Tag: Learning

Why You Should Practice Failure

We learn valuable lessons when we experience failure and setbacks. Most of us wait for those failures to happen to us, however, instead of seeking them out. But deliberately making mistakes can give us the knowledge we need to more easily overcome obstacles in the future.

We learn from our mistakes. When we screw up and fail, we learn how not to handle things. We learn what not to do.

Failing is a byproduct of trying to succeed. We do our research, make our plans, get the necessary ingredients, and try to put it all together. Often, things don’t go as we wish. If we’re smart, we reflect on what happened and make note of where we could do better next time.

But how many of us make deliberate mistakes? How often do we try to fail in order to learn from it?

If we want to avoid costly mistakes in the future when the stakes are high, then making some now might be excellent preparation.

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Practicing failure is a common practice for pilots. In 1932, at the dawn of the aviation age, Amelia Earhart described the value for all pilots of learning through deliberate mistakes. “The fundamental stunts taught to students are slips, stalls, and spins,” she says in her autobiography The Fun of It. “A knowledge of some stunts is judged necessary to good flying. Unless a pilot has actually recovered from a stall, has actually put his plane into a spin and brought it out, he cannot know accurately what those acts entail. He should be familiar enough with abnormal positions of his craft to recover without having to think how.

For a pilot, stunting is a skill attained through practice. You go up in a plane and, for example, you change the angle of the wings to deliberately stall the craft. You prepare beforehand by learning what a stall is, what the critical variables you have to pay attention to are, and how other pilots address stalls. You learn the optimal response. But then you go up in the air and actually apply your knowledge. What’s easy and obvious on the ground, when you’re under little pressure, isn’t guaranteed to come to you when your plane loses lift and function at 10,000 feet. Deliberately stalling your plane, making a conscientious mistake when you have prepared to deal with it, gives you the experience to react when a stall happens in a less controlled situation.

The first time your plane unexpectedly stops working in mid-flight is scary for any pilot. But those who have practiced in similar situations are far more likely to react appropriately. “An individual’s life on the ground or in the air may depend on a split second,” Earhart writes. “The slow response which results from seldom, if ever, having accomplished the combination of acts required in a given circumstance may be the deciding factor.” You don’t want the first stall to come at night in poor weather when you have your family in the cabin. Much better to practice stalling in a variety of situations ahead of time—that way, when one happens unexpectedly, your reactions can be guided by successful experience and not panic.

Earhart advises that in advance, the solution to many problems can be worked out on paper, “but only experience counts when there is no time to think a process through. The pilot who hasn’t stalled a plane is less likely to be able to judge correctly the time and space necessary for recovery than one who has.

If you practice failing every so often, you increase your flexibility and adaptability when life throws obstacles in your way. Of course, no amount of preparation will get you through all possible challenges, and Earhart’s own story is the best example of that. But making deliberate mistakes in order to learn from them is one way to give ourselves optionality when our metaphorical engine stops in midair.

If we don’t practice failing, we can only safely fly on sunny days.

We Are What We Remember

Memory is an intrinsic part of our life experience. It is critical for learning, and without memories we would have no sense of self. Understanding why some memories stick better than others, as well as accepting their fluidity, helps us reduce conflict and better appreciate just how much our memories impact our lives.

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“Which of our memories are true and which are not is something we may never know. It doesn’t change who we are.”

Memories can be so vivid. Let’s say you are spending time with your sibling and reflecting on your past when suddenly a memory pops up. Even though it’s about events that occurred twenty years ago, it seems like it happened yesterday. The sounds and smells pop into your mind. You remember what you were wearing, the color of the flowers on the table. You chuckle and share your memory with your sibling. But they stare at you and say, “That’s not how I remember it at all.” What?

Memory discrepancies happen all the time, but we have a hard time accepting that our memories are rarely accurate. Because we’ve been conditioned to think of our memories like video recordings or data stored in the cloud, we assert that our rememberings are the correct ones. Anyone who remembers the situation differently must be wrong.

Memories are never an exact representation of a moment in the past. They are not copied with perfect fidelity, and they change over time. Some of our memories may not even be ours, but rather something we saw in a film or a story someone else told to us. We mix and combine memories, especially older ones, all the time. It can be hard to accept the malleable nature of memories and the fact that they are not just sitting in our brains waiting to be retrieved. In Adventures in Memory, writer Hilde Østby and neuropsychologist Ylva Østby present a fascinating journey through all aspects of memory. Their stories and investigations provide great insight into how memory works; and how our capacity for memory is an integral part of the human condition, and how a better understanding of memory helps us avoid the conflicts we create when we insist that what we remember is right.

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Memory and learning

“One thing that aging doesn’t diminish is the wisdom we have accumulated over a lifetime.”

