Tag: Psychology

There’s Seldom Any Traffic on the High Road

We’ve all been there: someone says something rude to us and our instinct is to strike back with a quick-witted comeback. That’s what many people do. It’s also a big reason that many people don’t get what they want. Consider this example from my recent travels:

“Are you dense?” the gate agent blurted to me, clearly frustrated as I asked a question she’d be asked a million times that day. Only moments before, I had been sitting on a plane to Seattle when the announcement came over the PA system that the flight was cancelled.

The instructions were clear: check with the gate agent for reassignment.  I was tenth in line. By the time I talked to her, this agent had already had to deal with nine angry customers. She wasn’t frustrated with me, but I knew that everyone else had verbally beat her up. I also travel enough to know how seldom that works. She had instructed the previous nine passengers to collect their bags, go through customs, and go to the Air Canada customer service desk for reassignment.

“I guess you’re right, I can be slow sometimes,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

Her words finally caught up with her, and she apologized. “I’m sorry, that was rude of me. I didn’t mean—”

“You’ve had a long day. People are frustrated and taking it out on you when it’s not your fault. I know how hard that can be.”

She cracked a smile, the first I had seen from her since I joined the line. And she happily found me a seat on the next flight.

She was being rude. Yes. But that wasn’t the best version of her.

When people are rude, our subconscious interprets it as an assault on hierarchy instincts. Our evolutionary programming responds with thoughts like, “Who are you to tell me something so rude? I’ll show you….”

Our instincts are to escalate when really, we should be focused on de-escalating the situation. One way to do that is to take the high road.

Say something along the lines of “I can see that.” You don’t have to apologize. You don’t have to agree with what the other person is saying. But I promise the results are magic. It’s hard to be angry with someone who agrees with you. And when there is no one to argue with and they’re the only person worked up about the situation, they will quickly feel uncomfortable and try to correct course.

Making enemies is expensive. Sometimes you don’t even realize how expensive. I saw one of those other nine passengers two and a half hours later, running to the gate to board the flight I was on. They had only just gotten through the hassle that resulted from their dealings with the gate agent—while I had grabbed a glass of wine and read a book. They had no idea how much their rudeness cost them in time and energy. It wasn’t visible to them. It was, however, visible to me.

The high road not only holds your frictional costs to the minimum, but it makes you happier. You’ll go farther and faster than others in the same situation. Sure, it involves putting your ego aside for a second—but if you think about it, this approach can often be the quickest to getting what you want.

Survival of the Kindest: Dacher Keltner Reveals the New Rules of Power

When Pixar was dreaming up the idea for Inside Out, a film that would explore the roiling emotions inside the head of a young girl, they needed guidance from an expert. So they called Dacher Keltner.

Dacher is a psychologist at UC Berkeley who has dedicated his career to understanding how human emotion shapes the way we interact with the world, how we properly manage difficult or stressful situations, and ultimately, how we treat one another.

In fact, he refers to emotions as the “language of social living.” The more fluent we are in this language, the happier and more meaningful our lives can be.

We tackle a wide variety of topics in this conversation that I think you’ll really enjoy.

You’ll learn:

  • The three main drivers that determine your personal happiness and life satisfaction
  • Simple things you can do everyday to jumpstart the “feel good” reward center of your brain
  • The principle of “jen” and how we can use “high-jen behaviors” to bootstrap our own happiness
  • How to have more positive influence in our homes, at work and in our communities.
  • How to teach your kids to be more kind and empathetic in an increasingly self-centered world
  • What you can do to stay grounded and humble if you are in a position of power or authority
  • How to catch our own biases when we’re overly critical of another’s ideas (or overconfident in our own)

And much more. We could have spent an hour discussing any one of these points alone, but there was so much I wanted to cover. I’m certain you’ll find this episode well worth your time.

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Making Compassionate Decisions: The Role of Empathy in Decision Making

“The biggest deficit that we have in our society and in the world right now is an empathy deficit. We are in great need of people being able to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes.”

— Barack Obama

You don’t have to look hard to find quotes expounding the need for more empathy in society. As with Barack Obama’s quote above, we are encouraged to actively build empathy with others — especially those who are different from us. The implicit message in these pleas is that empathy will make us treat each other with more respect and caring and will help reduce violence. But is this true? Does empathy make us appreciate others, help us behave in moral ways, or help us make better decisions?

These are questions Paul Bloom tackles in his book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. As the title suggests, Bloom’s book makes a case against empathy as an inherent force for good and takes a closer look at what empathy is (and is not), how empathy works in our brains, how empathy can lead to immoral outcomes despite our best intentions, and how we can improve our ability to have a positive impact by strengthening our intelligence, compassion, self-control, and ability to reason.

To explore these questions, we first need to define what we’re talking about.

What Is Empathy?

Empathy is an often-used word that can mean different things. Bloom quotes one team of empathy researchers who joke that “there are probably nearly as many definitions of empathy as people working on this topic.” For his part, Bloom defines empathy as “the act of coming to experience the world as you think someone else does.” This type of empathy was explored by philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment. Bloom writes:

As Adam Smith put it, we have the capacity to think about another person and “place ourselves in his situation and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them.”

This is the definition and view of empathy that Bloom devotes most of the book to exploring. This is the “standing in another man’s shoes” type of empathy from Barack Obama’s quote above, which Bloom calls emotional empathy.

“I feel your pain” is more than a metaphor. It’s literal.

With emotional empathy, you actually experience a weaker degree of what somebody else feels. Researchers in recent years have been able to show that empathic responses of pain occur in the same area of the brain where real pain is experienced.

So “I feel your pain” isn’t just a gooey metaphor; it can be made neurologically literal: Other people’s pain really does activate the same brain area as your own pain, and more generally, there is neural evidence for a correspondence between self and other.

To make the shoe metaphor literal, imagine that you see somebody drop something heavy on their foot — you flinch because you know what this feels like and the parts of your brain that experience pain (the anterior insula and the cingulate cortex) react. You don’t feel the same degree of pain, of course — you didn’t drop anything on your foot after all — but it is likely that you have an involuntary physical reaction like a flinch, a facial grimace, or an audible outburst. This is an emotionally empathic response.

But there is another form of empathy that Bloom wants us to be aware of and consider differently. It relates to our ability to understand what is going on in the minds of others. Bloom refers to this form as cognitive empathy:

… if I understand that you are in pain without feeling it myself, this is what psychologists describe as social cognition, social intelligence, mind reading, theory of mind, or mentalizing. It’s also sometimes described as a form of empathy—“cognitive empathy” as opposed to “emotional empathy.”

In this sense, cognitive empathy speaks to our capacity to understand what is going on in the minds of others. In the case of pain, which is where a lot of empathy research is done, we’re not talking about feeling any degree of pain, as we might with emotional empathy, but instead, we simply understand that the other person is feeling pain without feeling it ourselves. Cognitive empathy goes beyond pain — our ability to understand what is going on in somebody else’s mind is an important part of being human and is necessary for us to relate to each other.

