Random Posts

Retrograde Analysis: Working Backward to Solve Problems

We’ve talked a lot about inversion — solving problems backwards. In this short video, grandmaster Maurice Ashley walks us through retrograde analysis, which is a method to solve game positions in chess by working backward from known outcomes.

To look ahead, it pays to look backwards.

After reading this sentence, you will realize that the the brain doesn’t recognize a second ‘the.’

The second time around you realize you missed the second the the first time. But if you read the sentence backwards, you’d catch it.

Doubling Bacteria

Ashley gives another example. Consider the doubling bacteria problem. Bacteria double every 24 hours. It takes 30 days to fill a lake. On what day was the lake half-full?

This problem is easiest solved backward. It becomes easy.

Cards

Finally, Ashley uses a card game. There are six cards in this game numbered 1 through 6. Whomever has the highest card wins. You pick a card and it says the number 2. I pick a card and offer a trade. Most people look at their card and say, 2 sucks. Looking only at this problem statistically, you’re best to trade your card. However, assuming no trickery on my part, that may not the right move. To solve the problem, invert. If I had a 6 would I trade? No. What about the number 5? … Odds are I have a pretty crappy number if I want to trade.

Blog Posts, Book Reviews, and Abstracts: On Shallowness

We’re quite glad that you read Farnam Street, and we hope we’re always offering you a massive amount of value. (If not, email us and tell us what we can do more effectively.)

But there’s a message all of our readers should appreciate: Blog posts are not enough to generate the deep fluency you need to truly understand or get better at something. We offer a starting point, not an end point.

This goes just as well for book reviews, abstracts, cliff’s notes, and a good deal of short-form journalism.

This is a hard message for some who want a shortcut. They want the “gist” and the “high level takeaways”, without doing the work or eating any of the broccoli. They think that’s all it takes: Check out a 5-minute read, and instantly their decision making and understanding of the world will improve right-quick. Most blogs, of course, encourage this kind of shallowness. Because it makes you feel that the whole thing is pretty easy.

Here’s the problem: The world is more complex than that. It doesn’t actually work this way. The nuanced detail behind every “high level takeaway” gives you the context needed to use it in the real world. The exceptions, the edge cases, and the contradictions.

Let me give you an example.

A high-level takeaway from reading Kahneman’s Thinking Fast, and Slow would be that we are subject to something he and Amos Tversky call the Representativeness Heuristic. We create models of things in our head, and then fit our real-world experiences to the model, often over-fitting drastically. A very useful idea.

However, that’s not enough. There are so many follow-up questions. Where do we make the most mistakes? Why does our mind create these models? Where is this generally useful? What are the nuanced examples of where this tendency fails us? And so on. Just knowing about the Heuristic, knowing that it exists, won’t perform any work for you.

Or take the rise of human species as laid out by Yuval Harari. It’s great to post on his theory; how myths laid the foundation for our success, how “natural” is probably a useless concept the way it’s typically used, and how biology is the great enabler.

But Harari’s book itself contains the relevant detail that fleshes all of this out. And further, his bibliography is full of resources that demand your attention to get even more backup. How did he develop that idea? You have to look to find out.

Why do all this? Because without the massive, relevant detail, your mind is built on a house of cards.

What Farnam Street and a lot of other great resources give you is something like a brief map of the territory.

Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg! Check out the re-enactors, the museum, and the theatre. Over there is the Revolutionary City. Gettysburg is 4 hours north. Washington D.C. is closer to 2.5 hours.

Great – now you have a lay of the land. Time to dig in and actually learn about the American Revolution. (This book is awesome, if you actually want to do that.)

Going back to Kahneman, one of his and Tversky’s great findings was the concept of the Availability Heuristic. Basically, the mind operates on what it has close at hand.

As Kahneman puts it, “An essential design feature of the associative machine is that it represents only activated ideas. Information that is not retrieved (even unconsciously) from memory might as well not exist. System 1 excels at constructing the best possible story that incorporates ideas currently activated, but it does not (cannot) allow for information it does not have.”

That means that in the moment of decision making, when you’re thinking hard on some complex problem you face, it’s unlikely that your mind is working all that successfully without the details. It doesn’t have anything to draw on. It’d be like a chess player who read a book about great chess players, but who hadn’t actually studied all of their moves. Not very effective.

