Category: Culture

Descriptions Aren’t Prescriptions

When we look at a representation of reality, we can choose to either see it as descriptive, meaning it tells us what the world is currently like, or as prescriptive, meaning it tells us how the world should be. Descriptions teach us, but they also give us room to innovate. Prescriptions can get us stuck. One place this tension shows up is in language.

In one chapter of The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, David Graeber describes his experience of learning Malagasy, the national language of Madagascar. While the language’s writing system came about in the fifteenth century, it wasn’t until the early nineteenth century that missionaries documented the rules of Malagasy grammar for the purpose of translating scripture.

Of course, the “rules” of Malagasy the missionaries recorded weren’t rules at all. They were reflections of how people spoke at that point in time, as far as outside observers could tell. Languages don’t usually come into existence when someone invents the rules for them. Instead, languages evolve and change over time as speakers make modifications or respond to new needs.

However, those early nineteenth-century records remained in place as the supposed “official” version of Malagasy. Children learned the old form of grammar in school, even as they spoke a somewhat different version of the language at home. For Graeber, learning to speak the version of Malagasy people actually understood in conversation was a challenge. Native speakers he hired would instruct him on the nineteenth-century grammatical principles, then turn and speak to each other in a whole other fashion.

When asked why they couldn’t teach him the version of the language they spoke, Graeber’s Malagasy teachers responded that they were just using slang. Asked why no one seemed to speak the official version, they said people were too lazy. Graeber writes, “Clearly the problem was that the entire population had failed to memorize their lessons properly. But what they were actually denying was the legitimacy of collective creativity, the free play of the system. ” While the official rules stayed the same over the decades, the language itself kept evolving. People assumed the fault of not speaking “proper” Malagasy lay with them, not with the outdated dictionary and grammar. They confused a description for a prescription. He writes:

It never seems to occur to anyone—until you point it out—that had the missionaries came and written their books two hundred years later, current usages would be considered the correct ones, and anyone speaking as they had two hundred years ago would themselves be assumed to be in error.

Graeber sees the same phenomenon playing out in other languages for which grammars and dictionaries only came into existence a century or two ago. Often, such languages were mostly spoken and, like Malagasy, no one made formal records until the need arose for people from elsewhere to make translations. Instead of treating those records as descriptive and outdated, those teaching the language treat them as prescriptive—despite knowing they’re not practical for everyday use.

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Why don’t people talk “proper”?

So why can’t people just speak a language per the official rules? If someone has gone to all the effort of identifying and recording the rules and people received instruction on them in school, why not follow them? Why keep changing things up?

If languages didn’t evolve, it would make life a lot easier for historians looking at texts from the past. It would also simplify matters for people learning the language, for those coming from different areas, and even for speakers across generations. Yet all languages change all the time.

Graeber suggests the reason for this is because people like to play. We find it dull to speak according to the official rules of our language. We seek out novelty in our everyday lives and do whatever it takes to avoid boredom. Even if each person only plays a little bit once in a while, the results compound. Graeber explains that “this playing around will have cumulative effects.”

Languages still need conventions so people can understand each other. The higher the similarity between the versions of a language different people speak, the more they can communicate. At the same time, they cannot remain rigid. Trying to follow an unyielding set of strict rules will inevitably curtail the usefulness of a language and prevent it from developing in interesting and necessary ways. Languages need a balance: enough guidance to help everyone understand each other and provide an entry point for learners, and enough flexibility to keep updating the rules as actual usage changes.

As a result, languages call into question our idea of freedom: “It’s worth thinking about language for a moment, because one thing it reveals, probably better than any other example, is that there is a basic paradox in our very idea of freedom. On the one hand, rules are by their nature constraining. Speech codes, rules of etiquette, and grammatical rules, all have the effect of limiting what we can and cannot say. ” On the other hand, no rules whatsoever mean no one can understand each other.

Languages need frameworks, but no amount of grammar classes or official dictionaries will prevent people from playing and having fun with their speech.

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The dictionary is not the language

“The map is not the territory” means that any representation of reality has to be a simplification that may contain errors, become outdated, or reflect biases. Maps remove details that aren’t necessary for their intended use. Representations of complex systems may show expected behavior or ideal behavior. For example, the London Underground map doesn’t reflect the distances between stations because this information isn’t important to most commuters. If a map represented its territory without reducing anything, it would be identical to the territory and therefore would be useless. In fact, the simplest maps can be the most useful because they’re the easiest to understand and remember.

Sometimes maps are descriptive, and sometimes they’re prescriptive; often they’re a bit of both. We run into problems when we confuse one type for another and try to navigate an idealized territory or make the real territory fit an idealized image.