Empathy and compassion are synonyms in many dictionaries and used interchangeably by many, but they have different characteristics.

The brain is, of course, very complicated, so it is plausible that these two types of empathy could take place in the same part of the brain. So far, though, the research seems to indicate that they are largely separate:

In a review article, Jamil Zaki and Kevin Ochsner note that hundreds of studies now support a certain perspective on the mind, which they call “a tale of two systems.” One system involves sharing the experience of others, what we’ve called empathy; the other involves inferences about the mental states of others—mentalizing or mind reading. While they can both be active at once, and often are, they occupy different parts of the brain. For instance, the medial prefrontal cortex, just behind the forehead, is involved in mentalizing, while the anterior cingulate cortex, sitting right behind that, is involved in empathy.

The difference between cognitive and emotional empathy is important for understanding Bloom’s arguments. From Bloom’s perspective, cognitive empathy is “…a useful and necessary tool for anyone who wishes to be a good person—but it is morally neutral.” On the other hand, Bloom believes that emotional empathy is “morally corrosive,” and the bulk of his attack is directed at highlighting the pitfalls of relying on emotional empathy while making the case for cultivating and practicing “rational compassion” instead.

I believe that the capacity for emotional empathy, described as “sympathy” by philosophers such as Adam Smith and David Hume, often simply known as “empathy” and defended by so many scholars, theologians, educators, and politicians, is actually morally corrosive. If you are struggling with a moral decision and find yourself trying to feel someone else’s pain or pleasure, you should stop. This empathic engagement might give you some satisfaction, but it’s not how to improve things and can lead to bad decisions and bad outcomes. Much better to use reason and cost-benefit analysis, drawing on a more distanced compassion and kindness.

Here again, the definition of the terms is important for understanding the argument. Empathy and compassion are synonyms in many dictionaries and used interchangeably by many, but they have different characteristics. Bloom outlines the difference:

… compassion and concern are more diffuse than empathy. It is weird to talk about having empathy for the millions of victims of malaria, say, but perfectly normal to say that you are concerned about them or feel compassion for them. Also, compassion and concern don’t require mirroring of others’ feelings. If someone works to help the victims of torture and does so with energy and good cheer, it doesn’t seem right to say that as they do this, they are empathizing with the individuals they are helping. Better to say that they feel compassion for them.

Bloom references a review paper written by Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki to help make the distinction clear. Singer and Klimecki write:

In contrast to empathy, compassion does not mean sharing the suffering of the other: rather, it is characterized by feelings of warmth, concern and care for the other, as well as a strong motivation to improve the other’s well-being. Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other.

To summarize, emotional empathy could be simply described as “feeling what others feel,” cognitive empathy as “understanding what others feel,” and compassion as “caring about how others feel.”

Emotional empathy could be simply described as “feeling what others feel,” cognitive empathy as “understanding what others feel,” and compassion as “caring about how others feel.”

Empathy and Morality

Many people believe that our ability to empathize is the basis for morality because it causes us to consider our actions from another’s perspective. “Treat others as you would like to be treated” is the basic morality lesson repeated thousands of times to children all over the world.

In this way, empathy can lead us to rely on our self-centered nature. If this is true, Bloom suggests that the argument in its simplest form would go like this:

Everyone is naturally interested in him- or herself; we care most about our own pleasure and pain. It requires nothing special to yank one’s hand away from a flame or to reach for a glass of water when thirsty. But empathy makes the experiences of others salient and important—your pain becomes my pain, your thirst becomes my thirst, and so I rescue you from the fire or give you something to drink. Empathy guides us to treat others as we treat ourselves and hence expands our selfish concerns to encompass others.

In this way, the willful exercise of empathy can motivate kindness that would never have otherwise occurred. Empathy can make us care about a slave, or a homeless person, or someone in solitary confinement. It can put us into the mind of a gay teenager bullied by his peers, or a victim of rape. We can empathize with a member of a despised minority or someone suffering from religious persecution in a faraway land. All these experiences are alien to me, but through the exercise of empathy, I can, in some limited way, experience them myself, and this makes me a better person.

When we consider the plight of others by imagining ourselves in their situation, we experience an empathic response that can cause us to evaluate the morality of our actions.

When we consider the plight of others by imagining ourselves in their situation, we experience an empathic response that can cause us to evaluate the morality of our actions.

In an interview, Steven Pinker hypothesizes that it was an increase in empathy, made possible by the technology of the printing press and the resulting increase in literacy, that led to the Humanitarian Revolution during the Enlightenment. The increase in empathy brought about by our ability to read accounts of violent punishments like disembowelment and mutilation caused us to reconsider the morality of treating other human beings in such ways.

So in certain instances, empathy can play a role in motivating us to take moral action. But is an empathic response required to do so?

To use a classic example from philosophy—first thought up by the Chinese philosopher Mencius—imagine that you are walking by a lake and see a young child struggling in shallow water. If you can easily wade into the water and save her, you should do it. It would be wrong to keep walking.

What motivates this good act? It is possible, I suppose, that you might imagine what it feels like to be drowning, or anticipate what it would be like to be the child’s mother or father hearing that she drowned. Such empathic feelings could then motivate you to act. But that is hardly necessary. You don’t need empathy to realize that it’s wrong to let a child drown. Any normal person would just wade in and scoop up the child, without bothering with any of this empathic hoo-ha.

And so there has to be more to morality than empathy. Our decisions about what’s right and what’s wrong, and our motivations to act, have many sources. One’s morality can be rooted in a religious worldview or a philosophical one. It can be motivated by a more diffuse concern for the fates of others—something often described as concern or compassion…

I hope most people reading this would agree that failing to attempt to save a drowning child or supporting or perpetrating violent punishments like disembowelment would be at the very least morally reprehensible, if not outright evil.

But what motivates people to be “evil”? For researchers like Simon Baron-Cohen, evil is defined as “empathy erosion” — truly evil people lack the capacity to empathize, and it is this lack of empathy that causes them to act in evil ways. Bloom looks at the question of what causes people to be evil from a slightly different angle:

Indeed, some argue that the myth of pure evil gets things backward. That is, it’s not that certain cruel actions are committed because the perpetrators are self-consciously and deliberatively evil. Rather it is because they think they are doing good. They are fueled by a strong moral sense.

When the perpetrators of violence or cruelty believe that their actions are morally justified, what motivates them? Bloom suggests that it can be empathy. Empathy often causes us to choose sides, to choose whom to empathize with. We see this tendency play out in politics all the time.

Empathy often causes us to choose sides, to choose whom to empathize with.

Politicians representing one side believe they are saving the world, while representatives on the other side believe that their adversaries are out to destroy civilization as we know it. If I believe that I am protecting a person or group of people whom I choose to empathize with, then I may be motivated to act in a way I believe is morally justified, even though others may believe that I have harmed them.

Steven Pinker weighed in on this issue when he wrote the following in The Better Angels of our Nature:

If you added up all the homicides committed in pursuit of self-help justice, the casualties of religious and revolutionary wars, the people executed for victimless crimes and misdemeanors, and the targets of ideological genocides, they would surely outnumber the fatalities from amoral predation and conquest.

