Defending Selfishness and Questioning Altruism (on Ayn Rand’s philosophy)

“Why do you use the word ‘selfishness’ to denote virtuous qualities of character, when that word antagonizes so many people to whom it does not mean the things you mean?”
* * *
To those who ask it, my answer is:
“For the reason that makes you afraid of it.”

Ayn Rand, “The Virtue of Selfishness
Image result for the virtue of selfishness ayn rand

Context: This article looks at the virtue of selfishness & the vice of altruism, according to Ayn Rand‘s philosophy – widely referred to as “objectivism”. Rand is a Russian-American writer and philosopher, best known for her novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. She has also published two collections of essays: The Virtue of Selfishness and For The New Intellectual. She is a strong advocate for rationality and capitalism (while being a firm critic of mysticism and socialism).

Popular Opinion: Selfishness = A Vice of Negative Value

“Sweetheart, do share your toys with other children, don’t keep it to youself selfishly!”
– parent to child

“How could you be so selfish and only think about yourself when you make decisions?”
– husband to wife

“For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.”
– Bible, James 3:16

“Is selfishness is a virtue or a vice?” If I ask this question, I would not be surprised to see a few folks roll their eyes or stare at me with a isn’t-this-obvious look.

The dictionary definition of selfish often has a negative connotation to it:

The Cambridge Dictionary : Selfish (adj.)
– caring only about what you want or need without any thought for the needs or wishes of other people;
– someone who is selfish only thinks of their own advantage.

It is a popular belief that “selfishness” is a vice to be corrected, and its opposite “altruism” is a moral ideal to be embraced. This narrative is so dominant – in fact, we rarely hear alternatives – that most people have taken it for granted.

However, just because something is “conventional” does not mean it is “wisdom”. Conventional wisdom is no substitute for thoughtful wisdom – and it is time we re-examine what it means to be selfish, and whether being selfish has its own merits.

Ayn Rand: Selfishness is Morally Neutral as a Term

Ayn Rand argues that the negative connotation we assign to the word “selfishness” is misplaced. On the contrary, she argues that the word “selfishness”, at its core, is a morally-neutral term:

This concept (of selfishness as concern with one’s own interests) does not include a moral evaluation; it does not tell us whether concern with one’s own interests is good or evil; nor does it tell us what constitutes man’s actual interests. It is the task of ethics to answer such questions.

Ayn Rand

Applying a similar logic, Rand argues the positive connotation assigned to the word “altruism” is misplaced. Being altruistic itself is not necessarily virtuous or beneficial. Rand says there are “two moral questions which altruism lumps together into one ‘package-deal'”, namely:

(1) What are values?
(2) Who should be the beneficiary of values?

Rand is firmly against the cult of altriusm:

Altruism substitutes the second (moral question) for the first; it evades the task of defining a code of moral values, thus leaving man, in fact, without moral guidance…the beneficiary of an action is the only criterion of moral value—and so long as that beneficiary is anybody other than oneself, anything goes.

Ayn Rand

In other words, Rand is saying the fact that the beneficiary of an action is someone other than oneself (i.e., altruistic) – this fact alone – does not give us any information about this action is more justifiable than others. We learn nothing about the underlying values associated with this action – and hence we should not jump to a moral judgment too soon, too wrong.

Whether a selfish act (or altruistic act) is morally justifiable or not – this is a situational question that should be looked at case by case. Rand presents this thought experiment: imagine two people – A is a “selfish” businessman who produces goods that society wants in order to earn money; B is a “selfish” robber who loots. A and B are both selfish, but most would argue that A’s selfishness actions are more morally justifiable than those of B’s.

In the words of Rand, there is “a fundamental moral difference between a man who sees his self-interest in production and a man who sees it in robbery”:

The evil of a robber does not lie in the fact that he pursues his own interests, but in what he regards as to his own interest; not in the fact that he pursues his values, but in what he chose to value.