Our memories, dynamic and changing though they may be, are with us for the duration of our lives. Unless you’ve experienced brain trauma, you learn new things and store at least some of what you learn in memory.

Memory is an obvious component of learning, but we don’t often think of it that way. When we learn something new, it’s against the backdrop of what we already know. All knowledge that we pick up over the years is stored in memory. The authors suggest that “how much you know in a broad sense determines what you understand of the new things you learn.” Because it’s easier to remember something if it can hook into context you already have, then the more you know, the more a new memory can attach to. Thus, what we already know, what we remember, impacts what we learn.

The Østbys explain that the strongest memory networks are created “when we learn something truly meaningful and make an effort to understand it.” They describe someone who is passionate about diving and thus “will more easily learn new things about diving than about something she’s never been interested in before.” Because the diver already knows a lot about diving, and because she loves it and is motivated to learn more, new knowledge about diving will easily attach itself to the memory network she already has about the subject.

While studying people who seem to have amazing memories, as measured by the sheer amount they can recall with accuracy, one of the conclusions the Østbys reach is “that many people who rely on their memories don’t use mnemonic techniques, nor do they cram. They’re just passionate about what they do.” The more meaningful the topics and the more we are invested in truly learning, the higher the chances are that we will convert new information into lasting memory. Also, the more we learn, the more we will remember. There doesn’t seem to be a limit on how much we can put into memory.

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How we build our narratives

The experience of being a human is inseparable from our ability to remember. You can’t build relationships without memories. You can’t prepare for the future if you don’t remember the past.

The memories we hold on to early on have a huge impact on the ones we retain as we progress through life. “When memories enter our brain,” the Østbys explain, “they attach themselves to similar memories: ones from the same environment, or that involve the same feeling, the same music, or the same significant moment in history. Memories seldom swim around without connections.” Thus, a memory is significantly more likely to stick around if it can attach itself to something. A new experience that has very little in common with the narrative we’ve constructed of ourselves is harder to retain in memory.

As we get older, our new memories tend to reinforce what we already think of ourselves. “Memory is self-serving,” the Østbys write. “Memories are linked to what concerns you, what you feel, what you want.

Why is it so much easier to remember the details of a vacation or a fight we’ve had with our partner than the details of a physics lesson or the plot of a classic novel? “The fate of a memory is mostly determined by how much it means to us. Personal memories are important to us. They are tied to our hopes, our values, and our identities. Memories that contribute meaningfully to our personal autobiography prevail in our minds.” We need not beat ourselves up because we have a hard time remembering names or birthdays. Rather, we can accept that the triggers for the creation of a memory and its retention are related to how it speaks to the narrative we maintain about ourselves. This view of memory suggests that to better retain information, we can try to make knowing that information part of our identity. We don’t try to remember physics equations for the sake of it, but rather because in our personal narrative, we are someone who knows a lot about physics.

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Memory, imagination, and fluidity

Our ability to imagine is based, in part, on our ability to remember. The connection works on two levels.

The first, the Østbys write, is that “our memories are the fuel for our imagination.” What we remember about the past informs a lot of what we can imagine about the future. Whether it’s snippets from movies we’ve seen or activities we’ve done, it’s our ability to remember the experiences we’ve had that provide the foundation for our imagination.

Second, there is a physical connection between memory and imagination. “The process that gives us vivid memories is the same as the one that we use to imagine the future.” We use the same parts of the brain when we immerse ourselves in an event from our past as we do when we create a vision for our future. Thus, one of the conclusions of Adventures in Memory is that “as far as our brains are concerned, the past and future are almost the same.” In terms of how they can feel to us, memories and the products of imagination are not that different.

The interplay between past and future, between memory and imagination, impacts the formation of memories themselves. Memory “is a living organism,” the Østbys explain, “always absorbing images, and when new elements are added, they are sewn into the original memory as seamlessly as only our imagination can do.”

One of the most important lessons from the book is to change up the analogies we use to understand memory. Memories are not like movies, exactly the same no matter how many times you watch them. Nor are they like files stored in a computer, unchanging data saved for when we might want to retrieve it. Memories, like the rest of our biology, are fluid.

Memory is more like live theater, where there are constantly new productions of the same pieces,” the Østbys write. “Each and every one of our memories is a mix of fact and fiction. In most memories the central story is based on true events, but it’s still reconstructed every time we recall it. In these reconstructions, we fill in the gaps with probable facts. We subconsciously pick up details from a sort-of memory prop room.

Understanding our memory more like a theater production, where the version you see in London’s West End isn’t going to be exactly the same as the one you see on Broadway, helps us let go of attaching a judgment of accuracy to what we remember. It’s okay to find out when reminiscing with friends that you have different memories of the same day. It’s also acceptable that two people will have different memories of the events leading to their divorce, or that business partners will have different memories of the terms they agreed to at the start of the partnership. The more you get used to the fluidity of your memories, the more the differences in recollections become sources of understanding instead of points of contention. What people communicate about what they remember can give you insight into their attitudes, beliefs, and values.