The great difficulty, of course, is that we lack the time to dig deep into everything. Opportunity costs and trade-offs are quite real.

That’s why you must develop excellent filters. What’s worth learning this deeply? We think it’s the first-principle style mental models. The great ideas from physical systems, biological systems, and human systems. The new-new thing you’re studying is probably either A. Wrong or B. Built on one of those great ideas anyways. Farnam Street, in a way, is just a giant filtering mechanism to get you started down the hill.

But don’t stop there. Don’t stop at the starting line. Resolve to increase your depth and stop thinking you can have it all in 5 minutes or less. Use our stuff, and whoever else’s stuff you like, as an entrée to the real thing.

How a Scientist Gets Things Wrong

Albert Einstein, writing to fellow physicist Hendrik Lorentz in 1915, describes how a scientist gets things wrong:

1. The devil leads him by the nose with a false hypothesis. (For this he deserves our pity.)

2. His arguments are erroneous and sloppy. (For this he deserves a beating.)

“Einstein himself certainly committed errors of both types,” the astrophysicist Mario Livio writes in, Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein – Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe.

“More than 20 percent of Einstein’s original papers contain mistakes of some sort,” Livio writes. “In several cases, even though he made mistakes along the way, the final result is still correct. This is often the hallmark of great theorists: They are guided by intuition more than by formalism.”

Carl Zimmer, in his New York Times review of Brilliant Blunders, describes some of Charles Darwins “mistakes:”

When Charles Darwin presented his theory of evolution in 1859, he built a foundation for all of modern biology. Crucial to his theory was the fact that animals and plants inherited traits from their ancestors. Natural selection favored some traits over others, giving rise to long-term change. But Darwin didn’t know how heredity worked. He devoted a lot of time to developing ideas that, in hindsight, seem daft. “Darwin had been educated according to the then widely held belief that the characteristics of the two parents become physically blended in their offspring,” Livio writes, “as in the mixing of paints.” By this logic, each ancestor’s genetic contribution would be halved in each generation.

This idea wasn’t just wrong. It undermined Darwin’s own theory of evolution. If our traits are just a result of blended particles, it shouldn’t be possible for natural selection to change traits over the generations. But try as he might, Darwin couldn’t figure out a better explanation.

Yet right around the time that Darwin published “On the Origin of Species,” the Czech monk Gregor Mendel was discovering genetics. Crossing pea plants in his garden, he got a glimpse at how heredity actually does work. Darwin apparently never became aware of Mendel’s work, nor did he discover Mendel’s results for himself.

Still curious? Read the book

Peter Bevelin: A Few Lessons From Sherlock Holmes

Peter Bevelin‘s first book, Seeking Wisdom from Darwin to Munger, is a one of the best books you’ve probably never heard of. He’s just released another book, A Few Lessons from Sherlock Holmes (Kindle), aimed at those who want to improve their thinking.

“Peter Bevelin is one of the wisest people on the planet.”

— Nassim Taleb

I’m a big fan of Sherlock Holmes and Peter is not the first person to explore the wisdom that can be drawn. Maria Konnikova’s book, Mastermind: How To Think Like Sherlock Holmes, takes a deep look at Sherlock Holmes’s methodology to develop the habits of mind that will allow us to mindfully engage the world.

Sherlock Holmes

Peter’s book is shorter than Maria’s and encourages you to draw your own conclusions. He’s distilled Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective Sherlock Holmes into principles and quotes.

This book will appeal to both Sherlock fans as well as those who want to think better. It contains useful and timeless methods and questions applicable to a variety of important issues in life and business. We could all benefit from A few lessons from Sherlock Holmes.

Let’s look at some of the lessons Bevelin brings to our attention.

“What distinguishes Holmes from most mortals,” Bevelin writes, “is that he knows where to look and what questions to ask. He pays attention to the important things and he knows where to find them.”

Many ideas over a wide range of disciplines helps us gain perspective (queue mental models).

Breadth of view, my dear Mr. Mac, is one of the essentials of our profession. The interplay of ideas and the oblique uses of knowledge are often of extraordinary interest.(Holmes; The Valley of Fear)

The Memory Attic

I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it.

Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones. (Holmes; A Study in Scarlet)

So says the statistician.

You can, for example, never foretell what any one man will do, but you can say with precision what an average number will be up to. Individuals vary, but percentages remain constant. (Holmes; The Sign of the Fear)

Knowledge Doesn’t Make us Wise

One of the best things about Peter is how he adds outsiders to the mix. He inserts this quote from Montaigne:

Judgment can do without knowledge but not knowledge without judgment. (Montaigne)

Never jump to conclusions.

I have not all my facts yet, but I do not think there are any insuperable difficulties. Still, it is an error to argue in front of your data. You find yourself insensibly twisting them round to fit your theories. (Holmes; Wisteria Lodge)

Don’t theorize before data.

It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts. (Holmes; A Scandal in Bohemia)

Make sure facts are facts.

I realize that if you ask people to account for “facts”, they usually spend more time finding reasons for them than finding out whether they are true. … They skip over the facts but carefully deduce inferences. They normally begin thus: “How does this come about?” But does it do so? That is what they ought to be asking. (Montaigne)

See the Forest

The principal difficulty in your case … lay in the fact of there being too much evidence. What was vital was overlaid and hidden by what was irrelevant. Of all the facts which were presented to us we had to pick just those which we deemed to be essential, and then piece them together in their order, so as to reconstruct this very remarkable chain of events. (Holmes; The Naval Treaty)

Small things may be important.

The smallest point may be the most essential. (Holmes; A Study in Scarlet)

We see but don’t Observe

What we see is all we think is there — What often leads us astray in an investigation is that we adopt the theory which is most likely to account for the “visible” and found facts but what if the important is left out? What is not reported, withheld, hidden?

Take time to think things over.

Sherlock Holmes was a man … who, when he had an unsolved problem upon his mind, would go for days, and even for a week, without rest, turning it over, rearranging his facts, looking at it from every point of view until he had either fathomed it or convinced himself that his data were insufficient. (Dr. Watson; The Man with the Twisted Lip)

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Peter’s books tend to become very hard to find a few months after they are released. Used editions often sell well above cover price, so if you’re interested, I’d encourage you to order A Few Lessons From Sherlock Holmes today.

A System for Remembering What You Read

One year I read 161 books cover-to-cover. And that doesn’t include the ones that I started to read and put down. In the process, I learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t work.

Here’s some of what I’ve learned that works for non-fiction books:

  • Learn How to Read a Book.
  • Deciding not to read the book is OK. Not all books deserve to be read.
  • You can read multiple books at the same time as long as they are different genres. You can read a best-selling business book and a book about nature.
  • When you lose interest give it 5 more pages. Then skim the next chapter. If you’re still not interested put it down. It’s the authors job to keep your attention.
  • Mark up the book while reading it. Questions. Thoughts. And, more important, connections to other ideas.
  • At the end of each chapter, without looking back, write some notes on the main points/arguments/take-aways. Then look back through the chapter and write down anything you missed.
  • Specifically note anything that was in the chapter that you can apply somewhere else.
  • Try the Blanksheet. It’s the single biggest change you can make to increase retention.
  • When you’re done with the book, take out a blank sheet of paper and explain the core ideas or arguments of the book to yourself. Where you have problems, go back and review your notes. This is the Feynman technique.
  • Put the book down for a week.
  • When you pick it back up, reread all of your notes/highlights/marginalia/etc. Time is a good filter — what’s still important? Note this on the inside of the cover with a reference to the page number.
  • Store your blanksheets and core ideas and put them in a binder to review periodically with all the others ones.

One thing that most people don’t appreciate enough is that what you read makes a huge difference in how well you remember things.

We fail to remember a lot of the stuff we read because it’s not building on any existing knowledge. We’re often trying to learn complex things (that change rapidly) without understanding the basic things (which change slowly or not at all). Or, worse still, we’re uncritically letting other people do the thinking for us. This is the adult equivalent of regurgitating the definition of a boldface word in our high school textbook. There is a difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something and if you don’t know where you stand on a subject you’re going to take unwarranted risks.

