Saturday, April 30, 2022

Changing Your Mind

We humans are programmed to think we’re right at all costs. Fighting that instinct will set you free.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the psychologist Henry Murray asked a sample of college sophomores to participate in a seemingly innocuous experiment in which they would write their “personal philosophy of life,” including their core values and guiding principles, and then engage in a civil debate with a young lawyer about the merits of the philosophy. He did not tell the participants that the lawyer had been instructed to interrogate them and rip their philosophy to shreds in a “vehement, sweeping, and personally abusive” way. They used techniques Murray had developed in vetting intelligence agents during World War II.

The results were fairly predictable. Murray found that the students were generally intensely uncomfortable at having their views attacked in this way. Most hated it and remembered the experiment negatively even years later. But not all of Murray’s participants recall the experiment as a horrible experience. In his book Think Again, Adam Grant, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, notes that most of the students had a negative experience. But Grant’s research also showed that a few notable outliers said they liked it—at least one found it fun—likely because they were forced to rethink their beliefs.

This latter group might have been onto something important. Rethinking your opinions—and changing your views when your facts are proved wrong or someone makes a better argument—can make your life better. It can make you more successful, less anxious, and happier.

When it comes to the idea that we are wrong, or that we should change our opinions, we are incredibly adept at resisting. Grant writes that we possess an astonishing array of cognitive biases telling us, You are right—disregard all evidence to the contrary. These include confirmation bias (we focus on and preferentially remember information that reinforces our beliefs); anchoring bias (we over-rely on one key piece of information—usually the first one we received); the illusion of validity (we overestimate the accuracy of our own judgments and perceptions); and many other related tendencies. These biases are like a crocodile-filled moat around the fortress of our beliefs. They turn us into hermit kings, convinced that any counterarguments that break through our walls will bring us misery.

But as Grant argues, being closed off to being proved wrong or to having our beliefs challenged has huge costs. Leaders who surround themselves with yes-men have been shown to make costly—and sometimes catastrophic—mistakes. One classic example is the Bay of Pigs debacle, in which President John F. Kennedy’s insular cabinet failed to challenge his misguided instincts. Or consider the political punditocracy that assumed Donald Trump couldn’t possibly be a serious threat to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, and never revised those assumptions. If your goal is to find the truth, admitting you are wrong and changing your beliefs based on new facts makes you better off in the end. This is a primary feature of what philosophers call “epistemic humility.”

And while it might not feel easy or fun at first, epistemic humility, like all humility, has clear happiness benefits. In one 2016 study in The Journal of Positive Psychology, researchers created a humility score by asking people about their openness to advice, their honesty about their own strengths and weaknesses, and whether they tended to be excited about a friend’s accomplishments. They found that humility was negatively associated with depression and anxiety, and positively associated with happiness and life satisfaction. Furthermore, they found that humility buffers the negative impact of stressful life events.

As is often the case with social science, the data on humility and happiness reinforce what philosophers have long taught. Around the turn of the fifth century, Saint Augustine gave a student three pieces of life advice: “The first part is humility; the second, humility; the third, humility: and this I would continue to repeat as often as you might ask direction.” About a thousand years earlier, the Buddha taught in the Dutthatthaka Sutta that attachment to one’s views and opinions is a particular source of human suffering. These ancient ideas could not be more relevant to modern life.

The humility to admit when we are wrong and to change our beliefs can lead us to greater success and happiness. But with our defenses arrayed against these virtues, we need a battle plan to alter our way of thinking and acting. Here are four strategies you might want to add to your arsenal:

1. Turn the hermit king against himself.

The hermit king walls himself in against admitting a mistake or changing his mind because he fears that doing so will make him look stupid or incompetent. Thus, left to your limbic tendencies, you will fight to the death for even doomed ideas. But this tendency is itself based on an error.

In a 2015 study in the scientific journal PLOS One, researchers compared scientists’ reactions to being informed that their findings “don’t replicate”—that is, they are probably not correct—a common problem in academia. It would be no surprise if scientists, like most people, got defensive when contradicted in this way, or even doubled down on their original results. But the researchers found that this sort of behavior was more harmful to the scientists’ reputation than simply admitting they were wrong. The message for the hermit king is this: If you are wrong, the best way to save face is to admit it.

2. Welcome contradiction.

One of the best ways to combat a destructive tendency is to adopt an “opposite signal” strategy. For example, when you are sad, often the last thing you want to do is see others, but this is precisely what you should do. When your ideas are threatened and you feel defensive, actively reject your instinct to defend yourself, and become more open instead. When someone says, “You are wrong,” respond with, “Tell me more.” Make friends who think differently than you and challenge your assumptions—and whose assumptions you challenge. Think of this as building your “team of rivals,” the phrase the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin used to describe Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet, which, unlike Kennedy’s, challenged him relentlessly. If this sounds like torture, it is all the more urgent that you try it.

3. Don’t document all your beliefs.

Sociopolitical forces today can make humility feel especially dangerous, and even foolish. Social media has stunted our ability to reinvent our thinking, because our ideas are increasingly cumulative: Every opinion we’ve ever posted online is memorialized. With such a well-documented history of beliefs, changing your mind on something important or controversial can feel like weakness and open you up to public criticism.