Ayn Rand

It is not contradictory to say: (a) man should selfishly pursue his own interests, and (b) some interests are morally justifiable and others aren’t. Being selfish is a means to achieve one’s goal – whether that goal is ethical is a separate discussion.

Nature vs. Nuture: Is Everyone Born Selfish?

Some believe we are born with the natural desire that the world revolves around us – we are born with selfishness.

For Ayn Rand, being selfish requires one to first have a proper “self”. Having a (proper) sense of “self” is the prerequisite to being “selfish”. Rand defines self differently from popular usage of the term:

A man’s self is his mind – the faculty that perceives reality, forms judgments, chooses values.

Ayn Rand

A true sense of self is based on an active choice of values, rather than a passive imitation of what others value. Sadly, the sense of self is lost to those who live everyday being the person they think others would want them to be:

The abdication and shriveling of the self is a salient characteristic of all perceptual mentalities, tribalist or lone-wolfish. All of them dread self-reliance; all of them dread the responsibilities which only a self (i..e, a conceptual consciousness) can perform, and they seek escape from the two activities which an actually selfish man would defend with his life: judgment and choice.

Ayn Rand

Judgment of reality and choice of values – these are the two prerequisite activities that an “actually selfish” man would perform relentlessly – and he would defend with his life the right to define himself. The best of such men are what Rand calls the “New Intellectuals”, i.e., people who are “willing to think” and “who know that man’s life must be guided by reason”:

There are two principles on which all men of intellectual integrity and good will can agree, as a “basic minimum,” as a precondition of any discussion…a. that emotions are not tools of cognition; b. that no man has the right to initiate the use of physical force against others.

Ayn Rand

Knowing how to be “selfish” in a proper way is a privilege, a skill, a capability – not a trait we are born with, but rather a subject we should study.

Asking the Non-Obvious: What is Wrong with Altruism?

Following a defense of critism, let us switch to the opposite side and look at Rand’s critique of altruism. She calls altruism “the basic evil” that is “incompatible with freedom, with capitalism, and with individual rights.”

As before, let us first clarify what Rand means by the word altruism:

What is the moral code of altruism? The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value.

Ayn Rand

Importantly, Rand says altruism should not be confused with “kindness, good will or respect for the rights of others”. These are possible consequences, but not defining primaries or traits, of altruism (and altruistic actions). I find this analysis of Rand to be extremely powerful:

Do not hide behind such superficialities as whether you should or should not give a dime to a beggar. That is not the issue. The issue is whether you do or do not have the right to exist without giving him that dime. The issue is whether you must keep buying your life, dime by dime, from any beggar who might choose to approach you.

The issue is whether the need of others is the first mortgage on your life and the moral purpose of your existence. The issue is whether man is to be regarded as a sacrificial animal. Any man of self-esteem will answer: “No.” Altruism says: “Yes.”

Ayn Rand

Rand goes one step further to challenge the notion that giving makes the giver happier:

Even though altruism declares that “it is more blessed to give than to receive,” it does not work that way in practice. The givers are never blessed; the more they give, the more is demanded of them; complaints, reproaches and insults are the only response they get for practicing altruism’s virtues (or for their actual virtues).

Ayn Rand

Even from the perspective of a consequentialist, Rand claims that altruism does not lead to “a recognition of virtue”, “self-esteem or moral innocence.” To the contrary, Rand believes altruism suffocates the giver with guilt – placing a burden on him to give constantly, selflessly, tiringly; casting a spell on him to think it is his moral responsibility to give:

If the giver is not kept under a torrent of degrading, demeaning accusations, he might take a look around and put an end to the self-sacrificing. Altruists are concerned only with those who suffer—not with those who provide relief from suffering, not even enough to care whether they are able to survive. When no actual suffering can be found, the altruists are compelled to invent or manufacture it.

Ayn Rand

Concluding Remarks: Being a New Intellectual

At the end of writing about Rand’s philosophy, I must confess that I am fully aware of this: I am getting ahead of myself in writing about Rand. I have read so little of her writings (or writings about her) that my representation of her philosophy could be missing out key pieces.