Acquiring Wisdom

A better approach is to build a latticework of mental models. That is, acquire core multi-disciplinary knowledge and use that as your foundation. This is the best investment because this stuff doesn’t change, or if it does, it changes really slowly. This knowledge becomes your foundation. This is what you build on. So when you read and connect things to the core knowledge, not only do you have a better idea of how things fit together, but you also strengthen those connections in your head.

If you’re looking to acquire worldly wisdom, time is your best filter. It makes sense to focus on learning the core ideas over multiple disciplines. These remain constant. And when you have a solid foundation, it’s easier to build upon because you connect what you’re learning to that (now very solid) foundation.

Several Uncomfortable Realities

Something to ponder.

A sobering excerpt from Vaclav Smil‘s Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next Fifty Years:

The first is that even the most assiduous deployment of the best available preventive measures (smart policing, clever informants, globe-spanning, electronic intelligence, willingness to undertake necessary military action) will not be able to thwart all planned attacks.

The second reality is that the most dangerous form of terrorist attacks cannot be deterred because the political and ideological motivations for terrorist attacks that characterized Rapoport’s (2001) first three waves of terror have blended with religious zealotry and become one with the Muslim concept of martyrdom, providing the perpetrators with an irresistible reward: instant access to paradise. Murder by suicide has deep roots in Muslim history …

The third sobering consideration is that neither personal instability nor an individuals hopelessness or overt personal defects, factors that come immediately to mind as the most likely drivers, are dependable predictors of candidates for suicidal martyrdom. Nor are such indicators as poverty, level of eduction, or religious devotion. Institutional manipulation of emotional commitment seems to be a key factor, and one not easily eliminated. Other obvious contributions are rapidly rising youth populations in countries governed by dictatorial regimes with limited economic opportunities, and the disenchantment of second-generation Muslim immigrants with their host societies. But none of these factors can offer any selective guidance to identify the most susceptible individuals and to prevent their murderous suicides.

The forth consideration is that out understandable fixation on suicidal missions may be misplaced. A dirty bomb containing enough radioactive waste to contaminate several downtown blocks of a major city and cause mass panic (as anything invisible and nuclear is bound to do) can be positioned in a place calculated to have a maximum impact and then remotely detonated. And while Hizbullah’s more than 30 days of rocket attacks on Israel in the summer of 2006 were not particularly deadly, they paralyzed a large part of the country and demonstrated how more conventional weapons could be used in the service of terrorism.

Preventing Teenage Smoking

Last year, 18.7 percent of high school seniors were smokers. As the number of students who are obese approaches the same percentage, it is increasingly pushing smoking out of the way as the health concern of the moment.

“But it may be even more important to attack teenage smoking than obesity. Fighting obesity is a lifelong battle. But for smoking, adolescence is Armageddon. Only 1 in 10 smokers starts after the age of 18. After the teenage years, the battle is lost.”

Health messages are generally good at getting adults to quit smoking but they are less effective at keeping teenagers from starting the habit in the first place.

For them, a cigarette is not a delivery system for nicotine. It’s a delivery system for rebellion. Kids take up smoking to be cool, to impress their friends with their recklessness and defiance of adults. Teenagers don’t care about lung cancer — they’re immortal. They know that smoking is dangerous. In fact, they overestimate the chances of getting lung cancer. Danger is part of a cigarette’s appeal.

Since 1997, we’ve learned a lot about how to prevent teenage smoking. The best strategy? Make smoking uncool.

One trick?

“We never said ‘don’t smoke,’” said Perez, who was later hired to run SWAT. “We got a bunch of kids together to make a statement to the tobacco industry — to rebel against them.”

The article also mentions keeping cigarettes out of movies and generic packaging.

This year in Australia they are implementing “a generic olive-green (package), with big health warnings and the brand name written in small, standardized lettering. For teenagers, who are intensely brand-conscious, plain packs will certainly take some of the allure out of smoking.”

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Immigration, Extinction, and Island Equilibrium

Equilibrium is an important concept that permeates many disciplines. In chemistry we think about the point where the rate of forward reaction is equal to the rate of backward reaction. In economics we think of the point where supply equals demand. In physics we can see how gravity is balanced by forward velocity to create things like planetary orbits.