A language’s grammar and dictionary are a sort of map. They take a complex system—a language spoken by what could be tens of millions of people—and aim to represent it with something which is, by comparison, simple. The official rules are not the language itself, but they provide guidance for navigating it. Much like a map of a city needs periodic updates as parts are torn down, built up, renamed, destroyed, added, and so on, the official rules need updating as the language changes. Trying to learn Malagasy using grammar rules written two hundred years ago is like trying to navigate Antananarivo using a street map made two hundred years ago.

A map of a complex system, like a language, is meant to help us find our way by giving us a sense of how things looked at one point in time—it’s usually descriptive. It doesn’t necessarily tell us how that system should look, and we may run into problems if we try to make it conform to the map, ignoring the system’s own adaptive properties. Even if the cartographer never intended this, we can end up treating a map as a prescription. We try to make reality conform to the map. This is what occurs with languages. Graeber calls this the “grammar-book effect”:

People do not invent languages by writing grammars, they write grammars—at least, the first grammars to be written for any given language—by observing the tacit, largely unconscious rules that people seem to be employing when they speak. Yet once a book exists, and especially once it is employed in schoolrooms, people feel that the rules are not just descriptions of how people do talk, but prescriptions for how they should talk.

As we’ve seen, one reason the map is not the territory with language is because people feel compelled to play and experiment. When we encounter representations of systems involving people, we should keep in mind that while we may need rules for the sake of working together and understanding each other, we’re always pushing up against and reshaping those rules. We find it boring to follow a rigid prescription.

For instance, imagine some of the documents you might receive upon starting a role at a new company. Process documents showing step by step how to do the main tasks you’ll be expected to perform. But when the person you’re replacing shows you how to do those same tasks, you notice they don’t follow the listed steps at all. When you ask why, they explain that the process documents were written before they started actually carrying out those tasks, meaning they discovered more efficient ways afterward.

Why keep the process documents, then? Because for someone filling in or starting out, it might make sense to follow them. It’s the most defensible option. Once you truly know the territory and won’t change something without considering why it was there in the first place, you can play with the rules. Those documents might be useful as a description, but they’re unlikely to remain a prescription for long.

The same is true for laws. Sometimes aspects of them are just descriptive of how things are at one point in time, but we end up having to keep following them to the letter because they haven’t been updated. A law might have been written at a time when documents needed sending by letter, meaning certain delays for shipping. Now they can be sent by email. If the law hasn’t been updated, those delay allowances turn from descriptions into prescriptions. Or a law might reflect what people were permitted to do at the time, but now we assume people should have the right to do that thing even if we have new evidence it’s not the best idea. We are less likely to change laws if we persist in viewing them as prescriptive.

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Conclusion

Descriptions of reality are practical for helping us navigate it, while also giving us room to change things. Prescriptions are helpful for giving us ways of understanding each other and providing enough structure for shared conventions, but they can also become outdated or end up limiting flexibility. When you encounter a representation of something, it’s useful to consider which parts are descriptive and which parts are prescriptive. Remember that both prescriptions and descriptions can and should change over time.

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The FS team were saddened to hear of David Graeber’s passing, shortly after we completed this article. We hope his books will continue to inspire and educate new readers for many years to come.

The Spiral of Silence

Our desire to fit in with others means we don’t always say what we think. We only express opinions that seem safe. Here’s how the spiral of silence works and how we can discover what people really think.

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Be honest: How often do you feel as if you’re really able to express your true opinions without fearing judgment? How often do you bite your tongue because you know you hold an unpopular view? How often do you avoid voicing any opinion at all for fear of having misjudged the situation?

Even in societies with robust free speech protections, most people don’t often say what they think. Instead they take pains to weigh up the situation and adjust their views accordingly. This comes down to the “spiral of silence,” a human communication theory developed by German researcher Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann in the 1960s and ’70s. The theory explains how societies form collective opinions and how we make decisions surrounding loaded topics.

Let’s take a look at how the spiral of silence works and how understanding it can give us a more realistic picture of the world.

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How the spiral of silence works

According to Noelle-Neumann’s theory, our willingness to express an opinion is a direct result of how popular or unpopular we perceive it to be. If we think an opinion is unpopular, we will avoid expressing it. If we think it is popular, we will make a point of showing we think the same as others.

Controversy is also a factor—we may be willing to express an unpopular uncontroversial opinion but not an unpopular controversial one. We perform a complex dance whenever we share views on anything morally loaded.

Our perception of how “safe” it is to voice a particular view comes from the clues we pick up, consciously or not, about what everyone else believes. We make an internal calculation based on signs like what the mainstream media reports, what we overhear coworkers discussing on coffee breaks, what our high school friends post on Facebook, or prior responses to things we’ve said.

We also weigh up the particular context, based on factors like how anonymous we feel or whether our statements might be recorded.