Bloom quotes Pinker and goes on to write:

Henry Adams put this in stronger terms, with regard to Robert E. Lee: “It’s always the good men who do the most harm in the world.”

This might seem perverse. How can good lead to evil? One thing to keep in mind here is that we are interested in beliefs and motivations, not what’s good in some objective sense. So the idea isn’t that evil is good; rather, it’s that evil is done by those who think they are doing good.

So from a moral perspective, empathy can lead us astray. We may believe we are doing good or that our actions are justified but this may not necessarily be true for all involved. This is especially troublesome when we consider how we are affected by a growing list of cognitive biases.

Empathy and Biases

While empathy may not be required to motivate us to save a drowning child, it can still help us consider the differing experiences or suffering of another person thus motivating us to consider things from their perspective or thus act to relieve their suffering:

I see the bullied teenager and might be tempted initially to join in with his tormenters, out of sadism or boredom or a desire to dominate or be popular, but then I empathize—I feel his pain, I feel what it’s like to be bullied—so I don’t add to his suffering. Maybe I even rise to his defense. Empathy is like a spotlight directing attention and aid to where it’s needed.

On the surface this seems like an excellent case for the positive power of empathy; it shines a “spotlight” on a person in need and motivates us to help them. But what happens when we dig a little deeper into this metaphor? Bloom writes

… spotlights have a narrow focus, and this is one problem with empathy. It does poorly in a world where there are many people in need and where the effects of one’s actions are diffuse, often delayed, and difficult to compute, a world in which an act that helps one person in the here and now can lead to greater suffering in the future.

He adds:

Further, spotlights only illuminate what they are pointed at, so empathy reflects our biases. Although we might intellectually believe that the suffering of our neighbor is just as awful as the suffering of someone living in another country, it’s far easier to empathize with those who are close to us, those who are similar to us, and those we see as more attractive or vulnerable and less scary. Intellectually, a white American might believe that a black person matters just as much as a white person, but he or she will typically find it a lot easier to empathize with the plight of the latter than the former. In this regard, empathy distorts our moral judgments in pretty much the same way that prejudice does.

We are all predisposed to care more deeply for those we are close to. From a purely biological perspective, we will care for and protect our children and families before the children or families of strangers. Our decision making often falls victim to narrow framing, and our actions are affected by biases like Liking/Loving and Disliking/Hating and our tendency to discount the pain of people we don’t like:

We are constituted to favor our friends and family over strangers, to care more about members of our own group than people from different, perhaps opposing, groups. This fact about human nature is inevitable given our evolutionary history. Any creature that didn’t have special sentiments toward those that shared its genes and helped it in the past would get its ass kicked from a Darwinian perspective; it would falter relative to competitors with more parochial natures. This bias to favor those close to us is general—it influences who we readily empathize with, but it also influences who we like, who we tend to care for, who we will affiliate with, who we will punish, and so on.

There are many causes for human biases — empathy is only one — but taking a step back, we can see how the intuitive gut responses motivated by emotional empathy can negatively affect our ability to make rational decisions.

Empathy’s narrow focus, specificity, and innumeracy mean that it’s always going to be influenced by what captures our attention, by racial preferences, and so on. It’s only when we escape from empathy and rely instead on the application of rules and principles or a calculation of costs and benefits that we can, to at least some extent, become fair and impartial.

While many of us are motivated to be good and to make good decisions, it isn’t always cut and dry. Our preferences for whom to help or which organizations to support are affected by our biases. If we’re not careful, empathy can affect our ability to see the potential impacts of our actions. However, considering these impacts takes much more than empathy and a desire to do good; it takes awareness of our biases and mental effort to combat their effects:

… doing actual good, instead of doing what feels good, requires dealing with complex issues and being mindful of exploitation from competing, sometimes malicious and greedy, interests. To do so, you need to step back and not fall into empathy traps. The conclusion is not that one shouldn’t give, but rather that one should give intelligently, with an eye toward consequences.

In addition to biases like Liking/Loving and Disliking/Hating, empathy can lead to biases related to the Representative Heuristic. Actions motivated by empathy often fail to take the broader picture into account; the spotlight doesn’t encourage us to consider base rates or sample size when we make our decisions. Instead, we are motivated by positive emotions for a specific individual or small group:

Empathy is limited as well in that it focuses on specific individuals. Its spotlight nature renders it innumerate and myopic: It doesn’t resonate properly to the effects of our actions on groups of people, and it is insensitive to statistical data and estimated costs and benefits.

Part of the challenge that exists with empathy is this innumeracy that Bloom describes. It is impossible for us to form genuine empathic connections with abstractions. Conversely, if we see the suffering of one, empathy can motivate us to help make it stop. As Mother Theresa said, “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” This is what psychologists call “the identifiable victim effect.”

While many of us are motivated to be good and to make good decisions, it isn’t always cut and dry.

Perhaps an example will help illustrate.  On October 17, 1987, 18-month-old Jessica McClure fell 22 feet down an eight-inch-diameter well in the backyard of her home in Midland, Texas. Over the next 2 ½ days, fire, police, and volunteer rescuers worked around the clock to save her. Media coverage of the emergency was broadcast all over the world resulting in Jessica McClure becoming internationally known as “Baby Jessica” and prompting then-President Ronald Reagan to proclaim that “…everybody in America became the godmothers and godfathers of Jessica while this was going on.” The intense coverage and global awareness led to an influx of donations, resulting in an $800,000 trust being established in Jessica’s name.

What prompted this massive outpouring of concern and support? There are millions of children in need every day all over the world. How many of the people who sent donations to Baby Jessica had ever tried to help these faceless children? In the case of Baby Jessica, they had an identifiable victim, and empathy motivated many of them to help Jessica and her family. They could imagine what it might feel like for those poor parents and they felt genuine concern for the child’s future; all the other needy children around the world were statistical abstractions. This ability to identify and put a face on the suffering child and their family enables us to experience an empathic response with them, but the random children and their families remain empathically out of reach.

None of this is to say that rescuers should not have worked to save Jessica McClure — she was a real-world example of Mencius’s proverbial drowning child — but there are situations every day where we choose to help individuals at the cost of the continued suffering of others. Our actions often have diffuse and unknowable impacts.

If our concern is driven by thoughts of the suffering of specific individuals, then it sets up a perverse situation in which the suffering of one can matter more than the suffering of a thousand.

Furthermore, not only are we more likely to empathize with the identifiable victim, our empathy has its limits in scale as well. If we hear that an individual in a faraway land is suffering, we may have an empathic response, but will that response be increased proportionally if we learned that thousands or millions of people suffered? Adam Smith got to the heart of this question in The Theory of Moral Sentiments when he wrote:

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labors of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquility, as if no such accident had happened.

Empathy can inadvertently motivate us to act to save the one at the expense of the many. While the examples provided are by no means clear-cut issues, it is worth considering how the morality or goodness of our actions to help the few may have negative consequences for the many.

