The Ideomotor Effect

Ideomotor Effect

I grew up playing basketball and one thing coaches always tell players is that they have to have confidence when they shoot the ball. If you shoot while thinking I hope I don’t miss, then you are going to miss. If you are worried about being yelled at for missing a shot and if you are afraid to miss, then your chances of actually making a shot are slim. At the same time, shooting with confidence, believing you are going to make the shot before you have even caught the ball, is going to make it more likely that you will score. Visualizing a perfect swish before you shoot, the wisdom of all my coaches said, and your swish will come true, but think about what might happen if you miss, and you are out of luck.

 

I don’t know how much I believed this during my playing days, but the idea was everywhere. There were certainly times I can still remember where I was afraid of missing a shot, only to miss the shot. I can remember a moment from my senior year, where I was wide open for a three on the left hand side. I knew I was going to shoot the ball before my teammate even passed it to me, and I knew I was going to make the shot. “Shoot it,” he said as he passed it to me – not that I needed any extra incentive – and of course, I swished the shot and nodded my head like I was LeBron James as I ran back down the court.

 

Research from Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow suggests that there really might be something to this shooting mindset. Kahneman writes about a study of college students who were asked to complete a word scramble and then walk down the hall to another room. When students were presented with words associated with the elderly, the average time it took them to get up from their chair and walk down the hallway to the next room was longer than it was for a control group who didn’t have word scrambles related to old people.

 

Kahneman writes, “The idea of old age had not come to their conscious awareness, but their actions had changed nevertheless. This remarkable priming phenomenon – the influencing of an action by the idea – is known as the ideomotor effect.”

 

Simply thinking about old people made people move slower. Thoughts, even thoughts and ideas that people were not directly focused on, changed the way people behaved in the physical world. It is like listening to some pump-up music while pumping iron, but without deliberately setting up the environment to get you in the zone for the physical task. The ideomotor effect represents the connection between our mental state and our physical performance, and it appears that it can be conscious and intentional as well as subconscious and unknown.

 

So while it might seem like a bunch of superstition to believe that visualizing a swish versus fearing a missed basket will influence whether or not you make a shot, the ideomotor effect might actually make it a reality. My coaches probably hadn’t heard of the ideomotor effect or of a study of slow walking college students thinking about old people. Nevertheless, their intuition seems to have been correct, and my thoughts while shooting basketballs in high school may have played a big role in whether I made a shot or missed.
Kahneman's Gossip Hope

Kahneman’s Hope

Daniel Kahneman opens his book on cognitive biases, thinking errors, and observed processes within the field of cognitive psychology in an interesting place. Thinking Fast and Slow begins with Kahneman praising gossip, and explaining his hope for the readers of his book. He does not hope that readers of his book will avoid gossip and stop talking about others behind their backs. He hopes readers will gossip better, and understand the thought processes, mental limitations of the human mind, and mental errors that go into all of our gossip.

 

Kahneman writes, “The hope for informed gossip is that there are distinctive patterns in the errors people make. Systematic errors are known as biases, and they recur predictably in particular circumstances.”

 

What he hopes for is that understanding how the brain works will help us all have better conversations at the water cooler, or at lunch with a colleague, or in the evening when we get home and want to vent to a spouse or parent or pet. Gossip can be a powerful tool in developing and shaping the norms of society, and if we are going to give gossip so much power, we should at least do our best to ensure that our gossiping is well informed, accurate, and that when we gossip we understand how our minds are reaching our gossipy conclusions.

 

Certainly Kahneman’s real hope is that writing about and explaining gossip in a way that more people can access than simply putting his ideas in academic journals will lead to fewer negative externalities in the world from biases, prejudices, and simple cognitive errors. However, for most people, Kahneman thinks the water cooler gossip forum is where his ideas and research will really impact people’s conversations.