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Conclusion

New memories build on the ones that are already there. The more we know, the easier it is to remember the new things we learn. But we have to be careful and recognize that our tendency is to reinforce the narrative we’ve already built. Brand new information is harder to retain, but sometimes we need to make the effort.

Finally, memories are important not only for learning and remembering but also because they form the basis of what we can imagine and create. In so many ways, we are what we remember. Accepting that our vivid memories can be very different from those who were in the same situation helps us reduce the conflict that comes with insisting that our memories must always be correct.

How Julia Child Used First Principles Thinking

There’s a big difference between knowing how to follow a recipe and knowing how to cook. If you can master the first principles within a domain, you can see much further than those who are just following recipes. That’s what Julia Child, “The French Chef”, did throughout her career.

Following a recipe might get you the results you want, but it doesn’t teach you anything about how cooking works at the foundational level. Or what to do when something goes wrong. Or how to come up with your own recipes when you open the fridge on a Wednesday night and realize you forgot to go grocery shopping. Or how to adapt recipes for your own dietary needs.

Adhering to recipes will only get you so far, and it certainly won’t result in you coming up with anything new or creative.

People who know how to cook understand the basic principles that make food taste, look, and smell good. They have confidence in troubleshooting and solving problems as they go—or adjusting to unexpected outcomes. They can glance at an almost barren kitchen and devise something delicious. They know how to adapt to a guest with a gluten allergy or a child who doesn’t like green food. Sure, they might consult a recipe when it makes sense to do so. But they’re not dependent on it, and they can change it up based on their particular circumstances.

There’s a reason many cooking competition shows feature a segment where contestants need to design their own recipe from a limited assortment of ingredients. Effective improvisation shows the judges that someone can actually cook, not just follow recipes.

We can draw a strong parallel from cooking to thinking. If you want to learn how to think for yourself, you can’t just follow what someone else came up with. You need to understand first principles if you want to be able to solve complex problems or think in a unique, creative fashion. First principles are the building blocks of knowledge, the foundational understanding acquired from breaking something down into its most essential concepts.

One person who exemplifies first principles thinking is Julia Child, an American educator who charmed audiences with her classes, books, and TV shows. First principles thinking enabled Julia to both master her own struggles with cooking and then teach the world to do the same. In Something from the Oven, Laura Shapiro tells the charming story of how she did it. Here’s what we can learn about better thinking from the “French Chef.”

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Gustave Flaubert wrote that “talent is a long patience, ” something which was all too true for Julia. She wasn’t born with an innate skill for or even love of cooking. Her starting point was falling in love with her future husband, Paul Child, in Ceylon in 1944 when both were working for the Office of Strategic Services. Paul adored food, and his delight in it inspired Julia. When they each returned to their separate homes after the war, she decided she would learn to cook. Things got off to a bad start, as Shapiro explains:

“At first she tried to teach herself at home, but it was frustrating to bushwhack her way through one dish after another. She never knew whether she would find success or failure when she opened the oven door, and worst of all, she didn’t know why this recipe worked and that one didn’t.”

Seeking expert guidance, Julia started taking cooking classes three times a week at a Beverly Hills cooking school. Even that didn’t help much, however, and after she married Paul a year later, her experiments in their Washington, DC kitchen continued to go awry. Only when the couple moved to Paris did an epiphany strike. Julia’s encounters with French cooking instilled in her an understanding of the need for first principles thinking. Trying to follow recipes without comprehending their logic wasn’t going to produce delicious results. She needed to learn how food actually worked.

In 1949, at the age of 37, she enrolled in classes at the famous Cordon Bleu school of cooking. It changed her forever:

“Learning to cook at the Cordon Bleu meant breaking down every dish into its smallest individual steps and doing each laborious and exhausting procedure by hand. In time Child could bone a duck while leaving the skin intact, extract the guts of a chicken through a hole she made in the neck, make a ham mousse by pounding the ham to a pulp with a mortar and pestle, and turn out a swath of elaborate dishes from choucroute garnie to vol-au-vent financière. None of this came effortlessly but she could do it. She had the brains, the considerable physical strength it demanded, and her vast determination. Most important, she could understand for the first time the principles governing how and why a recipe worked as it did.”

Julia had found her calling. After six months of Cordon Bleu classes, she continued studying independently for a year. She immersed herself in French cooking, filled her home with equipment, and befriended two women who shared her passion, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. In the early 1950s, they opened a tiny school together, with a couple of students working out of Julia’s kitchen. She was “adamant that the recipes used in class be absolutely reliable, and she tested every one of them for what she called ‘scientific workability.’” By this, Julia meant that the recipes needed to make sense per her understanding of the science of cooking. If they didn’t agree with the first principles she knew, they were out.