No matter which discipline we are examining, the core idea remains the same: Equilibrium is a state where opposing forces are balanced.

In biology, equilibrium is so important that it can mean the difference between life or death; for a species, it can decide whether they will thrive or become extinct.

In The Song of the DodoDavid Quammen dives into how equilibrium affects a species’ ability to survive, and how it impacts our ability to save animals on the brink of extinction.

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Historically, the concept of island equilibrium was studied with a focus on the interplay between evolution (as the additive) and extinction (as the subtractive). It was believed that speciation, the process where one species becomes two or more species, caused any increase in the number of inhabitants on an island. In this view, the insularity of islands created a remoteness that could only be overcome by the long processes of evolution. 

However, Robert MacArthur and E.O. Wilson, the co-authors of the influential Theory of Island Biogeography, realized that habitats would show a tendency towards equilibrium much sooner than could be accounted for by speciation. They argued the ongoing processes that most influenced this balance were immigration and extinction.

The type of extinctions we’re referring to in this case are local extinctions, specific to the island in question. A species can go extinct on a particular island and yet be thriving elsewhere; it depends on local conditions.

As for immigration, it’s just what you’d expect: The movement of species from one place to another. Island immigration describes the many ingenious ways in which plants, animals, and insects travel to islands. For instance, not only will insects hitch rides on birds and debris (man made or natural, think garbage and sticks/uprooted seaweed), animals will do the same if the debris is massive enough.

Seeds, meanwhile, make the trip in the feces of birds, which helps to introduce new plant species to the island, while highly motivated swimmers (escapees of natural disasters/predators/famine) and hitchhikers on human ships (think rats) make it over in their own unusual ways.

We can plot this process of immigration and extinction graphically, in a way you’re probably familiar with. Quammen explains:

picture1

The decrease in immigration rate and the increase in extinction rate are graphed not against elapsed time but against the number of species present on a given island. As an island fills up with species, immigration declines and extinction increases, until they offset each other at an equilibrium level. At that level, the rate of continuing immigration is just canceled by the rate of continuing extinction, and there is no net gain or loss of species. The phenomenon of offsetting increase and decrease – the change of identities on the roster of species – is known as turnover. One species of butterfly arrives, another species of butterfly dies out, and in the aftermath the island has the same number of butterfly species as before. Equilibrium with turnover.

So while the specific species inhabiting the island will change over time, the numbers will tend to roll towards a balanced point where the two curves intersect.

Of course, not all equilibrium graphs will look the like one above. Indeed, MacArthur and Wilson hoped this theory would be used not just to explain equilibriums, but to also help predict potential issues.

When either curve is especially steep – reflecting the fact that immigration decreases especially sharply or extinction increases especially sharply – their crossing point shifts leftward, toward zero. The shift means that, at equilibrium, in this particular set of circumstances, there will be relatively few resident species.

In other words, high extinction and low immigration yield an impoverished ecosystem. To you and me it’s a dot in Cartesian space, but to an island it represents destiny.

There are two key ideas that can help us understand the equilibrium point on a given island.

First, the concept of species-area relationship: We see a larger number of a given species on larger islands and a smaller number of a given species on smaller islands.

Second, the concept of species quantity on remote islands: Immigration is much more difficult the further away an island is from either a mainland or a cluster of other islands, meaning that fewer species will make it there.

In other words, size and remoteness are directly correlated to the fragility of any given species inhabiting an island.

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Equilibrium, immigration, evolution, extinction – these are all ideas that bleed into so many more areas than biogeography. What happens to groups when they are isolated? Jared Diamond had some interesting thoughts on that. What happens to products or businesses which don’t keep up with co-evolution? They go extinct due to the Red Queen Effect. What happens to our mind and body when we feel off balance? Our life is impoverished.

Reading a book like The Song of the Dodo helps us to better understand these key concepts which, in turn, helps us more fundamentally understand the world.

Bias from Disliking/Hating

(This is a follow-up to our post on the Bias from Liking/Loving, which you can find here.)

Think of a cat snarling and spitting, lashing with its tail and standing with its back curved. Her pulse is elevated, blood vessels constricted and muscles tense. This reaction may sound familiar, because everyone has experienced the same tensed-up feeling of rage at least once in their lives.