 

The point is that the human mind doesn’t exactly work the way we tend to think it does. It feels as though we have one thought that rationally flows from another thought. That we are observant, considerate, and are willing to come to conclusions based on fact and observed reality. Through his research in the book, Kahneman shows us that our brains are predictable in the errors they make. They are not as rational as we believe, and our thoughts don’t flow coherently from one idea to the next. The observations we make are always incomplete relative to the full information of the reality around us, and our choices and actions are far more motivated by what we want to believe is true than is actually true in reality. Knowing all of this, Kahneman hopes, will make us more cognizant and reflective in our gossip, hopefully helping the world to be a slightly more accurate and enjoyable place to be.

How We Define Our World

Our thoughts are generally not just our own thoughts. What we think, what we say, and ultimately what we do is influenced by other people. We are social animals and come to understand ourselves and define ourselves socially. However, we often are not aware of just how much this social conditioning shapes our thinking and understanding. Fernando Pessoa writes about this in his book The Book of Disquiet which was assembled from his notes and published after his death.

 

In a translation from the original Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa, Pessoa writes, “Their inability to say what they see or think is a cause of suffering to most people. …they imagine that to define something one should say what other people want, and not what one needs to say in order to produce a definition.”

 

When we think about something, it is often in the context of social situations. We don’t exist in a vacuum where we can give everything around us a name and definition, so we must rely on the knowledge and understanding of others in creating a shred definition and shared meaning in what we communicate. At a basic level, we must share some type of understanding to communicate how we are feeling, what something is, what happened, and what it all means. However, we go a step further than just this.

 

We anticipate what other people want to hear and expect to hear, and we adjust our communication accordingly. Pessoa seems to suggest that we don’t just adapt our speaking and communication when we do this, but we adjust our entire way of thinking to align with what we think other people believe, feel, and understand. We don’t think and develop concepts independently, but we do so socially, depending on others and making assumptions about what is happening in their head as we formulate ideas within our own heads. Because our thoughts are not independent, when we are asked to define something abstract we falter. Rather than simply describing the thing, we become paralyzed as we try to think about what is already in another person’s head, what they are expecting to hear, and what they will think if we provide a definition they did not expect. Rather than being free and brave enough to offer our own definition, or to have our own thoughts, we simply adopt the social beliefs around us, conforming to the shared thoughts of others.

 

In one sense I find it troubling that we don’t have our own independent thoughts and ideas. But at the same time, I don’t know what it would mean for everyone to have independent thoughts and understandings of the world. I don’t know how we could cooperate and build a society if we all had truly distinct thoughts and opinions about how the world should operate and about how to define the world as it is. I find that when I consider the reality of our social minds, I fall back on the same conclusion as always, it is important to be aware of what is really happening and understand that we don’t think independently of others, but I don’t know how that should change our ways of thinking or our manifesting behaviors on individual or societal levels. Perhaps our honesty with ourselves will make us less cocky and less arrogant, but perhaps it will open us up to be taken advantage of by people who are. Ultimately, having more knowledge of what our minds are really doing will hopefully make us better people.

Changing Your Views on a Group of People

An unfortunate reality in our world is that we don’t have a lot of incentives to change our beliefs about things. What we think and feel regarding a specific item is heavily influenced by more than just our own experiences and rational thoughts about that thing. Our social groups, self-interests, and group identities can shape our beliefs and make it almost impossible for our beliefs to have any flexibility. In this setting, changing our beliefs may require that we break with a group identity, view the world in a way that is inconsistent with the rest of the people around us, and acknowledge that our narrow self-interest is not what is in the best interest of a larger society.

 

Colin Wright wrote about this in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be and related the idea directly to the ways we think about groups of people. He writes, “If we’ve spent our lives hating, or at least feeling superior to, a particular group of people, but then are exposed to convincing information about that group that makes us hate them less, that’s a very awkward moment. Taking this new information seriously would mean having to choose between continuing on as we are now, with our existing biases, our existing way of interacting with these people, our existing group of friends who probably have he same set of biases that we now feel compelled to question, or changing all that.” Wright shows that changing one’s views, even when there is good reason, can be awkward in one’s personal life. Beyond simply saying, “I was wrong,” changing one’s beliefs means that you then have to tell others (who you may have been very close with) that they are still wrong, and that can be hard for many people.