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When Paul transferred to Marseille, Julia was sad to leave her school. But she and her friends continued their collaboration, working at a distance on a French cookery book aimed at Americans. For what would become Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia focused on teaching first principles in a logical order, not copying down mere recipes.

She’d grown frustrated at opening recipe books to see instructions she knew couldn’t work because they contradicted the science of cooking—for example, recipes calling for temperatures she knew would burn a particular ingredient, or omitting key ingredients like baking soda, without which a particular effect would be impossible. It was clear no one had bothered to test anything before they wrote it down, and she was determined not to make the same mistake.

Mastering the Art of French Cooking came out in 1961. Shapiro writes, “The reviews were excellent, there was a gratifying burst of publicity all across the country, and the professional food world acknowledged a new star in Julia Child. What nobody knew for sure was whether everyday homemakers in the nation that invented the TV dinner would buy the book.” Though the book was far from a flop, it was the TV show it inspired that catapulted Julia and her approach to cooking to stardom.

The French Chef first aired in 1963 and was an enormous success from the start. Viewers adored how Julia explained why she did what she did and how it worked. They also loved her spontaneous capacity to adapt to unanticipated outcomes. It was usually only possible to shoot one take so Julia needed to keep going no matter what happened.

Her show appealed to every kind of person because it could make anyone a better cook—or at least help them understand the process better. Not only was Julia “a striking image of unaffected good nature,” the way she taught really worked. Viewers and readers who followed her guidance discovered a way of cooking that made them feel in control.

Julia “believed anybody could cook with distinction from scratch and that’s what she was out to prove.” Many of the people who watched The French Chef were women who needed a new way to think about cooking. As gender roles were being redefined and more women entered the workforce, it no longer seemed like something they were obligated by birth to do. At the same time, treating it as an undesirable chore was no more pleasant than treating it as a duty. Julia taught them another way. Cooking could be an intellectual, creative, enjoyable activity. Once you understood how it actually worked, you could learn from mistakes instead of repeating them again and again.

Shapiro explains that “Child was certainly not the first TV chef. The genre was almost as old as TV itself. But she was the first to make it her own and have an enduring societal impact.”

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If you can master the first principles within a domain, you can see much further than those who are just following recipes. That’s what Julia managed to do, and it’s part of why she stood out from the other TV chefs of her time—and still stands out today. By mastering first principles, you can find better ways of doing things, instead of having to stick to conventions. If Julia thought a modern piece of equipment worked better than a traditional one or that part of a technique was a pointless custom, she didn’t hesitate to make changes as she saw fit. Once you know the why of something, it is easy to modify the how to achieve your desired result.

The lessons of first principles in cooking are the same for the first principles in any domain. Looking for first principles is just a way of thinking. It’s a commitment to understanding the foundation that something is built on and giving yourself the freedom to adapt, develop, and create. Once you know the first principles, you can keep learning more advanced concepts as well as innovating for yourself.

Learning Through Play

Play is an essential way of learning about the world. Doing things we enjoy without a goal in mind leads us to find new information, better understand our own capabilities, and find unexpected beauty around us. Arithmetic is one example of an area we can explore through play.

Every parent knows that children need space for unstructured play that helps them develop their creativity and problem-solving skills. Free-form experimentation leads to the rapid acquisition of information about the world. When children play together, they expand their social skills and strengthen the ability to regulate their emotions. Young animals, such as elephants, dogs, ravens, and crocodiles, also develop survival skills through play.

The benefits of play don’t disappear as soon as you become an adult. Even if we engage our curiosity in different ways as we grow up, a lot of learning and exploration still comes from analogous activities: things we do for the sheer fun of it.

When the pressure mounts to be productive every minute of the day, we have much to gain from doing all we can to carve out time to play. Take away prescriptions and obligations, and we gravitate towards whatever interests us the most. Just like children and baby elephants, we can learn important lessons through play. It can also give us a new perspective on topics we take for granted—such as the way we represent numbers.

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Playing with symbols

The book Arithmetic, in addition to being a clear and engaging history of the subject, is a demonstration of how insights and understanding can be combined with enjoyment and fun. The best place to start the book is at the afterword, where author and mathematics professor Paul Lockhart writes, “I especially hope that I have managed to get across the idea of viewing your mind as a playground—a place to create beautiful things for your own pleasure and amusement and to marvel at what you’ve made and at what you have yet to understand.