As social animals, we have good reason to be aware of whether voicing an opinion might be a bad idea. Cohesive groups tend to have similar views. Anyone who expresses an unpopular opinion risks social exclusion or even ostracism within a particular context or in general. This may be because there are concrete consequences, such as losing a job or even legal penalties. Or there may be less official social consequences, like people being less friendly or willing to associate with you. Those with unpopular views may suppress them to avoid social isolation.

Avoiding social isolation is an important instinct. From an evolutionary biology perspective, remaining part of a group is important for survival, hence the need to at least appear to share the same views as anyone else. The only time someone will feel safe to voice a divergent opinion is if they think the group will share it or be accepting of divergence, or if they view the consequences of rejection as low. But biology doesn’t just dictate how individuals behave—it ends up shaping communities. It’s almost impossible for us to step outside of that need for acceptance.

A feedback loop pushes minority opinions towards less and less visibility—hence why Noelle-Neumann used the word “spiral.” Each time someone voices a majority opinion, they reinforce the sense that it is safe to do so. Each time someone receives a negative response for voicing a minority opinion, it signals to anyone sharing their view to avoid expressing it.

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An example of the spiral of silence

A 2014 Pew Research survey of 1,801 American adults examined the prevalence of the spiral of silence on social media. Researchers asked people about their opinions on one public issue: Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations of US government surveillance of citizens’ phones and emails. They selected this issue because, while controversial, prior surveys suggested a roughly even split in public opinion surrounding whether the leaks were justified and whether such surveillance was reasonable.

Asking respondents about their willingness to share their opinions in different contexts highlighted how the spiral of silence plays out. 86% of respondents were willing to discuss the issue in person, but only about half as many were willing to post about it on social media. Of the 14% who would not consider discussing the Snowden leaks in person, almost none (0.3%) were willing to turn to social media instead.

Both in person and online, respondents reported far greater willingness to share their views with people they knew agreed with them—three times as likely in the workplace and twice as likely in a Facebook discussion.

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The implications of the spiral of silence

The end result of the spiral of silence is a point where no one publicly voices a minority opinion, regardless of how many people believe it. The first implication of this is that the picture we have of what most people believe is not always accurate. Many people nurse opinions they would never articulate to their friends, coworkers, families, or social media followings.

A second implication is that the possibility of discord makes us less likely to voice an opinion at all, assuming we are not trying to drum up conflict. In the aforementioned Pew survey, people were more comfortable discussing a controversial story in person than online. An opinion voiced online has a much larger potential audience than one voiced face to face, and it’s harder to know exactly who will see it. Both of these factors increase the risk of someone disagreeing.

If we want to gauge what people think about something, we need to remove the possibility of negative consequences. For example, imagine a manager who often sets overly tight deadlines, causing immense stress to their team. Everyone knows this is a problem and discusses it among themselves, recognizing that more realistic deadlines would be motivating, and unrealistic ones are just demoralizing. However, no one wants to say anything because they’ve heard the manager say that people who can’t handle pressure don’t belong in that job. If the manager asks for feedback about their leadership style, they’re not going to hear what they need to hear if they know who it comes from.

A third implication is that what seems like a sudden change in mainstream opinions can in fact be the result of a shift in what is acceptable to voice, not in what people actually think. A prominent public figure getting away with saying something controversial may make others feel safe to do the same. A change in legislation may make people comfortable saying what they already thought.

For instance, if recreational marijuana use is legalized where someone lives, they might freely remark to a coworker that they consume it and consider it harmless. Even if that was true before the legislation change, saying so would have been too fraught, so they might have lied or avoided the topic. The result is that mainstream opinions can appear to change a great deal in a short time.

A fourth implication is that highly vocal holders of a minority opinion can end up having a disproportionate influence on public discourse. This is especially true if that minority is within a group that already has a lot of power.

While this was less the case during Noelle-Neumann’s time, the internet makes it possible for a vocal minority to make their opinions seem far more prevalent than they actually are—and therefore more acceptable. Indeed, the most extreme views on any spectrum can end up seeming most normal online because people with a moderate take have less of an incentive to make themselves heard.

In anonymous environments, the spiral of silence can end up reversing itself, making the most fringe views the loudest.

Muscular Bonding: How Dance Made Us Human

Do we dance simply for recreation? Or is there a primal urge that compels us to do it? Historian William McNeill claims it saved our species by creating community togetherness and transforming “me” into “we.”

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“Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.”  

— Voltaire

Why do we dance? To most, it might seem like a trivial topic. But if you contemplate the sheer pervasiveness of dance across all of human society, it becomes apparent that it is anything but.

It’s more useful to learn foundational principles that won’t go out of date than it is to go all in on the latest fad. When it comes to understanding people, we can learn a lot by studying human universals that exist across cultures and time. These universals give us insight into how to create connections in a way that fosters social cohesion and cooperation.