 

I don’t have a solution here for how to improve the likelihood of changing people’s minds. Instead, what I am doing is pointing out how many factors are involved with changing our minds. We should recognize that we may hold many of our beliefs for reasons we don’t want to acknowledge, like peer pressure or self-interest. Given that many of our beliefs may be influenced by factors beyond our own rationality, and given the difficulty we may have in changing our beliefs if they are indeed wrong, we should try to be more flexible in general with how we see the world and how we think about our worldviews. Being skeptical of our own knowledge doesn’t feel as good as telling ourselves that we have it all figured out, but it is probably a better place for us to be. We might not be able to change other people’s views (especially on ideas that are highly visible and salient), but at least we can be more honest with ourselves about the beliefs we have and hopefully more willing to change our beliefs because we never clung to tightly to them in the first place. This in turn may help other people to be more vulnerable in their own beliefs and slightly more open to change.

The Mind Observing the Mind

I am not a scientist in the sense that I don’t work at a laboratory, I don’t publish academic papers, and I am not going out into a field to make observation about the nature of the world to experiment with and report back on. But I do love science. I listen to a handful of science podcasts and I like to approach the world from a scientific point of view. This has lead me to look at objects and observers and to be aware of the relationship between an object and the observer recording the object. Scientists try to be as objective as possible, independent of the thing they are studying, but this is not always possible. When it comes to the human mind, and the observations we make about our thoughts, we must accept that we cannot split the mind from our thoughts and our emotions, even though we can observe both.

 

Thich Nhat Hanh writes about this in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness. He uses a metaphor of a guard standing at a gate, observing everyone who enters and leaves to describe the typical vision we have for our mind. Hanh explains that this is a limited view of the mind because we are both the guard and the people going through the gate. The mind cannot truly be separated from the thoughts and emotions going through it.

 

He describes the importance of this by writing, “We are both the mind and the observer of the mind. Therefore, chasing away or dwelling on any thought isn’t the important thing. The important thing is to be aware of thought. This observation is not an objectification of the mind: it does not establish distinction between subject and object. … Mind can only observe itself. This observation isn’t an observation of some object outside and independent of the observer.”

 

Our observations of the mind can change the mind as much as cake, a traffic accident, or the birth of a child can. We only have our thoughts inside our mind, but we don’t exactly control every thought, emotion, and feeling. Being unaware of our thoughts leads us to being whipped around as in a hurricane, but trying to be too controlling of our mind drives us mad and frustrates us at our inability to shut down the thoughts and emotions we don’t wish to have. Recognizing the reality of the mind as being one with its thoughts helps us see that our best option is simply to observe and accept the thoughts and emotions that run through our mind so we can choose to be more constructive with how we react to thoughts and structure the environment in which our mind operates.

Expressing Your Mind Through Writing

Writing is a great skill that helps open our own thoughts to ourselves and gives readers access to the mind of another person. When we are writing something, we take thoughts that are whirling around in our mind at a million miles per hour and give them shape and structure. We take those thoughts and organize them. We combine them and build logical steps between them, and we make sense of the sometimes random, sometimes disconnected, and sometimes vague thoughts that pass through our mind.

 

When we read, we get to peer behind the curtain at another person’s thoughts. Writing allows us to open a door into our mind for other people, to give them an idea of what is going on in our mind. Reading is a chance to think more deeply about something that another person has spent time organizing their thoughts around, and it is a chance to learn more about the universe from another person.

