hapless and quirky–they’re devious. They intentionally hide information from us, helping us fabricate plausible pro-social motives to act as cover stories for our less savory agendas. As Trivers puts it: “At ever single state [of processing information]–from its biased arrival, to its biased encoding, to organizing it around false logic, to misremembering and then misrepresenting it to others–the mind continually acts to distort information flow in favor of the usual goal of appearing better than one really is.” 

 

Recently I have been pretty fascinated by the idea that our minds don’t do a good job of perceiving reality. The quote above shows many of the points where our minds build a false sense of reality for us and where our perceptions and understanding can go astray. It is tempting to believe that we observe and recognize an objective picture of the world, but there are simply too many points where our mental conceptualization of the world can deviate from an objective reality (if that objective reality ever even exists).

 

What I have taken away from discussions and books focused on the way we think and the mistakes our brain can make is that we cannot always trust our mind. We won’t always remember things correctly and we won’t always see things as clearly as we believe. What we believe to be best and correct about the world may not be accurate. In that sense, we should doubt our beliefs and the beliefs of others constantly. We should develop processes and systems for identifying information that is reasonable and question information that aligns with our prior beliefs as much as information that contradicts our prior beliefs. We should identify key principles that are most important to us, and focus on those, rather than focus on specific and particular instances that we try to understand by filling in answers from generalizations.

 

A fear that I have is that as we come to doubt the information around us and the perceptions of our minds, we will begin to doubt institutional structures that help us with the flow of information. We should be continually thinking of ways to strengthen institutions that can help us navigate a complex world. At the moment, one of the things I think we are seeing across the globe is that as we doubt information, we doubt institutions which have been valuable in helping human societies advance. We need to find ways to make institutional knowledge more trustworthy and clear so that we can develop institutions which have incentives to provide the most reasonable, clear, and accurate information possible so that we can overcome the biases and misconceptions of the mind.

Our Perceptions of the World

In a diary entry dated 04/08/1931 in Fernando Pessoa’s posthumously published book The Book of Disquiet, Pessoa writes, “For us everything lies in our concept of the world; changing our concept of the world means changing our world, that is, the world itself, since it will never be anything other than how we perceive it.” There are many things in this world that make assumptions about, and we never truly know if our assumptions are correct. But what information we take in, and how we use that information and interpret it, shapes the world we construct and the assumptions we attach to the world.

 

I really like this quote, especially at this time, because I have been thinking about consciousness after having listened to a few podcast episodes from Rob Reid’s show, After On. Reid has had a few guests on his show who have talked about consciousness and the challenges in fully understanding what is happening in our brains. We don’t know exactly where consciousness comes from and whether it is within the brain or something that sits on top of the brain. We don’t know what it is that allows our brain matter and nervous system to become conscious and we don’t know where consciousness stops, whether it ends with dogs and ferrets or if it continues all the way down to bees, ants, or plants.

 

Beyond questions of consciousness, we have questions about the information that our body is able to take in and process. We also have questions about what information we actually become aware of with all the the information that is available for us to perceive. We know that we can’t smell as well as a dog, we can’t hear the same frequencies as a bat, and we can’t sense the earth’s magnetic field the way a bird does. Bees can see a greater range of the light spectrum than we can see, but we at least have eyes which can see much better than starfish which can only pick up on whether it is light above them or not. For each animal, including humans, the range of possible senses and information that can be taken in is called the umwelt. A German word to describe the experiences of the world for that animal.

 

All this brings me back to Pessoa’s quote. From a pure physics level, it is easy to see that our thinking and understanding of the world is limited by the physics of the universe and by the information we can take in form our surroundings. The world we see and know, in some sense, is not the whole world. Pessoa is correct to say that our world is defined by the way we perceive it.

 

But what Pessoa meant in his quote was not so much about physics and the limitations of the human body to sense and experience the world. How we think about the world constructs the reality we live within. The narratives and stories we come up with describe ourselves, define the society we live in, and explain what we do are the things that make up our reality. We can be wrong about these perceptions, like when we hear someone near-by laugh and assume they are laughing about us. We should be aware of the thoughts and narratives we create about the world and we should be willing to question them. We should work to have the most clear picture of the world possible, always understanding that there is more happening than we can ever know, and always remembering that how we perceive the world will determine the reality we see in front of us.

Attachment to the False View of Self

When we try to compartmentalize reality and split our experiences into separate categories, we end up with a view of the universe that is incomplete and incorrect. Everything that happens is interconnected, and how we experience the world at one moment is influenced by our experiences of the past and expectations for the future. The time of day, how much we have eaten, and the temperature all shape the way we experience and interpret the universe. We are unavoidably connected to the matter of the universe, and we are truly matter observing other matter.