Arithmetic, the branch of math dealing with the manipulation and properties of numbers, can be very playful. After all, there are many ways to add and multiply numbers that in themselves can be represented in various ways. When we see six cows in a field, we represent that amount with the symbol 6. The Romans used VI. And there are many other ways that unfortunately can’t be typed on a standard English keyboard. If two more cows wander into the field, the usual method of counting them is to add 2 to 6 and conclude there are now 8 cows. But we could just as easily add 2 + 3 + 3. Or turn everything into fractions with a base of 2 and go from there.

One of the most intriguing parts of the book is when Lockhart encourages us to step away from how we commonly label numbers so we can have fun experimenting with them. He says, “The problem with familiarity is not so much that it breeds contempt, but that it breeds loss of perspective.” So we don’t get too hung up on our symbols such as 4 and 5, Lockhart shows us how any symbols can be used to complete some of the main arithmetic tasks such as comparing and grouping. He shows how completely random symbols can represent amounts and gives insight into how they can be manipulated.

When we start to play with the representations, we connect to the underlying reasoning behind what we are doing. We could be counting for the purposes of comparison, and we could also be interested in learning the patterns produced by our actions. Lockhart explains that “every number can be represented in a variety of ways, and we want to choose a form that is as useful and convenient as possible.” We can thus choose our representations of numbers based on curiosity versus what is conventional. It’s easy to extrapolate this thinking to broader life situations. How often do we assume certain parameters are fixed just because that is what has always been done? What else could we accomplish if we let go of convention and focused instead on function?

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Stepping away from requirements

We all use the Hindu-Arabic number system, which utilizes groups of tens. Ten singles are ten, ten tens are a hundred, and so on. It has a consistent logic to it, and it is a pervasive way of grouping numbers as they increase. But Lockhart explains that grouping numbers by ten is as arbitrary as the symbols we use to represent numbers. He explains how a society might group by fours or sevens. One of the most interesting ideas though, comes when he’s explaining the groupings:

“You might think there is no question about it; we chose four as our grouping size, so that’s that. Of course we will group our groups into fours—as opposed to what? Grouping things into fours and then grouping our groups into sixes? That would be insane! But it happens all the time. Inches are grouped into twelves to make feet, and then three feet make a yard. And the old British monetary system had twelve pence to the shilling and twenty shillings to the pound.”

By reminding us of the options available in such a simple, everyday activity as counting, Lockhart opens a mental door. What other ways might we go about our tasks and solve our problems? It’s a reminder that most of our so-called requirements are ones that we impose on ourselves.

If we think back to being children, we often played with things in ways that were different from what they were intended for. Pots became drums and tape strung around the house became lasers. A byproduct of this type of play is usually learning—we learn what things are normally used for by playing with them. But that’s not the intention behind a child’s play. The fun comes first, and thus they don’t restrain themselves to convention.

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Have fun with the unfamiliar

There are advantages and disadvantages to all counting systems. For Lockhart, the only way to discover what those are is to play around with them. And it is in the playing that we may learn more than arithmetic. For example, he says: “In fact, getting stuck (say on 7 +8 for instance) is one of the best things that can happen to you because it gives you an opportunity to reinvent and to appreciate exactly what it is that you are doing.” In the case of adding two numbers, we “are rearranging numerical information for comparison purposes.

The larger point is that getting stuck on anything can be incredibly useful. If forces you to stop and consider what it is you are really trying to achieve. Getting stuck can help you identify the first principles in your situation. In getting unstuck, we learn lessons that resonate and help us to grow.

Lockhart says of arithmetic that we need to “not let our familiarity with a particular system blind us to its arbitrariness.” We don’t have to use the symbol 2 to represent how many cows there are in a field, just as we don’t have to group sixty minutes into one hour. We may find those representations useful, but we also may not. There are some people in the world with so much money that the numbers that represent their wealth are almost nonsensical, and most people find the clock manipulation that is the annual flip to daylight savings time to be annoying and stressful.

Playing around with arithmetic can teach the broader lesson that we don’t have to keep using systems that no longer serve us well. Yet how many of us have a hard time letting go of the ineffective simply because it’s familiar?

Which brings us back to play. Play is often the exploration of the unfamiliar. After all, if you knew what the result would be, it likely wouldn’t be considered play. When we play we take chances, we experiment, and we try new combinations just to see what happens. We do all of this in the pursuit of fun because it is the novelty that brings us pleasure and makes play rewarding.

Lockhart makes a similar point about arithmetic:

“The point of studying arithmetic and its philosophy is not merely to get good at it but also to gain a larger perspective and to expand our worldview . . . Plus, it’s fun. Anyway, as connoisseurs of arithmetic, we should always be questioning and critiquing, examining and playing.”

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We suggest that playing need not be confined to arithmetic. If you happen to enjoy playing with numbers, then go for it. Lockhart’s book gives great inspiration on how to have fun with numbers. Playing is inherently valuable and doesn’t need to be productive. Children and animals have no purpose for play; they merely do what’s fun. It just so happens that unstructured, undirected play often has incredibly powerful byproducts.