Once such universal is dance. At every point throughout history, all over the world, people from every walk of life have come together to dance; to move in unison alongside music, singing, and other rhythmic input, like drumming or stomping. The specifics and the names attached vary. But something akin to dance is an ever-present cultural feature throughout human history.

Soldiers perform military drills and march in time. People in rural communities carried out community dances at regular events, like harvests. Hunters in tribal communities dance before they go off to catch food and have likely done so for thousands of years. We dance during initiation rites, like coming-of-age ceremonies. We dance before going to war. We dance at weddings and religious festivals. Countercultural movements, like hippies in the United States, dance. Fanatical leaders force their followers to perform set movements together. Calisthenics and group exercise are popular worldwide, especially in parts of Asia.

The more you look for it, the more examples of dance-like activities appear everywhere. From a biological perspective, we know species-wide costly activities that are costly in terms of time, energy and other resources must have a worthwhile payoff. Thus, the energy expended in dance must aid our survival. In his 1995 book, Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History, historian William H. McNeill made a bold claim: he argued that we owe our success as a species to collective synchronized movements. In other words, we’re still here because we dance.

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In the 1940s, the U.S. Army drafted William H. McNeill. With limited supplies, there was little to occupy him and his peers during training. So, whenever things got boring, they performed marching drills. For hours, they walked in circles under the hot Texas sun. On paper, it was dull and pointless. What were they even achieving? When McNeill reflected, it seemed strange that drills should be an integral part of training. It also seemed strange that he’d quite enjoyed it, as had most of his peers. McNeil writes:

Marching aimlessly about on the drill field, swaggering in conformity with prescribed military postures, conscious only of keeping in step so as to make the next move correctly and in time somehow felt good. Words are inadequate to describe the emotion aroused by the prolonged movement in unison that drilling involved . . . marching became an end in itself.

Upon further thought and study, McNeill came to identify the indescribable feeling he experienced during army drills as something “far older than language and critically important in human history, because the emotion it arouses constitutes an indefinitely expansible basis for social cohesion among any and every group that keeps together in time.”

What exactly did he experience? At the time, there was no term for it. But McNeill coined one: “muscular bonding.” This refers to a sense of euphoric connection that is sparked by performing rhythmic movements in unison to music or chanting. Few people are immune to the influence of muscular bonding. It played a role in the formation and maintenance of many of our key institutions, such as religion, the military, and politics. We can all relate to the endorphin hit that comes from strenuous dancing, as with other forms of exercise. If you’ve ever danced with a group of people, you may have also noticed a remarkable sense of connection and unity with them. This is the effect of muscular bonding.

Seeing as there has been little study into the phenomenon, McNeill puts forward a theory which is, by his own admission, unprovable. It nonetheless offers one perspective on muscular bonding. He argues that it works because “rhythmic input from muscles and voice, after gradually suffusing through the entire nervous system, may provoke echoes of the fetal condition when a major and perhaps principal external stimulus to the developing brain was the mother’s heartbeat.” In other words, through dancing and synchronized movement, we experience something akin to what we did at the earliest point of existence. While most likely impossible to prove or disprove, it’s an interesting proposition.

Since the publication of Keeping Together in Time, new research has lent greater support to McNeill’s theories about the effects of muscular bonding, although studies are still limited.

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How exactly has muscular bonding aided us in more recent times? To explore the concept, let’s look at the type McNeill was closest acquainted with: the military drill. It enables collective organization through emotional connections facilitated by synchronous movement.

Drills have obvious, tangible benefits. They encourage obedience and compliance with orders, which are valuable attributes in the fog of war. They can fit in with maneuvers and similar group efforts on the battlefield. In ancient times, it helped units stay together on the field and work together cooperatively when communication was difficult, and all fighting took place on the ground.

But drills are also a powerful form of muscular bonding. According to McNeill’s theory, they assist in creating strong connections between soldiers, possibly because the physical movements promote the experience of being a small part of a large, cohesive unit.

While we cannot establish if it is causation or correlation, it is notable that many of the most successful armies throughout history emphasized drills. For example, the ancient Greeks and Romans both incorporated drills into their military training. And around the sixteenth century, drills became the standard in European armies. McNeill explains how this helped soldiers develop intense ties to each other and their cause:

The emotional resonance of daily and prolonged close order drill created such a lively esprit de corps among the poverty-stricken peasant recruits and urban outcasts who came to constitute the rank and file of European armies that other social ties faded into insignificance beside them.

These armies were cohesive, despite the different backgrounds of members. What made this possible was the allegiance soldiers had to each other. Loyalty to the army replaced former loyalties, such as prior alignments with the church or their families. Many soldiers report experiencing the sense that they fought for their peers, not for their leaders or their country or ideology. And it was moving together that helped break down barriers and allowed the group to reconstruct itself as a single unit with a shared goal.