The solution to this is to take most of your opinions off the electronic grid. Share your views with people you know and trust, but not with strangers on Twitter and Facebook. Sharing your views with total strangers on social media is a weird conceit to begin with—that people you don’t know should care about your opinions. And realistically, there’s no opinion you can preserve in internet amber right now that will benefit you in five years.

4. Start small.

Let’s suppose that you want the benefits of changing your mind. Getting started is hard, especially if the view you want to change is something huge, like your religious beliefs or your political ideology. It’s better to start with smaller ideas such as your fashion choices, or even your sports allegiances. Reconsider the things you have long taken for granted, and assess them as dispassionately as you can. Then, with these low stakes, change.

The point is not to deal in trivialities. Research on goal setting clearly shows that starting small teaches you how to change and break habits. Then, you can scale this self-knowledge up to the bigger areas of your life in which, you secretly suspect, you might just be wrong. At that point, with your new skills in hand, the adventure of finding truth starts.

If you master these techniques, there might be critics who say you are a flip-flopper, or wishy-washy. To deal with this, take a lesson from the great economist Paul Samuelson. In 1948, Samuelson published what might be the most celebrated economics textbook of all time. As the years went by and he updated the book, he changed his estimate of the inflation level that was tolerable for the health of the macroeconomy: First, he said 5 percent was acceptable; then, in later editions, 3 percent and 2 percent, prompting the Associated Press to run an article titled “Author Should Make Up His Mind.” In a television interview after Samuelson was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1970, he gave his answer to the charge: “When events change, I change my mind. What do you do?”

In pursuit of happiness, you can do this too. When events change, you acquire new information, or someone simply makes a great argument, go ahead and change your mind, and do it openly. It might seem like a tough ask at first. But trust me: It will go from hard to fun. You have nothing to lose but your moat.

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Sunday, April 17, 2022

The Status Game

When I was a kid I didn’t really understand status. I didn’t understand why some people would grant more social value to others based on their wealth, fame, or talents. I grew up in the middle class and everyone I knew was in the middle class (or close to it) as well. Therefore, the only time I saw status was on television. Musicians. Athletes. Actors and Actresses. You were either a celebrity or a normal person and there was nothing in between. 

In high school I furthered my ignorance by becoming anti-status. I grew my hair long and started playing electric guitar. It was heavy metal or bust and I didn’t care what anyone else thought. Status among my friends was determined not by how popular you were, but by your music abilities or how much you could drink. Nevertheless, I kept my grades up and my parents never asked any questions. It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I finally had my first encounter with status. After getting into a good university I noticed how people outside of my friend group started treating me very differently. No longer was I seen as this random “metalhead,” but as the kid who was going places. For the first time in my life I had some status. And I’m not going to lie, it felt great. 

But as soon as I entered college, everything changed. Those things that had once given me status were gone. No longer was I one of the smartest kids in my school, I was just average. Now status was determined based on what fraternity you joined and where you were going to work after you graduated. But this wasn’t the last time that I had to learn a different status game. Following college I worked at a litigation consulting firm where status was based on prestige, pay, and performance (like most corporate environments). And today, as a content creator, status is mostly determined by the size of your audience and how much you can keep their attention. No matter which environment I was in, I noticed that there was always a status game being played. 

Status in the Eye of the Beholder My story illustrates how different communities value different things when it comes to conferring status. For example, if you are a competitive powerlifter, your status is determined by how much you can lift (strength) and how many competitions you have won (competitiveness). If you are a VC, your status is determined by what companies you have invested in (network) and how well those companies have performed (money). I could go on, but you get my point. Status is relative to the context in which it is being evaluated. In other words, VCs don’t care how much you can bench and weightlifters don’t care about your investment returns. Both groups have their own standards for judging members of their community and they care much less about everything else. 

This is why you have to choose your status game wisely. Because whatever status game you choose in life ultimately determines what you optimize for. Choose money and you’ll end up working all the time. Choose beauty and you’ll always want to look better. Choose fame and you’ll constantly be seeking attention. Each of these choices has consequences too. Your pursuit of wealth could leave your personal relationships in shambles. Your pursuit of beauty could impact your mental and physical health. Your pursuit of fame could end up ruining your reputation. Whatever status game you decide to play, you have to ask yourself: are the benefits worth the costs? 

Get Status or Die Trying When it comes to the pursuit of status, the juice is usually worth the squeeze. Research on primates has shown that those at the top of a status hierarchy have a higher quality of life and experience far less stress than those near the bottom. It’s good to be at the top. Well, at least most of the time. When a status hierarchy is stable, being at the top is great. But when it isn’t, watch out. As Robert Sapolsky explained in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, instability is hell for high status individuals: Suppose you keep the dominance system unstable by shifting the monkeys into new groups every month, so that all the animals are perpetually in the tense, uncertain stage of figuring out where they stand with respect to everyone else. Under those circumstances, it is generally the animals precariously holding on to their places at the top of the shifting dominance hierarchy who do the most fighting and show the most behavioral and hormonal indices of stress. 