Charlie Munger has written and spoken about the Kantian Fairness Tendency, in which he suggests that for certain systems to be moral to the many, they must be unfair to the few.

For certain systems to be moral to the many, they must be unfair to the few.

Empathy and Reason

We are emotional creatures, then, but we are also rational beings, with the capacity for rational decision-making. We can override, deflect, and overrule our passions, and we often should do so. It’s not hard to see this for feelings like anger and hate—it’s clear that these can lead us astray, that we do better when they don’t rule us and when we are capable of circumventing them.

While we need kindness and compassion and we should strive to be good people making good decisions, we are not necessarily well served by empathy in this regard; emotional empathy’s negatives often outweigh its positives. Instead, we should rely on our capacity to reason and control our emotions. Empathy is not something that can be removed or ignored; it is a normal function of our brains after all, but we can and do combine reason with our natural instincts and intuitions:

The idea that human nature has two opposing facets—emotion versus reason, gut feelings versus careful, rational deliberation—is the oldest and most resilient psychological theory of all. It was there in Plato, and it is now the core of the textbook account of cognitive processes, which assumes a dichotomy between “hot” and “cold” mental processes, between an intuitive “System 1” and a deliberative “System 2.”

We know from Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow that these two systems are not inherently separate in practice. They are both functioning in our brains at the same time.

Some decisions are made faster due to heuristics and intuitions from experiences or our biology, while other decisions are made in a more deliberative and slow fashion using reason. Bloom writes:

We go through a mental process that is typically called “choice,” where we think about the consequences of our actions. There is nothing magical about this. The neural basis of mental life is fully compatible with the existence of conscious deliberation and rational thought—with neural systems that analyze different options, construct logical chains of argument, reason through examples and analogies, and respond to the anticipated consequences of actions.

We have an impulsive, emotional, and intuitive decision-making system in System 1 and a deliberative, reasoning, and (sometimes) rational decision-making system in System 2.

We will always have emotional reactions, but on average our decision making will be better served by improving our ability to reason rather than leveraging our ability to empathize

We will always have emotional reactions, but on average our decision making will be better served by improving our ability to reason rather than by leveraging our ability to empathize. One way to increase our ability to reason is to focus on improving our self-control:

Self-control can be seen as the purest embodiment of rationality in that it reflects the working of a brain system (embedded in the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that lies behind the forehead) that restrains our impulsive, irrational, or emotive desires.

While Bloom is unabashedly against empathy as an inherent force for good in the world, he is also a firm supporter of being and doing good. He believes that the “feeling with” nature of emotional empathy leads us to make biased and bad decisions despite our best intentions and that we should instead foster and encourage the “caring for” nature of compassion while combining it with our intelligence, self-control, and ability to reason:

… none of this is to deny the importance of traits such as compassion and kindness. We want to nurture these traits in our children and work to establish a culture that prizes and rewards them. But they are not enough. To make the world a better place, we would also want to bless people with more smarts and more self-control. These are central to leading a successful and happy life—and a good and moral one.

 

[Editor’s note: Where you see boldface in block quotes, emphasis has been added by Farnam Street.]

The Fairness Principle: How the Veil of Ignorance Helps Test Fairness

“But the nature of man is sufficiently revealed for him to know something of himself and sufficiently veiled to leave much impenetrable darkness, a darkness in which he ever gropes, forever in vain, trying to understand himself.”

— Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

The Basics

If you could redesign society from scratch, what would it look like?

How would you distribute wealth and power?

Would you make everyone equal or not? How would you define fairness and equality?

And — here’s the kicker — what if you had to make those decisions without knowing who you would be in this new society?

Philosopher John Rawls asked just that in a thought experiment known as “the Veil of Ignorance” in his 1971 book, Theory of Justice.

Like many thought experiments, the Veil of Ignorance could never be carried out in the literal sense, nor should it be. Its purpose is to explore ideas about justice, morality, equality, and social status in a structured manner.

The Veil of Ignorance, a component of social contract theory, allows us to test ideas for fairness.

Behind the Veil of Ignorance, no one knows who they are. They lack clues as to their class, their privileges, their disadvantages, or even their personality. They exist as an impartial group, tasked with designing a new society with its own conception of justice.

As a thought experiment, the Veil of Ignorance is powerful because our usual opinions regarding what is just and unjust are informed by our own experiences. We are shaped by our race, gender, class, education, appearance, sexuality, career, family, and so on. On the other side of the Veil of Ignorance, none of that exists. Technically, the resulting society should be a fair one.

In Ethical School Leadership, Spencer J. Maxcy writes:

Imagine that you have set for yourself the task of developing a totally new social contract for today’s society. How could you do so fairly? Although you could never actually eliminate all of your personal biases and prejudices, you would need to take steps at least to minimize them. Rawls suggests that you imagine yourself in an original position behind a veil of ignorance. Behind this veil, you know nothing of yourself and your natural abilities, or your position in society. You know nothing of your sex, race, nationality, or individual tastes. Behind such a veil of ignorance all individuals are simply specified as rational, free, and morally equal beings. You do know that in the “real world,” however, there will be a wide variety in the natural distribution of natural assets and abilities, and that there will be differences of sex, race, and culture that will distinguish groups of people from each other.

“The Fairness Principle: When contemplating a moral action, imagine that you do not know if you will be the moral doer or receiver, and when in doubt err on the side of the other person.”

— Michael Shermer, The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom

The Purpose of the Veil of Ignorance

Because people behind the Veil of Ignorance do not know who they will be in this new society, any choice they make in structuring that society could either harm them or benefit them.

If they decide men will be superior, for example, they must face the risk that they will be women. If they decide that 10% of the population will be slaves to the others, they cannot be surprised if they find themselves to be slaves. No one wants to be part of a disadvantaged group, so the logical belief is that the Veil of Ignorance would produce a fair, egalitarian society.

Behind the Veil of Ignorance, cognitive biases melt away. The hypothetical people are rational thinkers. They use probabilistic thinking to assess the likelihood of their being affected by any chosen measure. They possess no opinions for which to seek confirmation. Nor do they have any recently learned information to pay undue attention to. The sole incentive they are biased towards is their own self-preservation, which is equivalent to the preservation of the entire group. They cannot stereotype any particular group as they could be members of it. They lack commitment to their prior selves as they do not know who they are.

So, what would these people decide on? According to Rawls, in a fair society all individuals must possess the following:

  • Rights and liberties (including the right to vote, the right to hold public office, free speech, free thought, and fair legal treatment)
  • Power and opportunities
  • Income and wealth sufficient for a good quality of life (Not everyone needs to be rich, but everyone must have enough money to live a comfortable life.)
  • The conditions necessary for self-respect

For these conditions to occur, the people behind the Veil of Ignorance must figure out how to achieve what Rawls regards as the two key components of justice:

  • Everyone must have the best possible life which does not cause harm to others.
  • Everyone must be able to improve their position, and any inequalities must be present solely if they benefit everyone.

