Category: Human Nature

The Heart of Humanity

Hubert Dreyfus
“What distinguishes the risks I’m interested in from mere bravado is that they are taken in the interest of what one is committed to…”

Hubert Dreyfus is the preeminent expert on Heidegger so much so that in fact the various copies of Being and Time in his office are held together with rubber bands. In 1965 he took on the entire computer science department of MIT and in so doing explained the key differences between humans and computers.

The Moment of Clarity: Using the Human Sciences to Solve Your Toughest Business Problems, explains the problem:

Dreyfus claimed that symbolic representational artificial intelligence would never succeed because the algorithmic design— so skilled at following rule sets—had no ability to infer or intuit. To use anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s phrase, artificial intelligence was forever in the realm of thin description , completely incapable of understanding the “thick description” of our humanity. Today, such a claim seems commonplace, but at the time, Dreyfus was considered a maverick. He had never programmed a computer in his life, but his training in phenomenology and his deep knowledge of philosophy convinced him that our greatest asset as humans had nothing to do with our ability to follow rules. Humans are human because they have a perspective: they care about things. One might call it our ability to give a damn. And it is this quality that allows us to determine what matters and where we stand. A computer can’t do that.

The ability to distinguish between what is relevant and what is not is the key; this is perspective.

“What is relevant right now is that I am sitting here talking to you in this room,” Dreyfus told us. “What is not relevant is that the room may have ten billion specks of dust on the floor and two screws in the left corner and tiles that weigh a half pound each.”

The ability to have a perspective—to respond to what matters and what is meaningful— is at the heart of humanity and, by extension, at the heart of all successful businesses. A perspective implies that you have prioritized certain things— relevant things—and by consequence let some things go. This risk—letting profitable opportunities go for the sake of others— is the essence of all value propositions. We can’t solve all the problems for all the consumers all the time. Nor can we design products that meet all the needs of all the people everywhere. What we can do is risk responding to what calls us. We can find ourselves committed to a perspective. We can build a successful business that will sustain us.

Dreyfus summed it up by saying, “What distinguishes the risks I’m interested in from mere bravado is that they are taken in the interest of what one is committed to, what they have defined themselves in terms of, and what makes meaningful differences in their lives. This is the kind of risk that is a necessary step in becoming a master at anything.”

The Optimism Bias: Imagining A Positive Future

In The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain, Tali Sharot argues that we have a neurobiological basis for imagining a positive future.

“Humans,” she writes, “do not hold a positivity bias on account of having read too many self-help books. Rather, optimism may be so essential to our survival that it is hardwired into our most complex organ, the brain.”

From modern-day financial analysts to world leaders, newlyweds, the Los Angeles Lakers, and even birds, optimism biases human and nonhuman thought. It takes rational reasoning hostage, directing our expectations toward a better outcome without sufficient evidence to support such a conclusion.

Sharot argues the root of optimism starts with mental time travel.

Optimism starts with what may be the most extraordinary of human talents: mental time travel. That is, the ability to move back and forth through time and space in one’s mind. To think positively about our prospects, it helps to be able to imagine ourselves in the future. Although most of us take this ability for granted, our capacity to envision a different time and place is critical for our survival. It allows us to plan ahead, to save food and resources for times of scarcity, and to endure hard work in anticipation of a future reward.

While mental time travel has clear survival advantages, conscious foresight came to humans at an enormous price — the understanding that somewhere in the future, death awaits. This knowledge that old age, sickness, decline of mental power, and oblivion are somewhere around the corner, can be devastating.

Close your eyes for a second. Imagine five years from now. What pops into your head? How do you see your family life? How do you see yourself professionally?

Though each of us may define happiness in a different way, it remains the case that we are inclined to see ourselves moving happily toward professional success, fulfilling relationships, financial security, and stable health. Unemployment, divorce, debt, Alzheimer’s, and any number of other regrettably common misfortunes are rarely factored into our projections.

These (likely) unrealistic predictions of an amazing future extend to everything. We expect to do more work this week than last. Today was a bad day? No worries, tomorrow will be better.

The Optimism Bias

Challenging the assertion that the key to life is low expectations:

Some people believe the secret to happiness is low expectations. If we don’t expect greatness or find love or maintain health or achieve success, we will never be disappointed. If we are never disappointed when things don’t work out and are pleasantly surprised when things go well, we will be happy. It’s a good theory — but it’s wrong. Research shows that whatever the outcome, whether we succeed or we fail, people with high expectations tend to feel better. At the end of the day, how we feel when we get dumped or win an award depends mostly on how we interpret the event.