When rage is directed towards an external object, it becomes hate. Just as we learn to love certain things or people, we learn to hate others.

There are several cognitive processes that awaken the hate within us and most of them stem from our need for self-protection.

Reciprocation

We tend to dislike people who dislike us (and, true to Newton, with equal strength.) The more we perceive they hate us, the more we hate them.

Competition

A lot of hate comes from scarcity and competition. Whenever we compete for resources, our own mistakes can mean good fortune for others. In these cases, we affirm our own standing and preserve our self-esteem by blaming others.

Robert Cialdini explains that because of the competitive environment in American classrooms, school desegregation may increase the tension between children of different races instead of decreasing it. Imagine being a secondary school child:

If you knew the right answer and the teacher called on someone else, you probably hoped that he or she would make a mistake so that you would have a chance to display your knowledge. If you were called on and failed, or if you didn’t even raise your hand to compete, you probably envied and resented your classmates who knew the answer.

At first we are merely annoyed. But then as the situation fails to improve and our frustration grows, we are slowly drawn into false attributions and hate. We keep blaming and associating “the others” who are doing better with the loss and scarcity we are experiencing (or perceive we are experiencing). That is one way our emotional frustration boils into hate.

Us vs. Them

The ability to separate friends from enemies has been critical for our safety and survival. Because mistaking the two can be deadly, our mental processes have evolved to quickly spot potential threats and react accordingly. We are constantly feeding information about others into our “people information lexicon” that forms not only our view of individuals, whom we must decide how to act around, but entire classes of people, as we average out that information.

To shortcut our reactions, we classify narrowly and think in dichotomies: right or wrong, good or bad, heroes or villains. (The type of Grey Thinking we espouse is almost certainly unnatural, but, then again, so is a good golf swing.) Since most of us are merely average at everything we do, even superficial and small differences, such as race or religious affiliation, can become an important source of identification. We are, after all, creatures who seek to belong to groups above all else.

Seeing ourselves as part of a special, different and, in its own way, superior group, decreases our willingness to empathize with the other side. This works both ways – the hostility towards the others also increases the solidarity of the group. In extreme cases, we are so drawn towards the inside view that we create a strong picture of the enemy that has little to do with reality or our initial perceptions.

From Compassion to Hate

We think of ourselves as compassionate, empathetic and cooperative. So why do we learn to hate?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that we think of ourselves in a specific way. If we cannot reach a consensus, then the other side, which is in some way different from us, must necessarily be uncooperative for our assumptions about our own qualities to hold true.

Our inability to examine the situation from all sides and shake our beliefs, together with self-justifying behavior, can lead us to conclude that others are the problem. Such asymmetric views, amplified by strong perceived differences, often fuel hate.

What started off as odd or difficult to understand, has quickly turned into unholy.

If the situation is characterized by competition, we may also see ourselves as a victim. The others, who abuse our rights, take away our privileges or restrict our freedom are seen as bullies who deserve to be punished. We convince ourselves that we are doing good by doing harm to those who threaten to cross the line.

This is understandable. In critical times our survival indeed may depend on our ability to quickly spot and neutralize dangers. The cost of a false positive – mistaking a friend for a foe – is much lower than the potentially fatal false negative of mistaking our adversaries for innocent allies. As a result, it is safest to assume that anything we are not familiar with is dangerous by default. Natural selection, by its nature, “keeps what works,” and this tendency towards distrust of the unfamiliar probably survived in that way.

The Displays of Hate

Physical and psychological pain is very mobilizing. We despise foods that make us nauseous and people that have hurt us. Because we are scared to suffer, we end up either avoiding or destroying the “enemy”, which is why revenge can be pursued with such vengeance. In short, hate is a defense against enduring pain repeatedly.

There are several ways that the bias for disliking and hating display themselves to the outer world. The most obvious of them is war, which seems to have been more or less prevalent throughout the history of mankind.

This would lead us to think that war may well be unavoidable. Charlie Munger offers the more moderate opinion that while hatred and dislike cannot be avoided, the instances of war can be minimized by channeling our hate and fear into less destructive behaviors. (A good political system allows for dissent and disagreement without explosions of blood upheaval.)