Play can lead to new ideas and innovations. It can also lead to personal growth and development, not to mention a better understanding of the world. And, by its definition, play leads to fun. Which is the best part. Arithmetic is just one example of an unexpected area we can approach with the spirit of play.

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 Illusory Truth Effect: Why We Believe Fake News, Conspiracy Theories and Propaganda

When a “fact” tastes good and is repeated enough, we tend to believe it, no matter how false it may be. Understanding the illusory truth effect can keep us from being bamboozled.

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A recent Verge article looked at some of the unsavory aspects of working as Facebook content moderators—the people who spend their days cleaning up the social network’s most toxic content. One strange detail stands out. The moderators the Verge spoke to reported that they and their coworkers often found themselves believing fringe, often hatemongering conspiracy theories they would have dismissed under normal circumstances. Others described experiencing paranoid thoughts and intense fears for their safety.

An overnight switch from skepticism to fervent belief in conspiracy theories is not unique to content moderators. In a Nieman Lab article by Laura Hazard Owen, she explains that researchers who study the spread of disinformation online can find themselves struggling to be sure about their own beliefs and needing to make an active effort to counteract what they see. Some of the most fervent, passionate conspiracy theorists admit that they first fell into the rabbit hole when they tried to debunk the beliefs they now hold. There’s an explanation for why this happens: the illusory truth effect.

The illusory truth effect

Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.

Aldous Huxley

Not everything we believe is true. We may act like it is and it may be uncomfortable to think otherwise, but it’s inevitable that we all hold a substantial number of beliefs that aren’t objectively true. It’s not about opinions or different perspectives. We can pick up false beliefs for the simple reason that we’ve heard them a lot.

If I say that the moon is made of cheese, no one reading this is going to believe that, no matter how many times I repeat it. That statement is too ludicrous. But what about something a little more plausible? What if I said that moon rock has the same density as cheddar cheese? And what if I wasn’t the only one saying it? What if you’d also seen a tweet touting this amazing factoid, perhaps also heard it from a friend at some point, and read it in a blog post?

Unless you’re a geologist, a lunar fanatic, or otherwise in possession of an unusually good radar for moon rock-related misinformation, there is a not insignificant chance you would end up believing a made-up fact like that, without thinking to verify it. You might repeat it to others or share it online. This is how the illusory truth effect works: we all have a tendency to believe something is true after being exposed to it multiple times. The more times we’ve heard something, the truer it seems. The effect is so powerful that repetition can persuade us to believe information we know is false in the first place. Ever thought a product was stupid but somehow you ended up buying it on a regular basis? Or you thought that new manager was okay, but now you participate in gossip about her?

The illusory truth effect is the reason why advertising works and why propaganda is one of the most powerful tools for controlling how people think. It’s why the speech of politicians can be bizarre and multiple-choice tests can cause students problems later on. It’s why fake news spreads and retractions of misinformation don’t work. In this post, we’re going to look at how the illusory truth effect works, how it shapes our perception of the world, and how we can avoid it.

The discovery of the illusory truth effect

Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.

Henry David Thoreau

The illusory truth effect was first described in a 1977 paper entitled “Frequency and the Conference of Referential Validity,” by Lynn Hasher and David Goldstein of Temple University and Thomas Toppino of Villanova University. In the study, the researchers presented a group of students with 60 statements and asked them to rate how certain they were that each was either true or false. The statements came from a range of subjects and were all intended to be not too obscure, but unlikely to be familiar to study participants. Each statement was objective—it could be verified as either correct or incorrect and was not a matter of opinion. For example, “the largest museum in the world is the Louvre in Paris” was true.

Students rated their certainty three times, with two weeks in between evaluations. Some of the statements were repeated each time, while others were not. With each repetition, students became surer of their certainty regarding the statements they labelled as true. It seemed that they were using familiarity as a gauge for how confident they were of their beliefs.

An important detail is that the researchers did not repeat the first and last 10 items on each list. They felt students would be most likely to remember these and be able to research them before the next round of the study. While the study was not conclusive evidence of the existence of the illusory truth effect, subsequent research has confirmed its findings.

Why the illusory truth effect happens

The sad truth is the truth is sad.

Lemony Snicket

Why does repetition of a fact make us more likely to believe it, and to be more certain of that belief? As with other cognitive shortcuts, the typical explanation is that it’s a way our brains save energy. Thinking is hard work—remember that the human brain uses up about 20% of an individual’s energy, despite accounting for just 2% of their body weight.

The illusory truth effect comes down to processing fluency. When a thought is easier to process, it requires our brains to use less energy, which leads us to prefer it. The students in Hasher’s original study recognized the repeated statements, even if not consciously. That means that processing them was easier for their brains.