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“You can’t dance and be sad. You can listen to music and cry, you can read and cry, you can draw and cry but you can’t dance and cry. The body wont let you.”

Esther Perel

Today, a growing percentage of people find themselves alienated from any particular community, without strong bonds to any discernible group. Loneliness is on the rise. More people live alone, remain single or childless, move to new geographical locations on a regular basis, and otherwise fail to develop close ties. This is a shift that is unprecedented in human history.

What that means is that there is tremendous value in considering how we can bring connection back into our lives; we must figure out how to help alleviate the dangerous effects of isolation and alienation from each other. There is an incredible precedent in history for using dance to create a sense of community and intimacy. Physical movement helps us forge connections that can override our differences. For instance, countercultural movements of those people rejected by mainstream society have often danced to create their own distinct community, as was the case during the hippy movement in 1960s America.

Giving thought to what it takes to unify people is even more important now as we face problems that affect humanity as a whole and require wide-scale collaboration to resolve. Again and again, history has shown us that keeping together in time forms groups that have a power greater than the sum of their parts. The emergent properties of moving together can be achieved even if we are not physically in the same space. As long as we know we are moving in a way that is being done by others, the bonding effects happen.

McNeill writes: “It is and always has been a powerful force at work among humankind whether for good or ill. . . . Our future, like our past, depends on how we utilize these modes of coordinating common effort for agreed purposes.”

Muscular bonding is not a panacea. It cannot instantly heal deep rifts in society, nor can it save individuals from the effects of social isolation. But it will pay off for us to look at history and see the tools we have at our disposal for bringing people together. Dance is one such tool. Whether you’re able to attend a concert or club, or simply have a dance party in your living room with your kids or over video chat with loved ones you can’t be near, when we move together we have an experience that deepens our connection to one another and gives us the openings for unity and cooperation.

The Code of Hammurabi: The Best Rule To Manage Risk

Almost 4,000 years ago, King Hammurabi of Babylon, Mesopotamia, laid out one of the first sets of laws.

Hammurabi’s Code is among the oldest translatable writings. It consists of 282 laws, most concerning punishment. Each law takes into account the perpetrator’s status. The code also includes the earliest known construction laws, designed to align the incentives of builder and occupant to ensure that builders created safe homes:

  1. If a builder builds a house for a man and does not make its construction firm, and the house which he has built collapses and causes the death of the owner of the house, that builder shall be put to death.
  2. If it causes the death of the son of the owner of the house, they shall put to death a son of that builder.
  3. If it causes the death of a slave of the owner of the house, he shall give to the owner of the house a slave of equal value.
  4. If it destroys property, he shall restore whatever it destroyed, and because he did not make the house which he builds firm and it collapsed, he shall rebuild the house which collapsed at his own expense.
  5. If a builder builds a house for a man and does not make its construction meet the requirements and a wall falls in, that builder shall strengthen the wall at his own expense.

Hammurabi became ruler of Babylon in 1792 BC and held the position for 43 years. In the era of city-states, Hammurabi grew his modest kingdom (somewhere between 60 and 160 square kilometers) by conquering several neighboring states. Satisfied, then, with the size of the area he controlled, Hammurabi settled down to rule his people.

“This world of ours appears to be separated by a slight and precarious margin of safety from a most singular and unexpected danger.”

— Arthur Conan Doyle

Hammurabi was a fair leader (from the little we know about him) and concerned with the well-being of his people. He transformed the area, ordering the construction of irrigation ditches to improve agricultural productivity, as well as supplying cities with protective walls and fortresses. Hammurabi also renovated temples and religious sites.

By today’s standards, Hammurabi was a dictator. Far from abusing his power, however, he considered himself the “shepherd” of his people. Although the Babylonians kept slaves, they too had rights. Slaves could marry other people of any status, start businesses, and purchase their freedom, and they were protected from mistreatment.

At first glance, it might seem as if we have little to learn from Hammurabi. I mean, why bother learning about the ancient Babylonians? They were just barbaric farmers, right?

It seems we’re not as different as it appears. Our modern beliefs are not separate from those of people in Hammurabi’s time; they are a continuation of them. Early legal codes are the ancestors of the ones we now put our faith in.

Whether a country is a dictatorship or democracy, one of the keys to any effective legal system is the ability for anyone to understand its laws. We’re showing cracks in ours and we can learn from the simplicity of Hammurabi’s Code, which concerned itself with practical justice and not lofty principles. To even call it a set of laws is misleading. The ancient Babylonians did not appear to have an equivalent term.

Three important concepts are implicit in Hammurabi’s Code: reciprocity, accountability, and incentives.

We have no figures for how often Babylonian houses fell down before and after the implementation of the Code. We have no idea how many (if any) people were put to death as a result of failing to adhere to Hammurabi’s construction laws. But we do know that human self-preservation instincts are strong. More than strong, they underlie most of our behavior. Wanting to avoid death is the most powerful incentive we have. If we assume that people felt and thought the same way 4000 years ago, we can guess at the impact of the Code.