Even with the spread of religion, and the advent of advanced civilization, modern war remains pretty savage. But we also get what we observe in present-day Switzerland and the United States, wherein the clever political arrangements of man “channel” the hatreds and dislikings of individuals and groups into nonlethal patterns including elections.

But these dislikings and hatreds that are arguably inherent to our nature never go away completely and transcend themselves into politics. Think of the dichotomies. There is the left versus the right wing, the nationalists versus the communists and libertarians vs. authoritarians. This might be the reason why there are maxims like: “Politics is the art of marshaling hatreds.

Finally, as we move away from politics, arguably the most sophisticated and civilized way of channeling hatred is litigation. Charlie Munger attributes the following words to Warren Buffett:

A major difference between rich and poor people is that the rich people can spend their lives suing their relatives.

While most of us reflect on our memories of growing up with our siblings with fondness, there are cases where the competition for shared attention or resources breeds hatred. If the siblings can afford it, they will sometimes litigate endlessly to lay claims over their parents’ property or attention.

Under the Influence of Bias

There are several ways that bias from hating can interfere with our normal judgement and lead to suboptimal decisions.

Ignoring Virtues of The Other Side

Michael Faraday was once asked after a lecture whether he implied that a hated academic rival was always wrong. His reply was short and firm “He’s not that consistent.” Faraday must have recognized the bias from hating and corrected for it with the witty comment.

What we should recognize here is that no situation is ever black or white. We all have our virtues and we all have our weaknesses. However, when possessed by the strong emotions of hate, our perceptions can be distorted to the extent that we fail to recognize any good in the opponent at all. This is driven by consistency bias, which motivates us to form a coherent (“she is all-round bad”) opinion of ourselves and others.

Association Fueled Hate

The principle of association goes that the nature of the news tends to infect the teller. This means that the worse the experience, the worse the impression of anything related to it.

Association is why we blame the messenger who tells us something that we don’t want to hear even when they didn’t cause the bad news. (Of course, this creates an incentive not to speak the truth and avoid giving bad news.)

A classic example is an unfortunate and confused weatherman, who receives hate mail, whenever it rains. One went so far as to seek advice from the Arizona State professor of psychology, Robert Cialdini, whose work we have discussed before.

Cialdini explained to him that in light of the destinies of other messengers, he was born lucky. Rain might ruin someone’s holiday plans, but it will rarely change the destiny of a nation, which was the case of Persian war messengers. Delivering good news meant a feast, whereas delivering bad news resulted in their death.

The weatherman left Cialdini’s office with a sense of privilege and relief.

“Doc,” he said on his way out, “I feel a lot better about my job now. I mean, I’m in Phoenix where the sun shines 300 days a year, right? Thank God I don’t do the weather in Buffalo.”

Fact Distortion

Under the influence of liking or disliking bias, we tend to fill gaps in our knowledge by building our conclusions on assumptions, which are based on very little evidence.

Imagine you meet a woman at a party and find her to be a self-centered, unpleasant conversation partner. Now her name comes up as someone who could be asked to contribute to a charity. How likely do you feel it is that she will give to the charity?

In reality, you have no useful knowledge, because there is little to nothing that should make you believe that people who are self-centered are not also generous contributors to charity. The two are unrelated, yet because of the well-known fundamental attribution error, we often assume one is correlated to the other.

By association, you are likely to believe that this woman is not likely to be generous towards charities despite lack of any evidence. And because now you also believe she is stingy and ungenerous, you probably dislike her even more.

This is just an innocent example, but the larger effects of such distortions can be so extreme that they lead to a major miscognition. Each side literally believes that every single bad attribute or crime is attributable to the opponent.

Charlie Munger explains this with a relatively recent example:

When the World Trade Center was destroyed, many Pakistanis immediately concluded that the Hindus did it, while many Muslims concluded that the Jews did it. Such factual distortions often make mediation between opponents locked in hatred either difficult or impossible. Mediations between Israelis and Palestinians are difficult because facts in one side’s history overlap very little with facts from the other side’s. These distortions and the overarching mistrust might be why some conflicts seem to never end.