However, the people behind the Veil of Ignorance cannot be completely blank slates or it would be impossible for them to make rational decisions. They understand general principles of science, psychology, politics, and economics. Human behavior is no mystery to them. Neither are key economic concepts, such as comparative advantage and supply and demand. Likewise, they comprehend the deleterious impact of social entropy, and they have a desire to create a stable, ordered society. Knowledge of human psychology leads them to be cognizant of the universal desire for happiness and fulfillment. Rawls considered all of this to be the minimum viable knowledge for rational decision-making.

Ways of Understanding the Veil of Ignorance

One way to understand the Veil of Ignorance is to imagine that you are tasked with cutting up a pizza to share with friends. You will be the last person to take a slice. Being of sound mind, you want to get the largest possible share, and the only way to ensure this is to make all the slices the same size. You could cut one huge slice for yourself and a few tiny ones for your friends, but one of them might take the large slice and leave you with a meager share. (Not to mention, your friends won’t think very highly of you.)

Another means of appreciating the implications of the Veil of Ignorance is by considering the social structures of certain species of ants. Even though queen ants are able to form colonies alone, they will band together to form stronger, more productive colonies. Once the first group of worker ants reaches maturity, the queens fight to the death until one remains. When they first form a colony, the queen ants are behind a Veil of Ignorance. They do not know if they will be the sole survivor or not. All they know, on an instinctual level, is that cooperation is beneficial for their species. Like the people behind the Veil of Ignorance, the ants make a decision which, by necessity, is selfless.

The Veil of Ignorance, as a thought experiment, shows us that ignorance is not always detrimental to a society. In some situations, it can create robust social structures. In the animal kingdom, we see many examples of creatures that cooperate even though they do not know if they will suffer or benefit as a result. In a paper entitled “The Many Selves of Social Insects,” Queller and Strassmann write of bees:

…social insect colonies are so tightly integrated that they seem to function as single organisms, as a new level of self. The honeybees’ celebrated dance about food location is just one instance of how their colonies integrate and act on information that no single individual possesses. Their unity of purpose is underscored by the heroism of workers, whose suicidal stinging attacks protect the single reproducing queen.

We can also consider the Tragedy of the Commons. Introduced by ecologist Garrett Hardin, this mental model states that shared resources will be exploited if no system for fair distribution is implemented. Individuals have no incentive to leave a share of free resources for others. Hardin’s classic example is an area of land which everyone in a village is free to use for their cattle. Each person wants to maximize the usefulness of the land, so they put more and more cattle out to graze. Yet the land is finite and at some point will become too depleted to support livestock. If the people behind the Veil of Ignorance had to choose how the common land should be shared, the logical decision would be to give each person an equal part and forbid them from introducing too many cattle.

As N. Gregory Mankiw writes in Principles of Microeconomics:

The Tragedy of the Commons is a story with a general lesson: when one person uses a common resource, he diminishes other people’s enjoyment of it. Because of this negative externality, common resources tend to be used excessively. The government can solve the problem by reducing use of the common resource through regulation or taxes. Alternatively, the government can sometimes turn the common resource into a private good.

This lesson has been known for thousands of years. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle pointed out the problem with common resources: “What is common to many is taken least care of, for all men have greater regard for what is their own than for what they possess in common with others.”

In The Case for Meritocracy, Michael Faust uses other thought experiments to support the Veil of Ignorance:

Let’s imagine another version of the thought experiment. If inheritance is so inherently wonderful — such an intrinsic good — then let’s collect together all of the inheritable money in the world. We shall now distribute this money in exactly the same way it would be distributed in today’s world… but with one radical difference. We are going to distribute it by lottery rather than by family inheritance, i.e, anyone in the world can receive it. So, in these circumstances, how many people who support inheritance would go on supporting it? Note that the government wouldn’t be getting the money… just lucky strangers. Would the advocates of inheritance remain as fiercely committed to their cherished principle? Or would the entire concept instantly be exposed for the nonsense it is?

If inheritance were treated as the lottery it is, no one would stand by it.

[…]

In the world of the 1% versus the 99%, no one in the 1% would ever accept a lottery to decide inheritance because there would be a 99% chance they would end up as schmucks, exactly like the rest of us.

And a further surrealistic thought experiment:

Imagine that on a certain day of the year, each person in the world randomly swaps bodies with another person, living anywhere on earth. Well, for the 1%, there’s a 99% chance that they will be swapped from heaven to hell. For the 99%, 1% might be swapped from hell to heaven, while the other 98% will stay the same as before. What kind of constitution would the human race adopt if annual body swapping were a compulsory event?! They would of course choose a fair one.

“In the immutability of their surroundings the foreign shores, the foreign faces, the changing immensity of life, glide past, veiled not by a sense of mystery but by a slightly disdainful ignorance.”

— Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

The History of Social Contract Theory

Although the Veil of Ignorance was first described by Rawls in 1971, many other philosophers and writers have discussed similar concepts in the past. Philosophers discussed social contract theory as far back as ancient Greece.

In Crito, Plato describes a conversation in which Socrates discusses the laws of Athens and how they are responsible for his existence. Finding himself in prison and facing the death penalty, Socrates rejects Crito’s suggestion that he should escape. He states that further injustice is not an appropriate response to prior injustice. Crito believes that by refusing to escape, Socrates is aiding his enemies, as well as failing to fulfil his role as a father. But Socrates views the laws of Athens as a single entity that has always protected him. He describes breaking any of the laws as being like injuring a parent. Having lived a long, fulfilling life as a result of the social contract he entered at birth, he has no interest in now turning away from Athenian law. Accepting death is essentially a symbolic act that Socrates intends to use to illustrate rationality and reason to his followers. If he were to escape, he would be acting out of accord with the rest of his life, during which he was always concerned with justice.

Social contract theory is concerned with the laws and norms a society decides on and the obligation individuals have to follow them. Socrates’ dialogue with Plato has similarities with the final scene of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. At the end of the play, John Proctor is hung for witchcraft despite having the option to confess and avoid death. In continuing to follow the social contract of Salem and not confessing to a crime he obviously did not commit, Proctor believes that his death will redeem his earlier mistakes. We see this in the final dialogue between Reverend Hale and Elizabeth (Proctor’s wife):

HALE: Woman, plead with him! […] Woman! It is pride, it is vanity. […] Be his helper! What profit him to bleed? Shall the dust praise him? Shall the worms declare his truth? Go to him, take his shame away!

 

ELIZABETH: […] He have his goodness now. God forbid I take it from him!

In these two situations, individuals allow themselves to be put to death in the interest of following the social contract they agreed upon by living in their respective societies. Earlier in their lives, neither person knew what their ultimate fate would be. They were essentially behind the Veil of Ignorance when they chose (consciously or unconsciously) to follow the laws enforced by the people around them. Just as the people behind the Veil of Ignorance must accept whatever roles they receive in the new society, Socrates and Proctor followed social contracts. To modern eyes, the decision both men make to abandon their children in the interest of proving a point is not easily defensible.