 

When we think about ourselves, we put ourselves apart from the universe. We view the person that we are as separate from the natural phenomena of the universe, as someone who experiences reality with a rational mind that views the things happening around us. We create a story about our selves that helps us understand the world we live in.

 

However, this is not reality. We cannot stand ourselves apart from the universe and we cannot look at ourselves as individual, objective, observers of the universe as though we are immune to the happenings and occurrences around us. Through meditation, Thich Nhat Hanh, and other Buddhist monks through time, have come to recognize this problem with the way that we think about ourselves. They call this problem the false view of self. A view that creates a self as a rational actor moving through the world in control of ones perception, experiences, and outcomes. This false view can be dangerous and is formed on unfounded views of reality. As Hanh writes, “Attachment to the false view of self means belief in the presence of unchanging entities which exist on their own.”

 

What Hanh and Buddhists found through meditation, Amanda Gefter learned from the study of Physics, particularly from the discoveries of John Wheeler. In a previous post of mine, I wrote about a quote from Gefter where she explained that the universe can only be viewed from the inside, where everything is changing. Trying to view the world from the outside, from a Gods-Eye-View, violates general relativity and breaks the physics of the universe.

 

The view of self that we adopt as we move through the world (especially in the United States) is inconsistent with the view of the self described by monks who noticed their inability to control their mind during meditation. It is also inconsistent with the reality of physics which highlights the challenges of trying to the view the universe as an unchanging object outside the universe. Giving up the concept of self is difficult, but when you remember that there may not be a self, you can let go of stress and pressure to be the person your story is telling you to be. You are connected to the universe and you are a changing being within the universe. Your actions are not your own conscious choices, but the culmination of phenomena occurring within the universe. For me, mindfulness in this area helps me to think about my choices and decisions and react to the universe in a more calm and clear way, even though I am not standing apart from the universe and from forces around me to make the decisions that I make.

Compartmentalizing our Experiences is Impossible

Recently I have been thinking a lot about the present moment and I have been working on making the present moment its own moment in time, unconstrained by the past. I am working to remember lessons from Marcus Aurelius and to remember that all I control is my mind and reactions to the world at this moment. At the same time, however, I have recently ready Daniel Pink’s book When and I’m currently reading Cal Newport’s book Deep Work. Aurelius encourages us to be focused on the present moment, and to leave the past in the past and let the future come without thinking too far ahead. He stresses the importance of separating ourselves from the past in order to do the most that we can with the present moment.

 

Research by Pink and Newport, however, suggests that this might not be possible, and that even if we try our best to stay mentally focused on the present, the past unavoidably impacts the way our brains operate in the present. Pink studied the science of timing and examined the ways that the body and mind react to the world as we move through the day. He finds that the time of meetings, of intellectually challenging work, of exercise, and sleep all impact the way we think, feel, and move about the world.

 

Newport in his book looks for a way to perform at his best and seeks to understand how habit, performance, attention, and experience are all linked. He finds evidence to suggest that our minds are not very good at switching between tasks, and that what we have done in the past directly shapes our brains and our performance in the present. The habits we build and the effort we put toward developing our attention either enhance or limit our ability in the future to think deeply and focus on a given thing. What his research, along with Pink’s, finds, is that our current experience and state of mind is directly linked to our past and to rhythms and experiences throughout the day and throughout our lives.

 

The insight from Pink and Newport comes from scientific study of reality, but has also been discovered by those who meditate. Thich Nhat Hanh wrote about the inseparability of the world in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness. He states, “The great body of reality is indivisible. It cannot be cut into pieces with separate existences of their own.” the experience we have at one moment can not be compartmentalized and separated from another moment. At any given time we may be doing one thing and not another, but our experience of that moment is to some degree shaped by the experiences we have had throughout the day and in our past. In stoic philosophy, there can be a tendency to want to split what we do and how we experience the world into separate categories, but Pink, Newport, and Hanh suggest that this would be a mistake and may not be possible at all.

 

I don’t think we have to throw out the ideas of Aurelius and stoicism, but we must understand as we focus on the present moment how it relates to our past and to our future. We can perform our best if we think, moment to moment, about how we are connected to other times in our lives and how we can maximize our performance and experience given the time of day and the activities we have been involved with or will be involved with. This drives greater intentionality in our lives which in turn drives better experiences and a better connection to the present moment.