Imagine yourself as a Babylonian builder. Each time you construct a house, there is a risk it will collapse if you make any mistakes. So, what do you do? You allow for the widest possible margin of safety. You plan for any potential risks. You don’t cut corners or try to save a little bit of money. No matter what, you are not going to allow any known flaws in the construction. It wouldn’t be worth it. You want to walk away certain that the house is solid.

Now contrast that with modern engineers or builders.

They don’t have much skin in the game. The worst they face if they cause a death is a fine. We saw this in Hurricane Katrina —1600 people died due to flooding caused in part by the poor design of hurricane protection systems in New Orleans. Hindsight analysis showed that the city’s floodwalls, levees, pumps, and gates were ill designed and maintained. The death toll was worse than it would otherwise have been. And yet, no one was held accountable.

Hurricane Katrina is regarded as a disaster that was part natural and part man-made. In recent months, in the Grenfell Tower fire in London, we saw the effects of negligent construction. At least 80 people died in a blaze that is believed to have started accidentally but that, according to expert analysis, was accelerated by the conscious use of cheap building materials that had failed safety tests.

The portions of Hammurabi’s Code that deal with construction laws, as brutal as they are (and as uncertain as we are of their short-term effects) illustrate an important concept: margins of safety. When we construct a system, ensuring that it can handle the expected pressures is insufficient.

A Babylonian builder would not have been content to make a house that was strong enough to handle just the anticipated stressors. A single Black Swan event — such as abnormal weather — could cause its collapse and in turn the builder’s own death, so builders had to allow for a generous margin of safety. The larger the better. In 59 mph winds, we do not want to be in a house built to withstand 60 mph winds.

But our current financial systems do not incentivize people to create wide margins of safety. Instead, they do the opposite — they encourage dangerous risk-taking.

Nassim Taleb referred to Hammurabi’s Code in a New York Times opinion piece in which he described a way to prevent bankers from threatening the public well-being. His solution? Stop offering bonuses for the risky behavior of people who will not be the ones paying the price if the outcome is bad. Taleb wrote:

…it’s time for a fundamental reform: Any person who works for a company that, regardless of its current financial health, would require a taxpayer-financed bailout if it failed should not get a bonus, ever. In fact, all pay at systemically important financial institutions — big banks, but also some insurance companies and even huge hedge funds — should be strictly regulated.

The issue, in Taleb’s opinion, is not the usual complaint of income inequality or overpay. Instead, he views bonuses as asymmetric incentives. They reward risks but do not punish the subsequent mistakes that cause “hidden risks to accumulate in the financial system and become a catalyst for disaster.” It’s a case of “heads, I win; tails, you lose.”

Bonuses encourage bankers to ignore the potential for Black Swan events, with the 2008 financial crisis being a prime (or rather, subprime) example. Rather than ignoring these events, banks should seek to minimize the harm caused.

Some career fields have a strict system of incentives and disincentives, both official and unofficial. Doctors get promotions and respect if they do their jobs well, and risk heavy penalties for medical malpractice. With the exception of experiments in which patients are fully informed of and consent to the risks, doctors don’t get a free pass for taking risks that cause harm to patients.

The same goes for military and security personnel. As Taleb wrote, “we trust the military and homeland security personnel with our lives, yet we don’t give them lavish bonuses. They get promotions and the honor of a job well done if they succeed, and the severe disincentive of shame if they fail.”

Hammurabi and his advisors were unconcerned with complex laws and legalese. Instead, they wanted the Code to produce results and to be understandable by everyone. And Hammurabi understood how incentives work — a lesson we’d be well served to learn.

When you align incentives of everyone in both positive and negative ways, you create a system that takes care of itself. Taleb describes Law 229 of Hammurabi’s Code as “the best risk-management rule ever.” Although barbaric to modern eyes, it took into account certain truisms. Builders typically know more about construction than their clients do and can take shortcuts in ways that aren’t obvious. After completing construction, a builder can walk away with a little extra profit, while the hapless client is unknowingly left with an unsafe house.

The little extra profit that builders can generate is analogous to the bonus system in some of today’s industries. It rewards those who take unwise risks, trick their customers, and harm other people for their own benefit. Hammurabi’s system had the opposite effect; it united the interests of the person getting paid and the person paying. Rather than the builder being motivated to earn as much profit as possible and the homeowner being motivated to get a safe house, they both shared the latter goal.

The Code illustrates the efficacy of using self-preservation as an incentive. We feel safer in airplanes that are flown by a person and not by a machine because, in part, we believe that pilots want to protect their own lives along with ours.