 

This is what Amanda Gefter loves about writing and reading. Gefter is a science journalist, but she did not set out to cover science initially. She knew she wanted to write, but writing about science seemed so dense, challenging, and in some sense far off, away from the world that she knew and could write about. But as she pursued science for her own hobby, she had opportunities to write about science that she never expected, and she began to see the importance of writing about science and serving as a door that could open complex physics to more people.

 

About writing, Gefter writes in her book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, “Writing, for me, was about muddling through ideas, turning them over, viewing them from every angle to see where they led, even if they only led back to themselves.” Gefter’s ideas are important because writing does not always need to be revelatory, novel, and ingenious. Sometimes writing can meander and not really take you any place. Sometimes writing can be circuitous and double back on itself. Writing helps the mind order itself, so even if your writing does not shape the world, it can still shape your mind. Even if you don’t plan on sharing your writing, getting thoughts down on the Word Doc or in a journal will help your mind.

 

Gefter continues, “My favorite stories and poems shined a spotlight on the writer’s thought process, exposing all of its cracks and contradictions. But the writing I did as a journalist was just the opposite. Its light revealed only the end products of thought, the conclusions.” Our writing can be a tool to help other people see our development of thoughts and ideas. It can help us show others that there are complex realities in this world that we ourselves are still working through. For Gefter, this was important to bring to the world of science, “Science journalism’s express goal was to hang over the writer’s mind a veil so opaque that the reader would mistake the writer’s thoughts about the world for the world itself—the world as seen from an impossible God’s-eye view, a paradigm of objectivity and at the same time a lie.” In the last part of the quote, Gefter criticizes science journalism for making everything seem as thought it has been solved and put together. When we approach science journalism from a point of finality, it makes it seem as though the science is not as riddled with challenges and contradictions as it truly is. Objectivity takes away the mystery and confusion of science and presents a fake reality. I believe that Gefter would argue that we need to show our thought process and honestly discuss what we do understand and what is still out there making scientists scratch their head. When we present science as just facts to remember and know, as if the puzzle of the universe has been solved, we turn people away, presenting science as just math and facts to memorize. Gefter would suggest that real science writing show people how to think critically and inquisitively about what they see around them, and invite them to think scientifically about the challenges still ahead of us.

 

The last part of Gefter’s quote that I will share is this, “For me, hiding the writer’s thoughts strips writing of its greatest gift: its ability to grant us access to other minds.” What we get when we write more openly about science, or any subject, is a greater dialogue between author and reader. Revealing our thought process, and taking the time to step back from objectivity at points, allows the reader to connect with us more thoroughly and see how our mind works. For a reader this process allows them to see the challenges in the area in which we write, and it gives them the chance to take the first step toward the debates and investigations taking place within our mind, and within a given field more broadly. How we do this will always depend on our subject, but I think the first step is to understand that people have different perspectives and that there is often no simple answer to anything. We can address other ideas and points of view, and we can provide evidence to support our own view. We cannot, however, simply present one point of view or one experiment in isolation and use our writing to say that we have found the one truth and the one answer, without demonstrating that other ways of thinking are possible.

Our Experiences of the World are Unique to Us

I often find myself extending my own experiences and feelings to other people, and assuming that other people have the same thoughts, reactions, and expectations about the world that I have. I know that this is not the case since I don’t enjoy watching much television, I am really interested in politics from a policy side, and get really excited about exercising and running (three traits of mine that I know set me apart from most people). Nevertheless, it is hard for me to remember that everyone is experiencing the world differently, and thinking about and interpreting what goes on around them in a different lens. Michelle Alexander looks at this reality in her book The New Jim Crow, specifically when she addresses economic changes and the way that people experience disruptive technology and market changes.

In her book, Alexander looks at the impact that policies and decisions have had on different races throughout our nation’s history and she specifically looks at the disparate impact that policies have had for black people relative to white people. What is important to consider when thinking about what we can learn from her writing is that our subjective experiences are just that, subjective. Other people will experience and have different reactions to the same economic and cultural realities. We must consider what this means from an equity and racial perspective, especially if we want everyone in our society to participate and have a chance to be socially and economically successful.