This research suggests that, even after making it to the top, it’s not always smooth sailing. So ask yourself: Is it worth the time and effort to chase status only to face increased anxiety about losing that status in the future? I’m not so sure. What makes this issue even worse is that there is some research suggesting that those with higher status crave increased status even more than those with lower status. In other words, once you start to attain some status, you won’t want to stop. I’ve noticed this in myself despite not caring about the traditional markets of status (i.e. wealth, career success, popularity, etc.) for most of my life. But, I have found a way to fight back. 

Outsmarting the Status Game Though the pursuit of status is a hard temptation to fight off, there is a simple way to prevent it from controlling you—play multiple status games at once. Instead of linking your entire identity to a single status game (i.e. richest, smartest, etc.), have multiple things going for you. In other words, diversify what brings you status. Robert Sapolsky touched on this idea in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers when discussing how low status individuals can feel high status from other avenues: So, the lowly subordinate in the mailroom of the big corporation may, after hours, be deriving tremendous prestige and self-esteem from being the deacon of his church, or the captain of her weekend softball team, or may be the top of the class at adult-extension school. There is no rule that states that you have to judge yourself by a singular dimension, even if society suggests otherwise. For example, I know I’m not the best computer programmer and I’m not the best financial writer either. But if you take the combination of those two skills and I have a bit of an edge. 

It reminds me of what Scott Adams said about what it takes to have a great career: If you want something extraordinary, you have two paths: 1. Become the best at one specific thing. 2. Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things. The same is true with status. You don’t have to be the best at any one thing. But if you can get pretty good at a few things, you can avoid the pitfalls of trying to be #1 and the status battles that can go along with it. I know some of you will say “Just ignore the status game altogether,” but this is easier said than done. Like many other animals, we are biologically wired to respond to status. Ignorance is not the way out. 

The way out is building a solid foundation of status in multiple things. It’s about becoming diversified in your life, not just your portfolio. 

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Sunday, April 3, 2022

Our Universe

In 2003 NASA pointed the Hubble Telescope at a region of seemingly empty sky and left it there. Over the course of two months, imperceptible drips of light collected in the basin of its 8 foot wide mirror. When they finally combined the 800 exposures of nearly perfectly black sky, a total of 11 days worth of light, they revealed an image speckled with 10,000 galaxies. The oldest of the photons that ended their life in the electronics of the Hubble had traveled from their birth star across the universe for 13.2 billion years. These photons had already completed half of their journey when the earth coalesced. 10,000 galaxies. Our own galaxy, not exceptional in any way, contains around 100 billion stars. In the patch that the Hubble photographed, the size of a millimeter held a meter away, there are on the order of a quadrillion stars. And yet it would take 12 million of such patches to tile the sphere of the sky. How can we understand the scale of this? A quadrillion is a ridiculous number. It’s the kind of number that young boys make up at recess to say how much stupider their friends are, combining syllables at random, not even sure if it’s real.
Consider the leaves of a forest.
A mature tree has somewhere around 50,000 leaves.
The state of Pennsylvania has 16 billion trees.
There are as many stars in the Hubble Ultra Deep Field as there are leaves on all the trees in the state of Pennsylvania.
Consider grass in a meadow.
There are around 50 blades of grass in a square inch of meadow.
The Willamette Valley is 5700 square miles.
If the Willamette valley were all grassland, it would contain as many blades of grass as there are stars in the Hubble Ultra Deep Field.
Consider the rain in a thunderstorm.
A raindrop in a large storm weighs around a tenth of a gram.
A convective storm system can drop 100 million tons of rain.
There are as many raindrops in a large storm system as there are stars in the Hubble Ultra Deep Field.
Consider sand on a beach.
There are about 1 billion grains of sand in a cubic foot.
Ocean beach in San Francisco has around 4,500,000 square feet of sand above water.
The top 3 inches of sand of the whole surface of Ocean Beach contain as many grains of sand as there are stars in the Hubble Ultra Deep Field.
Consider the ocean.
A milliliter of ocean water can contain a million plankton.
An olympic swimming pool contains 2.5 million liters of water.
A pool filled with sea water can contain as many plankton as there are stars in the Hubble Ultra Deep Field. One quadrillion stars, in a tiny slice of the sky. If we photographed the entire sky this way, we would have to multiply all of these numbers by twelve million. This is our universe as far as we can see, twelve million Pennsylvania’s leaves, twelve million Willamette Valley’s blades of grass, twelve million storm systems of rain, twelve million Ocean Beaches of sand, twelve million swimming pools of plankton.
The Hubble Ultra Deep Field The James Webb Space Telescope is currently on its way to its destination far from the earth where it will look into the early universe without the glare of the sun and the earth to interfere. On March 16th, it produced an image of a star that it was using to calibrate its mirrors. A distant star is a point source of light, and so by making fine adjustments to the mirrors to resolve that point more clearly, it can tune them to make clear images. In the process, it captured an image full of distant galaxies by accident.
The James Webb Telescope is expected to begin taking its first real images in June. Just imagine the scale of what we’ll see. Source –