When we lack an incentive to protect ourselves, we are far more likely to risk the safety of other people. This is why bankers are willing to harm their customers if it means the bankers get substantial bonuses. This is why companies that market harmful products, such as fast food and tobacco, are content to play down the risks. Or why the British initiative to reduce the population of Indian cobras by compensating those who caught the snakes had the opposite effect. Or why Wells Fargo employees opened millions of fake accounts to reach sales targets.

Incentives backfire when there are no negative consequences for those who exploit them. External incentives are based on extrinsic motivation, which easily goes awry.

When we have real skin in the game—when we have upsides and downsides—we care about outcomes in a way that we wouldn’t otherwise. We act in a different way. We take our time. We use second-order thinking and inversion. We look for evidence or a way to disprove it.

Four thousand years ago, the Babylonians understood the power of incentives, yet we seem to have since forgotten about the flaws in human nature that make it difficult to resist temptation.

Krista Tippett: On Generous Listening and Asking Better Questions

Krista Tippett, whose wonderful book Becoming Wise: An Inquiry Into the Art of Living distills many of her conversations, offers us a window into exploring ourselves and others, through generous listening and asking better questions by moving away from the false refuge of certitude.

On the art of starting new kinds of conversations Tippett offers shining wisdom, countering the notion that we need to win or lose.

I find myself drawn to black holes in common life— painful, complicated, shameful things we can scarcely talk about at all, alongside the arguments we replay ad nauseam, with the same polar opposites defining, winning, or losing depending on which side you’re on, with predictable dead-end results. The art of starting new kinds of conversations, of creating new departure points and new outcomes in our common grappling, is not rocket science. But it does require that we nuance or retire some habits so ingrained that they feel like the only way it can be done. We’ve all been trained to be advocates for what we care about. This has its place and its value in civil society, but it can get in the way of the axial move of deciding to care about each other.

Listening is an everyday act, and perhaps art, that many of us neglect.

Listening is more than being quiet while the other person speaks until you can say what you have to say.

Tippett introduces us to generous listening, language she picked up from a conversation with Rachel Naomi Remen, who uses it to describe what doctors should practice. Tippett explains:

Generous listening is powered by curiosity, a virtue we can invite and nurture in ourselves to render it instinctive. It involves a kind of vulnerability— a willingness to be surprised, to let go of assumptions and take in ambiguity. The listener wants to understand the humanity behind the words of the other, and patiently summons one’s own best self and one’s own best words and questions.

Of the many reasons we would want to engage and renew our listening skills, asking better questions is near the top.

[W]e trade mostly in answers— competing answers— and in questions that corner, incite, or entertain. In journalism we have a love affair with the “tough” question, which is often an assumption masked as an inquiry and looking for a fight. … My only measure of the strength of a question now is in the honesty and eloquence it elicits.

Questions are the means by which we explore ourselves, each other, and the world.

If I’ve learned nothing else, I’ve learned this: a question is a powerful thing, a mighty use of words. Questions elicit answers in their likeness. Answers mirror the questions they rise, or fall, to meet. So while a simple question can be precisely what’s needed to drive to the heart of the matter, it’s hard to meet a simplistic question with anything but a simplistic answer. It’s hard to transcend a combative question. But it’s hard to resist a generous question. We all have it in us to formulate questions that invite honesty, dignity, and revelation. There is something redemptive and life-giving about asking a better question.

Questions themselves can offer no immediate need of answers. Counter to our notion that everything must have an answer, some of the most worthwhile questions are the ones with no immediate answers.

And yet we insist on dividing so much of life into competing certainties.

We want others to acknowledge that our answers are right. We call the debate or get on the same page or take a vote and move on. The alternative involves a different orientation to the point of conversing in the first place: to invite searching— not on who is right and who is wrong and the arguments on every side; not on whether we can agree; but on what is at stake in human terms for us all. There is value in learning to speak together honestly and relate to each other with dignity, without rushing to common ground that would leave all the hard questions hanging.

In a way answers are like the goals that Scott Adams brought to our attention — a false, but comforting, refuge. Yet, for many of us probing ourselves with questions about how we should live and what it means to be a citizen in a global world, it is in the search that we find meaning.

Enabling the Trust That Society Needs to Thrive By

“Trust is the expectation that arises within a community of regular, honest, and cooperative behavior, based on commonly shared norms, on the part of other members of that community.”
— Francis Fukuyama

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Our society is largely based on trust. In fact, it is so ubiquitous we suspect you don’t normally notice it’s influence; for most of us, it is largely habitual.

Trust has evolved as our interactions and influence have become more entwined over time, and the complexity of society has increased. It’s not just our social interactions that have adapted over the years; our tools and technology have also changed dramatically.

This backdrop makes for a fascinating discussion by security technologist Bruce Schneier in his book Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust That Society Needs to Thrive By. The book outlines how society establishes and maintains trust and tackles some core concepts related to trust from the past, present, and future.