Avoiding Being Hated

To varying degrees, we value acceptance and affirmation from others. Very few of us wake up wanting to be disliked or rejected. Social approval, at its heart the cause of social influence, shapes behavior and contributes to conformity. Francois VI, Duc de La Rochefoucauld wrote: “We only confess our little faults to persuade people that we have no big ones.”

Remember the old adage, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” This is why we don’t openly speak the truth or question people, we don’t want to be the nail.

How do we resolve hate?

It is only normal that we can find more common ground with some people than with others. But are we really destined to fall into the traps of hate or is there a way to take hold of these biases?

That’s a question worth over a hundred million lives. There are ways that psychologists think that we can minimize prejudice against others.

Firstly, we can engage with others in sustained close contact to breed our familiarity. The contact must not only be prolonged, but also positive and cooperative in nature – either working towards a common cause or against a common enemy.

Secondly, we also reduce prejudice by attaining equal status in all aspects, including education, income and legal rights. This effect is further reinforced, when equality is supported not only “on paper”, but also ingrained within broader social norms.

And finally the obvious – we should practice awareness of our own emotions and ability to hold back on the temptations to dismiss others. Whenever confronted with strong feelings it might simply be best to sit back, breathe and do our best to eliminate the distorted thinking.

 

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Want more? Check out the bias of liking/loving, or check out a whole bunch of mental models.

The Keys to Happiness

“The mental construction of our daily activities, more than the activity itself, defines our reality.”

What if the formula for success is backwards. We’re told that if we work hard, we’ll be successful. And of course, if we’re successful then we’ll be happy. It’s all about the next thing. The next step will make us happy. But it doesn’t really work this way. If we’re always focused on what’s next, we’re never in the present. The present, of course, is where we live.

In his eye-opening book, The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor, who spent over a decade living, researching, and lecturing at Harvard University, shows that the formula is backward: Happiness isn’t the result of success but rather it fuels it. “When we are positive, our brains become more engaged, creative, motivated, energetic, resilient, and productive at work.”

Here are some of Achor’s tips for becoming happier.

The first tip, echoing Dan Harris, is to meditate.

Take just five minutes each day to watch your breath go in and out. While you do so, try to remain patient. If you find your mind drifting, just slowly bring it back to focus. Meditation takes practice, but it’s one of the most powerful happiness interventions. Studies show that in the minutes right after meditating, we experience feelings of calm and contentment, as well as heightened awareness and empathy. And, research even shows that regular meditation can permanently rewire the brain to raise levels of happiness, lower stress, even improve immune function.

Do something nice for someone.

A long line of empirical research, including one study of over 2,000 people, has shown that acts of altruism—giving to friends and strangers alike—decrease stress and strongly contribute to enhanced mental health.

You really need to invest in your social relationships.

“Countless studies have found that social relationships are the best guarantee of heightened well-being and lowered stress, both an antidote for depression and a prescription for high performance.”

And you need to get outside. Not only is solitude an important part of the creative process, it improves memory and thinking.

Making time to go outside on a nice day also delivers a huge advantage; one study found that spending 20 minutes outside in good weather not only boosted positive mood, but broadened thinking and improved working memory … studies have shown that the less negative TV we watch, specifically violent media, the happier we are.

Cutting the cord also helps you read more.

It’s about people and relationships.

Turns out, there was one—and only one—characteristic that distinguished the happiest 10 percent from everybody else: the strength of their social relationships. My empirical study of well-being among 1,600 Harvard undergraduates found a similar result—social support was a far greater predictor of happiness than any other factor, more than GPA, family income, SAT scores, age, gender, or race. In fact, the correlation between social support and happiness was 0.7. This may not sound like a big number, but for researchers it’s huge—most psychology findings are considered significant when they hit 0.3. The point is, the more social support you have, the happier you are.

If you’re going to spend money, make sure it’s on experiences and not stuff. Unless it’s a Vitamix, because that’s just awesome.

[W]hen researchers interviewed more than 150 people about their recent purchases, they found that money spent on activities—such as concerts and group dinners out—brought far more pleasure than material purchases like shoes, televisions, or expensive watches.

Spend it on your friends and family or random strangers. “Spending money on other people, called ‘prosocial spending,’ also boosts happiness.”