Processing fluency seems to have a wide impact on our perception of truthfulness. Rolf Reber and Norbert Schwarz, in their article “Effects of Perceptual Fluency on Judgments of Truth,” found that statements presented in an easy-to-read color are judged as more likely to be true than ones presented in a less legible way. In their article “Birds of a Feather Flock Conjointly (?): Rhyme as Reason in Aphorisms,” Matthew S. McGlone and Jessica Tofighbakhsh found that aphorisms that rhyme (like “what sobriety conceals, alcohol reveals”), even if someone hasn’t heard them before, seem more accurate than non-rhyming versions. Once again, they’re easier to process.

Fake news

“One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. ”

— Carl Sagan

The illusory truth effect is one factor in why fabricated news stories sometimes gain traction and have a wide impact. When this happens, our knee-jerk reaction can be to assume that anyone who believes fake news must be unusually gullible or outright stupid. Evan Davis writes in Post Truth, “Never before has there been a stronger sense that fellow citizens have been duped and that we are all suffering the consequences of their intellectual vulnerability.” As Davis goes on to write, this assumption isn’t helpful for anyone. We can’t begin to understand why people believe seemingly ludicrous news stories until we consider some of the psychological reasons why this might happen.

Fake news falls under the umbrella of “information pollution,” which also includes news items that misrepresent information, take it out of context, parody it, fail to check facts or do background research, or take claims from unreliable sources at face value. Some of this news gets published on otherwise credible, well-respected news sites due to simple oversight. Some goes on parody sites that never purport to tell the truth, yet are occasionally mistaken for serious reporting. Some shows up on sites that replicate the look and feel of credible sources, using similar web design and web addresses. And some fake news comes from sites dedicated entirely to spreading misinformation, without any pretense of being anything else.

A lot of information pollution falls somewhere in between the extremes that tend to get the most attention. It’s the result of people being overworked or in a hurry and unable to do the due diligence that reliable journalism requires. It’s what happens when we hastily tweet something or mention it in a blog post and don’t realize it’s not quite true. It extends to miscited quotes, doctored photographs, fiction books masquerading as memoirs, or misleading statistics.

The signal to noise ratio is so skewed that we have a hard time figuring out what to pay attention to and what we should ignore. No one has time to verify everything they read online. No one. (And no, offline media certainly isn’t perfect either.) Our information processing capabilities are not infinite and the more we consume, the harder it becomes to assess its value.

Moreover, we’re often far outside our circle of competence, reading about topics we don’t have the expertise in to assess accuracy in any meaningful way. This drip-drip of information pollution is not harmless. Like air pollution, it builds up over time and the more we’re exposed to it, the more likely we are to end up picking up false beliefs which are then hard to shift. For instance, a lot of people believe that crime, especially the violent kind, is on an upward trend year by year—in a 2016 study by Pew Research, 57% of Americans believed crime had worsened since 2008. This despite violent crime having actually fallen by nearly a fifth during that time. This false belief may stem from the fact that violent crime receives a disproportional amount of media coverage, giving it wide and repeated exposure.

When people are asked to rate the apparent truthfulness of news stories, they score ones they have read multiple times more truthful than those they haven’t. Danielle C. Polage, in her article “Making Up History: False Memories of Fake News Stories,” explains that a false story someone has been exposed to more than once can seem more credible than a true one they’re seeing for the first time. In experimental settings, people also misattribute their previous exposure to stories, believing they read a news item from another source when they actually saw it as part of a prior part of a study. Even when people know the story is part of the experiment, they sometimes think they’ve also read it elsewhere. The repetition is all that matters.

Given enough exposure to contradictory information, there is almost no knowledge that we won’t question.

Propaganda

If a lie is only printed often enough, it becomes a quasi-truth, and if such a truth is repeated often enough, it becomes an article of belief, a dogma, and men will die for it.

Isa Blagden

Propaganda and fake news are similar. By relying on repetition, disseminators of propaganda can change the beliefs and values of people.

Propaganda has a lot in common with advertising, except instead of selling a product or service, it’s about convincing people of the validity of a particular cause. Propaganda isn’t necessarily malicious; sometimes the cause is improved public health or boosting patriotism to encourage military enrollment. But often propaganda is used to undermine political processes to further narrow, radical, and aggressive agendas.

During World War II, the graphic designer Abraham Games served as the official war artist for the British government. Games’s work is iconic and era-defining for its punchy, brightly colored visual style. His army recruitment posters would often feature a single figure rendered in a proud, strong, admirable pose with a mere few words of text. They conveyed to anyone who saw them the sorts of positive qualities they would supposedly gain through military service. Whether this was true or not was another matter. Through repeated exposure to the poster, Games instilled the image the army wanted to create in the minds of viewers, affecting their beliefs and behaviors.