Maybe that’s why most of us wear rose-colored glasses:

We wear rose-tinted glasses whether we are eight or eighty. Schoolchildren as young as nine have been reported to express optimistic expectations about their adult lives, and a survey published in 2005 revealed that older adults (ages sixty to eighty) are just as likely to see the glass half full as middle-aged adults (ages thirty-six to fifty-nine) and young adults (ages eighteen to twenty-five). Optimism is prevalent in every age group, race, and socioeconomic status.

Sharot argues that one of the reasons the optimism bias is so powerful is precisely because, similar to our other biases, we’re largely unaware of its existence.

Yet data clearly shows that most people overestimate their prospects for professional achievement; expect their children to be extraordinarily gifted; miscalculate their likely life span (sometimes by twenty years or more); expect to be healthier than the average person and more successful than their peers; hugely underestimate their likelihood of divorce, cancer, and unemployment; and are confident overall that their future lives will be better than those their parents put up with. This is known as the optimism bias—the inclination to overestimate the likelihood of encountering positive events in the future and to underestimate the likelihood of experiencing negative events.

Having an overly positive sense of the future can be destructive. So what benefit does it serve?

Although the belief in a better future is often an illusion, optimism has clear benefits in the present. Hope keeps our minds at ease, lowers stress, and improves physical health. This is probably the most surprising benefit of optimism. All else being equal, optimists are healthier and live longer. It is not just that healthy people are more optimistic, but optimism can enhance health. Expecting our future to be good reduces stress and anxiety, which is good for our health. Researchers studying heart attack patients have found that optimists were more likely than nonoptimistic patients to take vitamins, eat low-fat diets, and exercise, thereby reducing their overall coronary risk. A study of cancer patients revealed that pessimistic patients under the age of 60 were more likely to die within eight months than nonpessimistic patients of the same initial health, status, and age.

She concludes:

Yes, optimism is on one level irrational and can also lead to unwanted outcomes. But the bias also protects and inspires us: It keeps us moving forward, rather than to the nearest high-rise ledge. To make progress, we need to be able to imagine alternative realities, and not just any old reality but a better one; and we need to believe that we can achieve it. Such faith helps motivate us to pursue our goals.

The Optimism Bias explores the optimism bias by investigating when it works for us and when it is destructive and gives examples of how it promotes well-being. If you’re not in the mood for a full book but still want to know more, read the shorter edition (Kindle only), The Science of Optimism: Why We’re Hard-Wired for Hope, which, in addition to the book, I quoted from above.

The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves

In his book, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves, Dan Ariely attempts to answer the question: “is dishonesty largely restricted to a few bad apples or is it a more widespread problem?”

He concludes that we’re mostly honest as long as the conditions are right:

We are going to take things from each other if we have a chance … many people need controls around them for them to do the right thing. … [T]he locksmith told Peter that locks are on doors only to keep honest people honest. “One percent of people will always be honest and never steal,” the locksmith said. “Another one percent will always be dishonest and always try to pick your lock and steal your television. And the rest will be honest as long as the conditions are right—but if they are tempted enough, they’ll be dishonest too. Locks won’t protect you from the thieves, who can get in your house if they really want to. They will only protect you from the mostly honest people who might be tempted to try your door if it had no lock.”

We’re ok cheating, as long as its just a little and unnoticeable.

as long as we cheat by only a little bit, we can benefit from cheating and still view ourselves as marvelous human beings. This balancing act is the process of rationalization, and it is the basis of what we’ll call the fudge factor theory.

Something that stood out for me was the chapter on the relationship between creativity and dishonesty. According to Ariely, the link between creativity and dishonesty is not as straightforward as we might think — The more creative we are the better we are at rationalising dishonest behavior.

We may not always know exactly why we do what we do, choose what we choose, or feel what we feel. But the obscurity of our real motivations doesn’t stop us from creating perfectly logical-sounding reasons for our actions, decisions, and feelings.

… We all want explanations for why we behave as we do and for the ways the world around us functions. Even when our feeble explanations have little to do with reality. We’re storytelling creatures by nature, and we tell ourselves story after story until we come up with an explanation that we like and that sounds reasonable enough to believe. And when the story portrays us in a more glowing and positive light, so much the better.

We don’t make rational decisions. Our choices are (mostly) not based on explicit preferences and thought through. Rather, we follow our intuition with “mental gymnastics” to justify our actions. Conveniently this allows us to get what we want and maintain our ego. We tell ourselves that we are acting rationally. The real difference Ariely found between more and less creative people is the creativity of the justifications. “The most creative we are,” he writes, “the more we are able to come up with good stories that help us justify our selfish interests.”

This really comes down to our storytelling nature:

We’re storytelling creatures by nature, and we tell ourselves story after story until we come up with an explanation that we like and that sounds reasonable enough to believe. And when the story portrays us in a more glowing and positive light, so much the better.