Immanuel Kant wrote about justice and freedom in the late 1700s. Kant believed that fair laws should not be based on making people happy or reflecting the desire of individual policymakers, but should be based on universal moral principles:

Is it not of the utmost necessity to construct a pure moral philosophy which is completely freed from everything that may be only empirical and thus belong to anthropology? That there must be such a philosophy is self-evident from the common idea of duty and moral laws. Everyone must admit that a law, if it is to hold morally, i.e., as a ground of obligation, must imply absolute necessity; he must admit that the command, “Then shalt not lie,” does not apply to men only, as if other rational beings had no need to observe it. The same is true for all other moral laws properly so called. He must concede that the ground of obligation here must not be sought in the nature of man or in the circumstances in which he is placed, but sought a priori solely in the concepts of pure reason, and that every other precept which is in certain respects universal, so far as it leans in the least on empirical grounds (perhaps only in regard to the motive involved), may be called a practical rule but never a moral law.

How We Can Apply This Concept

We can use the Veil of Ignorance to test whether a certain issue is fair.

When my kids are fighting over the last cookie, which happens more often than you’d imagine, I ask them to determine who will spilt the cookie. The other person picks. This is the old playground rule, “you split, I pick.” Without this rule, one of them would surely give the other a smaller portion. With it, the halves are as equal as they would be with sensible adults.

When considering whether we should endorse a proposed law or policy, we can ask: if I did not know if this would affect me or not, would I still support it? Those who make big decisions that shape the lives of large numbers of people are almost always those in positions of power. And those in positions of power are almost always members of privileged groups. As Benjamin Franklin once wrote: “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”

Laws allowing or prohibiting abortion have typically been made by men, for example. As the issue lacks real significance in their personal lives, they are free to base decisions on their own ideological views, rather than consider what is fair and sane. However, behind the Veil of Ignorance, no one knows their sex. Anyone deciding on abortion laws would have to face the possibility that they themselves will end up as a woman with an unwanted pregnancy.

In Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, Rawls writes:

So what better alternative is there than an agreement between citizens themselves reached under conditions that are fair for all?

[…]

[T]hreats of force and coercion, deception and fraud, and so on must be ruled out.

And:

Deep religious and moral conflicts characterize the subjective circumstances of justice. Those engaged in these conflicts are surely not in general self-interested, but rather, see themselves as defending their basic rights and liberties which secure their legitimate and fundamental interests. Moreover, these conflicts can be the most intractable and deeply divisive, often more so than social and economic ones.

 

In Ethics: Studying the Art of Moral Appraisal, Ronnie Littlejohn explains:

We must have a mechanism by which we can eliminate the arbitrariness and bias of our “situation in life” and insure that our moral standards are justified by the one thing all people share in common: reason. It is the function of the veil of ignorance to remove such bias.

When we have to make decisions that will affect other people, especially disadvantaged groups (such as when a politician decides to cut benefits or a CEO decides to outsource manufacturing to a low-income country), we can use the Veil of Ignorance as a tool for making fair choices.

As Robert F. Kennedy (the younger brother of John F. Kennedy) said in the 1960s:

Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

When we choose to position ourselves behind the Veil of Ignorance, we have a better chance of creating one of those all-important ripples.

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The Power of Incentives: Inside the Hidden Forces That Shape Behavior

“Never, ever, think about something else when you should be thinking about the power of incentives.”

— Charlie Munger

According to Charlie Munger, there are only a few forces more powerful than incentives. In his speech “The Psychology of Human Misjudgment,” he reflects on how the power of incentives never disappoints him:

Well, I think I’ve been in the top 5% of my age cohort all my life in understanding the power of incentives, and all my life I’ve underestimated it. And never a year passes but I get some surprise that pushes my limit a little farther.

Sometimes the solution to a behavior problem is simply to revisit incentives and make sure they align with the desired goal. Munger talks about Federal Express, which is one of his favorite examples of the power of incentives:

The heart and soul of the integrity of the system is that all the packages have to be shifted rapidly in one central location each night. And the system has no integrity if the whole shift can’t be done fast. And Federal Express had one hell of a time getting the thing to work.
And they tried moral suasion, they tried everything in the world, and finally somebody got the happy thought that they were paying the night shift by the hour, and that maybe if they paid them by the shift, the system would work better. And lo and behold, that solution worked.

If you’re trying to change a behavior, reason will take you only so far. Reflecting on another example where misaligned incentives hampered the sales of a superior product, Munger said:

Early in the history of Xerox, Joe Wilson, who was then in the government, had to go back to Xerox because he couldn’t understand how their better, new machine was selling so poorly in relation to their older and inferior machine. Of course when he got there, he found out that the commission arrangement with the salesmen gave a tremendous incentive to the inferior machine.

Ignoring incentives almost never works out well. Thinking about the incentives of others is necessary to create win-win relationships.

We can turn to psychology to obtain a more structured and thorough understanding of how incentives shape our actions.

The Science of Reinforcement

The science of reinforcement was furthered by Burrhus Frederic Skinner (usually called B.F. Skinner), a professor of psychology at Harvard from 1958 to 1974.

Skinner, unlike his contemporaries, refused to hypothesize about what happened on the inside (what people or animals thought and felt) and preferred to focus on what we can observe. To him, focusing on how much people ate meant more than focusing on subjective measures, like how hungry people were or how much pleasure they got from eating. He wanted to find out how environmental variables affected behavior, and he believed that behavior is shaped by its consequences.

If we don’t like the consequences of an action we’ve taken, we’re less likely to do it again; if we do like the consequences, we’re more likely to do it again. That assumption is the basis of operant conditioning, “a type of learning in which the strength of a behavior is modified by [its] consequences, such as reward or punishment.” 1

One of Skinner’s most important inventions was the operant conditioning chamber, also known as a “Skinner box,” which was used to study the effects of reinforcers on lab animals. The rats in the box had to figure out how to do a task (such as pushing a lever) that would reward them with food. Such an automated system allowed Skinner and thousands of successors to study conditioned behavior in a controlled setting.

What years of studies on reinforcement have revealed is that consistency and timing play important roles in shaping new behaviors. Psychologists argue that the best way for us to learn complex behaviors is via continuous reinforcement, in which the desired behavior is reinforced every time it’s performed.

If you want to teach your dog a new trick, for example, it is smart to reward him for every correct response. At the very beginning of the learning curve, your failure to immediately respond to a positive behavior might be misinterpreted as a sign of incorrect behavior from the dog’s perspective.

Intermittent reinforcement is reinforcement that is given only some of the times that the desired behavior occurs, and it can be done according to various schedules, some predictable and some not (see “Scheduling Reinforcement,” below). Intermittent reinforcement is argued to be the most efficient way to maintain an already learnt behavior. This is due to three reasons.

First, rewarding the behavior takes time away from the behavior’s continuation. Paying a worker after each piece is assembled on the assembly line simply does not make sense.