When our economy shifted in the 1970s and we implemented policies to help people adapt, we did so from a single point of view with a single group of people in mind. Changes in our economy had different implications for black people who had already been left out of societal progress. Alexander writes,

“As described by William Julius Wilson, in his book When Work Disappears, the overwhelming majority of African Americans in the 1970s lacked college educations and had attended racially segregated, underfunded schools lacking basic resources. Those residing in ghetto communities were particularly ill equipped to adapt to the seismic changes taking place in the U.S. economy; they were left isolated and jobless.”

I don’t have advice for how to best help those who are vulnerable to economic change and disruptive technology as it is not something I have ever looked into or studied. Technological change and advancement in many ways seems inevitable and while many individuals can potentially be left behind, many more have a chance to better themselves and their lives with the adoption and inclusion of new technologies. What we should do better, at least what I know I must do better, is understand that my perspective is limited and does not encompass the experiences and realities other people. At the end of the day we, and our politicians, must make decisions, and we must do the best with the information we have. What I feel challenged by, and what I think we should all challenge ourselves with, is incorporating more views than our own thoughts and reactions when making decisions. We must be careful and recognize when we are generalizing our thoughts and experiences to the larger population. Becoming more considerate means recognizing when we are thinking from only one perspective and making broad assumptions about other people. We do eventually need to make a decision and come to a conclusion, but we must make sure that decisions is based on more than just our own subjective experiences.

Exchanging Ideas with Others

“Today, I’m of the opinion that if you want to reach someone, to really communicate in a language they understand and trust, you have to be more flexible.” Colin Wright expresses this idea early in his book Come Back Frayed to introduce some of the changes he has experienced in the mediums we use to communicate in the 21st century.

 

Wright’s book is an exploration of his time spent living in the Philippines, detailing how he has learned to adjust to challenging climates, new cultures, and new demands on his time as an author connected to the world in a sea of evolving media. “There was a time when people who watched videos online were a mystery to me, and I was content to write words I hoped to someday convince someone to read. There was a time when I felt my writing, vocabulary encoded with twenty-six bit alphabetic iconography, was the sole practical and relevant mechanism I had of presenting and exchanging ideas with others.”

 

Together his quotes show the varied nature of communication today, and the importance of learning to reach people through a variety of channels and formats. My blog started as simply a means for me to return to my reading and to think more deeply about passages that initially stood out to me, and so I never thought of trying to reach others and amass an audience. But communicating with others is something I enjoy to do and intend to make part of my future career. Learning to use and understand different formats of media will help me not just send a message to other people, but to understand others in a more profound way.

 

What I truly enjoy about the quotes above from Wright, is that his goal is not to reach more people through new technology just to drive his content and sell people more stuff. Wright’s goal is to actually exchange ideas with other people. I am not good at social media and dislike the quickness with which a lot of our thinking and decision making is done today, but the tools we have certainly do allow us to exchange new ideas in new manners.

 

I think there are areas where individuals can change their habits of consumption, and groups can change their methods of delivering ideas to increase knowledge and help improve perceptions and relationships across society.

 

I am studying toward a Masters in Public Administration through the Political Science Department at the University of Nevada, but one certainly does not need to study politics to see that the general public is distrustful of technocratic knowledge delivered from policy think-tanks considered out of touch with our mainstream population. Better understanding of how we can use our technology as individuals to find helpful information and avoid information silos can reduce this resentment, but at the same time, a better understanding of the ways people communicate today will help academics, policy researchers, and people in government administration better share their ideas, thoughts, challenges, and perspectives with the general public in a way that can build new foundations of trust.