Today, propaganda is more likely to be a matter of quantity over quality. It’s not about a few artistic posters. It’s about saturating the intellectual landscape with content that supports a group’s agenda. With so many demands on our attention, old techniques are too weak.

Researchers Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews at the Rand Corporation refer to the method of bombarding people with fabricated information as the “firehose of propaganda” model. While the report focuses on modern Russian propaganda, the techniques it describes are not confined to Russia. These techniques make use of the illusory truth effect, alongside other cognitive shortcuts. Firehose propaganda has four distinct features:

  • High-volume and multi-channel
  • Rapid, continuous and repetitive
  • Makes no commitment to objective reality
  • Makes no commitment to consistency

Firehose propaganda is predicated on exposing people to the same messages as frequently as possible. It involves a large volume of content, repeated again and again across numerous channels: news sites, videos, radio, social media, television and so on. These days, as the report describes, this can also include internet users who are paid to repeatedly post in forums, chat rooms, comment sections and on social media disputing legitimate information and spreading misinformation. It is the sheer volume that succeeds in obliterating the truth. Research into the illusory truth effect suggests that we are further persuaded by information heard from multiple sources, hence the efficacy of funneling propaganda through a range of channels.

Seeing as repetition leads to belief in many cases, firehose propaganda doesn’t need to pay attention to the truth or even to be consistent. A source doesn’t need to be credible for us to end up believing its messages. Fact-checking is of little help because it further adds to the repetition, yet we feel compelled not to ignore obviously untrue propagandistic material.

Firehose propaganda does more than spread fake news. It nudges us towards feelings like paranoia, mistrust, suspicion, and contempt for expertise. All of this makes future propaganda more effective. Unlike those espousing the truth, propagandists can move fast because they’re making up some or all of what they claim, meaning they gain a foothold in our minds first.  First impressions are powerful. Familiarity breeds trust.

How to combat the illusory truth effect

So how can we protect ourselves from believing false news and being manipulated by propaganda due to the illusory truth effect? The best route is to be far more selective. The information we consume is like the food we eat. If it’s junk, our thinking will reflect that.

We don’t need to spend as much time reading the news as most of us do. As with many other things in life, more can be less. The vast majority of the news we read is just information pollution. It doesn’t do us any good.

One of the best solutions is to quit the news. This frees up time and energy to engage with timeless wisdom that will improve your life. Try it for a couple of weeks. And if you aren’t convinced, read a few days’ worth of newspapers from 1978. You’ll see how much the news doesn’t really matter at all.

If you can’t quit the news habit, stick to reliable, well-known news sources that have a reputation to uphold. Steer clear of dubious sources whenever you can—even if you treat it as entertainment, you might still end up absorbing it. Research unfamiliar sources before trusting them. Be cautious of sites that are funded entirely by advertising (or that pay their journalists based on views) and seek to support reader-funded news sources you get value from if possible. Prioritize sites that treat their journalists well and don’t expect them to churn out dozens of thoughtless articles per day.  Don’t rely on news in social media posts without sources, from people outside of their circle of competence.

Avoid treating the news as entertainment to passively consume on the bus or while waiting in line. Be mindful about it—if you want to inform yourself on a topic, set aside designated time to learn about it from multiple trustworthy sources. Don’t assume breaking news is better, as it can take some time for the full details of a story to come out and people may be quick to fill in the gaps with misinformation. Accept that you can’t be informed about everything and most of it isn’t important. Pay attention to when news items make you feel outrage or other strong emotions, because this may be a sign of manipulation. Be aware that correcting false information can further fuel the illusory truth effect by adding to the repetition.

We can’t stop the illusory truth effect from existing. But we can recognize that it is a reality and seek to prevent ourselves from succumbing to it in the first place.

Conclusion

Our memories are imperfect. We are easily led astray by the illusory truth effect, which can direct what we believe and even change our understanding of the past. It’s not about intelligence—this happens to all of us. This effect is too powerful for us to override it simply by learning the truth. Cognitively, there is no distinction between a genuine memory and a false one. Our brains are designed to save energy and it’s crucial we accept that.

We can’t just pull back and think the illusory truth only applies to other people. It applies to everyone. We’re all responsible for our own beliefs. We can’t pin the blame on the media or social media algorithms or whatever else. When we put effort into thinking about and questioning the information we’re exposed to, we’re less vulnerable to the illusory truth effect. Knowing about the effect is the best way to identify when it’s distorting our worldview. Before we use information as the basis for important decisions, it’s a good idea to verify if it’s true, or if it’s something we’ve just heard a lot.

Truth is a precarious thing, not because it doesn’t objectively exist, but because the incentives to warp it can be so strong. It’s up to each of us to seek it out.