Second, intermittent reinforcement is better from an economic perspective. Not only is it cheaper not to reward every instance of a desired behavior, but by making the rewards unpredictable, you trigger excitement and thus get an increase in response without increasing the amount of reinforcement. Intermittent reinforcement is how casinos work; they want people to gamble, but they can’t afford to have people win large amounts very often.

Finally, intermittent reinforcement can induce resistance to extinction (stopping the behavior when reinforcement is removed). Consider the example of resistance outlined in the textbook Psychology: Core Concepts:

Imagine two gamblers and two slot machines. One machine inexplicably pays off on every trial and another, a more usual machine, pays on an unpredictable, intermittent schedule. Now, suppose that both devices suddenly stop paying. Which gambler will catch on first?

Most of us would probably guess it right:

The one who has been rewarded for each pull of the lever (continuous reinforcement) will quickly notice the change, while the gambler who has won only occasionally (on partial reinforcement) may continue playing unrewarded for a long time.

Scheduling Reinforcement

Intermittent reinforcement can be used on various schedules, each with its own degree of effectiveness and situations to which it can be appropriately applied. Ratio schedules are based on the number of responses (the amount of work done), whereas interval schedules are based on the amount of time spent.

  • Fixed-ratio schedules are used when you pay your employees based on the amount of work they do. Fixed-ratio schedules are common in freelancing, where contractors are paid on a piecework basis. Managers like fixed-ratio schedules because the response to reinforcement is usually very high (if you want to get paid, you do the work).
  • Variable-ratio schedules are unpredictable because the number of responses between reinforcers varies. Telemarketers, salespeople, and slot machine players are on this schedule because they never know when the next sale or the next big win will occur. Skinner himself demonstrated the power of this schedule by showing that a hungry pigeon would peck a disk 12,000 times an hour while being rewarded on average for only every 110 pecks. Unsurprisingly, this is the type of reinforcement that normally produces more responses than any other schedule. (Varying the intervals between reinforcers is another way of making reinforcement unpredictable, but if you want people to feel appreciated, this kind of schedule is probably not the one to use.)
  • Fixed-interval schedules are the most common type of payment — they reward people for the time spent on a specific task. You might have already guessed that the response rate on this schedule is very low. Even a rat in a Skinner box programmed for a fixed-interval schedule learns that lever presses beyond the required minimum are just a waste of energy. Ironically, the “9-5 job” is a preferred way to reward employees in business.

While the design of scheduling can be a powerful technique for continuing or amplifying a specific behavior, we may still fail to recognize an important aspect of reinforcement — individual preferences for specific rewards.

Experience suggests that survival is propelled by our need for food and water. However, most of us don’t live in conditions of extreme scarcity and thus the types of reinforcement appealing to us will differ.

Culture plays an important role in determining effective reinforcers. And what’s reinforced shapes culture. Offering tickets to a cricket match might serve as a powerful reward for someone in a country where cricket is a big deal, but would be meaningless to most Americans. Similarly, an air-conditioned office might be a powerful incentive for employees in Indonesia, but won’t matter as much to employees in a more temperate area.

What About Punishment?

So far we’ve talked about positive reinforcement — the carrot, if you will. However, there is also a stick.

There is no doubt that our society relies heavily on threat and punishment as a way to keep ourselves in line. Still, we keep arriving late, forgetting birthdays, and receiving parking fines, even though we know there is the potential to be punished.

There are several reasons that punishment might not be the best way to alter someone’s behavior.

First of all, Skinner observed that the power of punishment to suppress behavior usually disappears when the threat of punishment is removed. Indeed, we all refrain from using social networks during work hours, when we know our boss is around, and we similarly adhere to the speed limit when we know we are being watched by a police patrol.

Second, punishment often triggers a fight-or-flight response and renders us aggressive. When punished, we seek to flee from further punishment, and when the escape is blocked, we may become aggressive. This punishment-aggression link may also explain why abusing parents come from abusing families themselves.

Third, punishment inhibits the ability to learn new and better responses. Punishment leads to a variety of responses — such as escape, aggression, and learned helplessness — none of which aid in the subject’s learning process. Punishment also fails to show subjects what exactly they must do and instead focuses on what not to do. This is why environments that forgive failure are so important in the learning process.

Finally, punishment is often applied unequally. We are ruled by bias in our assessment of who deserves to be punished. We scold boys more often than girls, physically punish grade-schoolers more often than adults, and control members of racial minorities more often (and more harshly) than whites.

What Should I Do Instead?

There are three alternatives that you can try the next time you feel tempted to punish someone.

The first we already touched upon — extinction. A response will usually diminish or disappear if it ceases to produce the rewards it once did. However, it is important that all possible reinforcements are withheld. This is far more difficult to do in real life than in a lab setting.

What makes it especially difficult is that during the extinction process, organisms tend to look for novel techniques to obtain reinforcement. This means that a whining child will either redouble her efforts or change tactics to regain the parent’s attention before ceasing the behavior. In this case, a better extinction strategy is to combine methods by withholding attention after whining occurs and rewarding more desirable behaviors with attention before the whining occurs.

The second alternative is positively reinforcing preferred activities. For example, people who exercise regularly (and enjoy it) might use a daily run as a reward for getting other tasks done. Similarly, young children learn to sit still by being rewarded with occasional permission to run around and make noise. The main principle of this idea is that a preferred activity, such as running around, can be used to reinforce a less preferred activity. This idea is also called the Premack principle.

Finally, prompting and shaping are two actions we can use together to change behavior in an iterative manner. A prompt is a cue or stimulus that encourages the desired behavior. When shaping begins, any approximation of the target response is reinforced. Once you see the approximation occurring regularly, you can make the criterion for the target more strict (the actual behavior has to match the desired behavior more closely), and you continue narrowing the criteria until the specific target behavior is performed. This tactic is often the preferred method of developing a habit gradually and of training animals to perform a specific behavior.

***

I hope that you are now better equipped to recognize incentives as powerful forces shaping the way we and others behave. The next time you wish someone would change the way they behave, think about changing their incentives.

Like any parent, I experiment with my kids all the time. One of the most effective things I do when one of them has misbehaved is to acknowledge my child’s feelings and ask him what he was trying to achieve.

When one kid hits the other, for example, I ask him what he was trying to accomplish. Usually, the response is “He hit me. (So I hit him back.)” I know this touches on an automatic human response that many adults can’t control. Which makes me wonder how I can change my kids’ behavior to be more effective.

“So, you were angry and you wanted him to know?”

“Yes.”

“People are not for hitting. If you want, I’ll help you go tell him why you’re angry.”

Tensions dissipate. And I’m (hopefully) starting to get my kids thinking about effective and ineffective ways to achieve their goals.

Punishment works best to prevent actions whereas incentives work best to encourage them.

Let’s end with an excellent piece of advice that has been given regarding incentives. Here is Charlie Munger, speaking at the University South California commencement:

You do not want to be in a perverse incentive system that’s causing you to behave more and more foolishly or worse and worse — incentives are too powerful a control over human cognition or human behavior. If you’re in one [of these systems], I don’t have a solution for you. You’ll have to figure it out for yourself, but it’s a significant problem.