The idea that worries Ariely the most is the trend toward cashless payments. “From all the research I have done over the years,” he writes, “the idea that worries me the most is that the more cashless our society becomes, the more our moral compass slips.”

One factor that Ariely didn’t contemplate that I think it is important is how our environment — whether we’re in an environment of abundance or scarcity — affects our moral compass. Intuitively, I think it’s a lot easier to rationalise moral transgressions in an environment of scarcity than one of abundance.

“Essentially, we cheat up to the level that allows us to retain our self-image as reasonably honest individuals.”

— Dan Ariely

The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves is worth reading in its entirety.

What Is A Bureaucracy? And Why They Are So Hard To Change

Bureaucracies, according to Manuel Castells in The Rise of the Network Society, are “organizations for which the reproduction of their system of means becomes their main organizational goal.” Put differently, bureaucracies strive to maintain themselves at all costs. The actual purpose of the bureaucracy becomes secondary to preserving the bureaucracy.

“This means,” writes Dr. Mark Federman, “that a bureaucratic system cannot afford to be demonstrated to be wrong: If it was wrong, it would impede its ability to reproduce its system of means.”

This underlying mentality often translates into bewildering and often arcane public explanations that seem to ignore what to those outside of the system would be simple, common sense. It is the reason why so many bureaucratically minded leaders choose to “stay the course,” rather than admit that a decision was ill advised (because that would be tantamount to admitting that the system which vested in them decision-making power made a mistake).

Of course this leads to absurd outcomes. Take, as one example, the teacher in Edmonton, who was suspended for giving students a zero when they failed to turn in work. The School board spokesperson, Cheryl Oxford, says “as opposed to being assessed on what they don’t know, they’re being assessed on what they do know.” Huh? To anyone (outside of the school board, that is) this goes against common sense. The second order effects of this on the students and society itself are even worse.

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Perhaps Charlie Munger explained it best:

The great defect of scale, of course, which makes the game interesting—so that the big people don’t always win—is that as you get big, you get the bureaucracy. And with the bureaucracy comes the territoriality—which is again grounded in human nature.

And the incentives are perverse. For example, if you worked for AT&T in my day, it was a great bureaucracy. Who in the hell was really thinking about the shareholder or anything else? And in a bureaucracy, you think the work is done when it goes out of your in-basket into somebody else’s in-basket. But, of course, it isn’t. It’s not done until AT&T delivers what it’s supposed to deliver. So you get big, fat, dumb, unmotivated bureaucracies.

They also tend to become somewhat corrupt. In other words, if I’ve got a department and you’ve got a department and we kind of share power running this thing, there’s sort of an unwritten rule: “If you won’t bother me, I won’t bother you and we’re both happy.” So you get layers of management and associated costs that nobody needs. Then, while people are justifying all these layers, it takes forever to get anything done. They’re too slow to make decisions and nimbler people run circles around them.

The constant curse of scale is that it leads to big, dumb bureaucracy—which, of course, reaches its highest and worst form in government where the incentives are really awful. That doesn’t mean we don’t need governments—because we do. But it’s a terrible problem to get big bureaucracies to behave.

So people go to stratagems. They create little decentralized units and fancy motivation and training programs. For example, for a big company, General Electric has fought bureaucracy with amazing skill. But that’s because they have a combination of a genius and a fanatic running it. And they put him in young enough so he gets a long run. Of course, that’s Jack Welch.

But bureaucracy is terrible…. And as things get very powerful and very big, you can get some really dysfunctional behavior. Look at Westinghouse. They blew billions of dollars on a bunch of dumb loans to real estate developers. They put some guy who’d come up by some career path—I don’t know exactly what it was, but it could have been refrigerators or something—and all of a sudden, he’s loaning money to real estate developers building hotels. It’s a very unequal contest. And in due time, they lost all those billions of dollars.

Situations Matter

“We’re easily seduced by the notion of stable character.
So much of who we are, how we think, and what we do is
driven by the situations we’re in, yet we remain blissfully unaware of it.”

— Sam Sommers

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Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World

Situations Matter is an excellent book that should give you a leg up in life.

One of the lessons of modern psychological research is that ‘the situation’ we find ourselves in influences us. If you’ve ever wondered about why you are not as independent-minded as you think or about the difference between men and women this is a great book.

A summary paragraph:

So much of how we see and interact with the social universe around is shaped by our immediate context. … seemingly trivial aspects of daily situations determine whether we keep to ourselves or get involved in the affairs of others, whether we follow a group or stake out on an independent path, why we’re drawn to certain people and away from others.

As Sam Sommers points out, “once you start paying attention to situations there’s no going back.” Sommers argues, “People are easy to see. They’re tangible. Context is harder: it’s an abstract, nebulous concept, a backdrop that can be downright invisible. Precisely because situations are difficult to see, effort is required to recognize their influence.”