 

Like Wright, the goal must be to further develop the exchange of information and to develop greater knowledge on the end of the person delivering the message as well as the person consuming the message. A driving goal of increased profits would ultimately lead Wright to failure, but a mission of flexible learning will open new perspectives to lead to true development. This idea is true for Wright, and may be true for agencies, companies, researchers, and others who want their thoughts to have a greater impact on the planet.
The Ruling Faculty

The Ruling Faculty

Marcus Aurelius placed his ruling faculty, or the conscious and rational ability of his brain above all else in his life.  He focused on maximizing his rational ability and strove to bring a sense of awareness and intentionality to all aspects of his conscious being. To him, recognizing the power and control that he held over his rational brain meant that he had the ability to shape his life by changing his opinions, ideas, perspectives, and thoughts of the world around him.  In Meditations he wrote about how one could recognize and take charge of their conscious and how one could view the world from greater perspectives.  Aurelius wrote, “What is my ruling faculty now to me? And of what nature am I now Making it? And for what purpose am I now using it? Is it void of understanding?” By framing his conscious decision making ability in this way he was able to put power for his life and his actions into his own hands, or rather into his own rational brain. He looked at the world and saw himself as the primary actor driving the decisions and actions of his life.

 

This quote is valuable to me because I often feel as though my life is being driven and pulled in multiple directions without my consent or ability to shift and change course.  In our busy worlds of 40 hour work weeks, we may often begin to feel as though our routine is set with external forces determining what decisions we make and how we realize those actions.  Throughout Meditations Aurelius writes about the importance of being aware of our actions and retaining control over our rational brain, but in the quote above he shows us exactly how he practiced developing a rational brain.

 

Simply asking ourselves questions and focusing on ourselves wont create the lives we want to lead, but if we can build Aurelius’ questions into every fabric of our being, then we can begin to morph our lives into something greater.  Recognizing that we have the ability to be rational beings and that we have the ability to control our lives through the thoughts and perspective we adopt, will help us to build powerful habits that allow us to constantly grow.  The self-awareness that stems from the constant questioning of how we are applying the rational faculties of our mind will slowly allow us to ensure that we are always making decisions for reasons that are deliberately judged and not based in impulsivity.

Living Without Error

In his writing Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius reflected the ideas of stoicism and the lessons the philosophy taught him throughout his life. He valued the power of the rational mind, and was constantly looking for ways to better understand his own faculties so that he could better control his mental state and his perception of the world.  Through self-awareness and an ability to focus on the present, Aurelius was able to gain power over his mind by taking the control of his thoughts away from other people, objects, and events around him.  In regards to the strength of ones mind and becoming a complete individual, Aurelius wrote, “The third thing in the rational constitution is freedom from error and from deception.  Let then the ruling principle holding fast to these things, go straight on, and it has what is its own.”

 

When I first read this quote I left myself a note that I think sums up the idea presented by Aurelius in this quote and throughout his book, Meditations, in a powerful way. “He is not saying that the mind is free from making errors, but that it is free from living with those errors. The rational mind can understand an error and then chose the reaction to that error with which it lives.”  What I was trying to capture in my synopsis of the Emperor’s quote is the idea that the mind and the power of our rational thoughts decide how we will be affected by the mistakes that occur in our life. The mind can chose what will be learned from, what will shape our decisions, and what will be carried with us for the future.  The mind is in control of interpreting events and errors and choosing how they will be folded into the mess of experiences and decisions that make us who we are.

 

What separates Aurelius from other thinkers is his beliefs of what the mind is capable of doing when sorting out the events and histories of our lives.  Unlike today when it is common for us to regard our past mistakes and histories as baggage, Aurelius saw our past as nothing more than experience one could view through evolving lenses of the past.  Our mistakes and previous decisions do not have to hang around us and be carried with us constantly weighing us down and impeding our progress.  The mind is capable of recognizing its own decisions and thoughts, and the mind is capable of freeing itself from the past by controlling what it does with the experiences (both good and bad) from our lives.