Footnotes

The Difference Between Open-Minded and Closed-Minded People

Why is it that some people seem to make constant progress in their professional and personal lives, while others appear to be doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over?

While the answer isn’t cut and dry, I’ve noticed an interesting mindset difference between these two groups: they approach obstacles and challenges very differently.

The first group approaches life with an open mind — an eagerness to learn and a willingness to be wrong. The second group digs their heels in at the first sign of disagreement and would rather die than be wrong. The way each group approaches obstacles, it turns out, defines much of what separates them.

So which group are you in?

Before you smugly slap an open-minded sticker on your chest, consider this: closed-minded people would never consider that they could actually be closed-minded. In fact, their perceived open-mindedness is what’s so dangerous.

It’s a version of the Batesian Mimic Problem — are you the real thing or a copycat? Are you the real deal, or have you simply learned to talk the talk, to look the part?

These are tough questions to answer. Nobody wants to admit to themselves that they’re closed-minded. But the advantages of having that courage are massive. The ability to change your mind is a superpower.

The ability to change your mind is a superpower.

The rate at which you learn and progress in the world depends on how willing you are to weigh the merit of new ideas, even if you don’t instinctively like them. Perhaps especially if you don’t like them.

What’s more, placing your trust and effort in the right mentor can propel you forward, just as placing it in the wrong person can send you back to the starting point.

So how can you tell what camp you’re in? How do you make sure you’re being influenced by the right group of people?

In his book Principles, Ray Dalio, self-made billionaire and founder of the largest hedge fund in the world, lays out seven powerful ways you can tell the difference.

1. Challenging Ideas

Closed-minded people don’t want their ideas challenged. They are typically frustrated that they can’t get the other person to agree with them instead of curious as to why the other person disagrees.

Closed-minded people are more interested in proving themselves right than in getting the best outcome. They don’t ask questions. They want to show you where you’re wrong without understanding where you’re coming from. They get angry when you ask them to explain something. They think people who ask questions are slowing them down. And they think you’re an idiot if you don’t agree.

In short, they’re on the wrong side of right.

Open-minded people are more curious about why there is disagreement. … They understand that there is always the possibility that they might be wrong and that it’s worth the little bit of time it takes to consider the other person’s views….

Open-minded people see disagreement as a thoughtful means to expand their knowledge. They don’t get angry or upset at questions; rather, they want to identify where the disagreement lies so they can correct their misperceptions. They realize that being right means changing their minds when someone else knows something they don’t.

2. Statements vs. Questions

Closed-minded people are more likely to make statements than ask questions.

These are the people who sit in meetings and are more than willing to offer their opinions, but never ask other people to expand on or explain their ideas. Closed-minded people are thinking of how they would refute the other person’s thoughts, rather than trying to understand what they might be missing.

Open-minded people genuinely believe they could be wrong; the questions that they ask are genuine.

Open-minded people know that while they may have an opinion on a subject, it could count for less than someone else’s. Maybe they’re outside their circle of competence or maybe they’re experts. Regardless, they’re always curious as to how people see things differently and they weigh their opinions accordingly.

(At Syrus Partners, for example, Jeff’s financial analysis trumps mine when we disagree. Why? He’s simply better at it than I am. He finds things that business owners don’t even know about. Do I care that his analyses take precedence? No. Why? Because I want the best outcome.)

3. Understanding

Closed-minded people focus much more on being understood than on understanding others.

People’s default behaviors offer a quick tell. When you disagree with someone, what’s their reaction? If they’re quick to rephrase what they just said or, even worse, repeat it, then they are assuming that you don’t understand them, rather than that you are disagreeing with them.

Open-minded people feel compelled to see things through others’ eyes.

When you disagree with an open-minded person, they are quick to assume that they might not understand something and to ask you to tell them where their understanding is incomplete.

4. I Might Be Wrong, But…

Dalio nails this one. I have nothing to add.

Closed-minded people say things like “I could be wrong … but here’s my opinion.” This is a classic cue I hear all the time. It’s often a perfunctory gesture that allows people to hold their own opinion while convincing themselves that they are being open-minded. If your statement starts with “I could be wrong”…, you should probably follow it with a question and not an assertion.

Open-minded people know when to make statements and when to ask questions.

5. Just Shut Up

“Closed-minded people block others from speaking.”

They don’t have time to rehash something already talked about. They don’t want to hear anyone’s voices but their own. (Dalio offers a “two-minute rule” to get around this: Everyone has the right to speak for two minutes without being interrupted.)

Open-minded people are always more interested in listening than in speaking.

More than that, they say things like, “Sam, I notice you’ve been quiet. Would you like to offer your thoughts to the group?”

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

— F. Scott Fitzgerald

6. Only One Sperm Gets In

Closed-minded people have trouble holding two thoughts simultaneously in their minds.

This reminds me of the memorable quote by Charlie Munger: “The human mind is a lot like the human egg, and the human egg has a shut-off device. When one sperm gets in, it shuts down so the next one can’t get in.” It’s our nature to close our minds around our favorite ideas, but this is not the ideal way to think and learn.

Open-minded people can take in the thoughts of others without losing their ability to think well—they can hold two or more conflicting concepts in their mind and go back and forth between them to assess their relative merits.

7. Humble Pie

Closed-minded people lack a deep sense of humility.

Where does one get humility? Usually from failure—a crash so terrible they don’t want to repeat it. I remember when a hedge fund I was on the board of made a terrible investment decision. We spent a lot of time rubbing our noses in it afterward in an attempt to make sure we wouldn’t repeat the same mistake. In the process, we learned a lot about what we didn’t know.

Open-minded people approach everything with a deep-seated fear that they may be wrong.

***

If you recognize closed-minded behavior patterns in yourself, you’re not alone.

We’re all somewhere on the continuum between open- and closed-minded by default. Further complicating things, it varies by day and subject.

Staying open-minded won’t happen by accident.

When you find yourself exhibiting these behaviors in the moment, acknowledge what’s happening and correct it. Don’t blame yourself. As soon as you can, find a quiet place and reflect on what’s going on at a deeper level. Try to do better next time. Remember that this stuff takes work.

Maybe you have your self-worth wrapped up in being right, or maybe you’re not the right person to make a given decision. Or maybe it’s something else. Either way, this is something worth exploring.

I have one more thing to add: Being open-minded does not mean that you spend an inordinate amount of time considering patently bad ideas just for the sake of open-mindedness.

You must have what Garrett Hardin calls a “default status” on various issues in your head. If someone offers you the proverbial free lunch, it’s OK to default to skepticism. If someone offers to build you a perpetual motion machine, I suggest you ignore them, as they’re violating the laws of thermodynamics. If someone offers to help you defraud the government and suggests that “no one will know,” I suggest you walk away immediately. There is wisdom in closed-mindedness on certain issues.

But consider this: Do you know anyone who doesn’t have any blind spots? I strongly doubt it. Then why would you be any different? As Dalio makes clear, you must be active in the process of open-mindedness: It won’t happen by accident.