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Why is trust such an important aspect of our society? Part of it is because of the sheer complexity of how our species is linked and interacts.

All complex ecosystems, whether they are biological ecosystems like the human body, natural ecosystems like a rainforest, social ecosystems like an open-air market, or socio-technical ecosystems like the global financial system or the Internet are deeply interlinked. Individual units within those ecosystems are interdependent, each doing its part and relying on the other units to do their parts as well.

To get a better idea of the sheer breadth and depth of this, take a moment to think about situations in your day to day where you choose (consciously or unconsciously) to trust. In the act of driving you are trusting: your fellow drivers, your car manufacturer, the gas station, and your mechanic. When eating in a restaurant you are trusting: your waiter/waitress, the cooks preparing the food, and the farmers who provided the raw ingredients.

We have learned through experience that we can trust somewhat implicitly in these situations, it is rare that someone breaks our trust in the above examples but it does happen.

…all complex ecosystems contain parasites. Within every interdependent system, there are individuals who try to subvert the system to their own ends. These could be tapeworms in our digestive tracts, thieves in a bazaar, robbers disguised as plumbers, spammers on the Internet, or companies that move their profits offshore to evade taxes.

Or… a driver that passes you while texting and a restaurateur violating food health and safety codes to save money. These parasites are good examples of failures of trust. And what they all have in common is a conflict between the interests of society as a whole and the interests of specific individuals or a small group.

This conflict is perfectly normal. You will never have a state where absolutely everyone agrees, and this is a good thing. For example, someone might break the trust for what they believe to be moral reasons, not for selfish or petty reasons. History shows us that those who defy the group norm can even become the catalysts for dramatic, and much needed, social change.

Compliance isn’t always good, and defection isn’t always bad. Sometimes the group norm doesn’t deserve to be followed, and certain kinds of progress and innovation require violating trust. In a police state, everybody is compliant but no one trusts anybody. A too-compliant society is a stagnant society, and defection contains the seeds of social change.

On a micro level everyone defects sometimes. We are as complex as the society in which we live. We will agree with some societal norms and therefore cooperate in those moments, but at other times we may not agree and could defect. This is situational as well, we react differently when we are in desperate situations. We would all steal food if we had a starving family at home. (Or maybe worse, in the case of a truly awful situation.) We are far less likely to defect when all our needs are cared for.

Schneier argues it’s the scope of the defection that we should be worried about.

What we’re concerned with is the overall scope of defection. I mean this term to be general, comprising the number of defectors, the rate of their defection, the frequency of their defection, and the intensity (the amount of damage) of their defection.

The scope of defection is important because the level of cooperation/trust in a society is often indicative of health. Sociologist Barbara Misztal identified three critical functions performed by trust:

1. It makes social life more predictable,
2. It creates a sense of community, and
3. It makes it easier for people to work together.

If the rate of defection is too high then these critical functions are not being met. (As Charlie Munger likes to say, the highest form a civilization can reach is a seamless web of deserving trust.)

Since a healthy, thriving society requires a certain level of trust, we can attempt to nudge possible defectors into complying with the societal norms. The dilemma occurs when an individual has to make a choice between the group interest and their personal competing interest. The idea is that we can add societal pressure that can induce cooperation over selfishness in these types of situations.

In the book Schneier outlines four basic categories of societal pressure:

Moral pressure — A lot of societal pressure comes from inside our own heads. Most of us don’t steal, and it’s not because there are armed guards and alarms protecting piles of stuff. We won’t steal because we believe it’s wrong, or we’ll feel guilty if we do, or we want to follow the rules.

Reputation pressure — A wholly different, and much stronger, type of pressure comes from how others respond to our actions. Reputational pressure can be very powerful; both individuals and organizations feel a lot of pressure to follow the group norms because they don’t want a bad reputation.

Institutional pressure — Institutions have rules and laws. These are norms that are codified, and whose enactment and enforcement is generally delegated. Institutional pressure induces people to behave according to the group norm by imposing sanctions on those who don’t, and occasionally by rewarding those who do.

Security systems — Security systems are another form of societal pressure. This includes any security mechanism designed to induce cooperation, prevent defection, induce trust, and compel compliance. It includes things that work to prevent defectors, like door locks and tall fences; things that interdict defectors, like alarm systems and guards; things that only work after the fact, like forensic and audit systems; and mitigation systems that help the victim recover faster and care less that the defection occurred.

The book goes on to explain these concepts in greater detail as well as taking a look back at the evolution of cooperation, trust, and security.

Schneier also tackles issues like the influence of technology and what the future will bring. In all, Liars and Outliers is a fascinating look at how society enforces, evokes and elicits trustworthiness and compliance, as well as an interesting look at the role of the defector as either a catalyst for social change or the creator of risk in a healthy society.