Despite being new to Rand School, I did not hold back on writing about Rand, with the most important reason being that few philosophers have hit me hard like she did. It is the feeling of exaltation mixed with exasperation when I turn the pages of her books. It is the realization that there are so many questions out there that I have not asked (consciously or subconsciously), so many meanings out there that I have not pondered. It is the impulse that I must never stop the quest to understand the questions that define what it means to be alive, what it means to be human. These and so much more that I am at a loss of words to describe.

I leave you with words of Rand discussing The New Intellectual. I aim to live up to her definition and expectation of what it means to honor one’s intellect:

To support a culture, nothing less than a new philosophical foundation will do. […] The greatest need today is for men who are not strangers to reality, because they are not afraid of thought.

The New Intellectual will be the man who lives up to the exact meaning of his title: a man who is guided by his intellect – not a zombie guided by feelings, instincts, urges, wishes, whims or revelations.

[…] He will be an integrated man, that is: a thinker who is a man of action. He will know that ideas divorced from consequent action are fraudulent, and that action divorced from ideas is suicidal.

Ayn Rand

I part with two quotes (callings) from Rand at the end of her essay:

“Gentlemen, leave your guns outside.”

“The intellectuals are dead – long live the intellectuals!”

Does meritocracy lack merit? A critique from “The Meritocracy Trap”

Context: The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite is a book by Professor Daniel Markovits of Yale Law School, “attacking the false promise of meritocracy”. An insightful read – packed with elaborate arguments backed up by research & case studies. For those who are short on time, you could get the big ideas from Daniel’s sharing on the Erza Klein Show podcast, or from this article in The Atlantic.

The bold claim: merit is a counterfeit value

Merit itself has become a counterfeit value, a false idol…what it was invented to combat. A mechanism for the concentration and dynastic transmission of wealth and privilege across generations. A caste order that breeds rancor and division. A new aristocracy, even.

Daniel Markovits

The meritocratic ideal, i.e., “social and economic rewards should track achievement rather than breeding,” is a mainstream ideal that is often taken for granted and rarely even questioned. In his book, Daniel not only questions meritocracy, but goes one step further to challenge and critique it.

Image result for the meritocracy trap

His central, unconventional claim is meritocracy is a form of aristocracy in disguise – just like the aristocratic system it aims to replace, “merit is not a natural or universal value, but rather the upshot of prior inequalities“.

The setup: meritocracy constructs the “elite class” via meritocratic competition

Daniel argues that meritocracy constructs what is commonly referred to as “the elite class” via two ways:

“First, meritocracy transforms education into a rigorous and intense contest to join the elite.
* * *
Second, meritocracy transforms work to create the immensely demanding and enormously lucrative jobs that sustain the elite.”

(1) The education race: the meritocratic inheritance

“Although meritocracy once opened up the elite to outsiders, the meritocratic inheritance now drives a wedge between meritocracy and opportunity.

Inheritance under the old aristocratic system is largely viewed as “unjust” – the (relatively cost-free) inheritance of capital, such as passing down money or real estate, is widely viewed as unfair birth lottery. In layman terms, it is unfair that some are born with a silver spoon in their mouth.

Proponents of meritocracy believe that “merit” is the right answer to encouraging social mobility – build an education system that selects based on merits of the students, they say, and let the truly talented make their way up the ladder.

Daniel argues the reverse:

“Education assumes the role in meritocracy that breeding played in the aristocratic regime.”

Today, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford & Yale accept more students from households in the top 1% of the income bucket than from households in the bottom 60% combined. Students with parents whose annual income exceed $200K score ~250 points higher on the SAT compared with students whose parents make $40K-$60K.

The statistics on social mobility do not show a more optimistic picture. As The Atlantic reports:

“Absolute economic mobility is also declining—the odds that a middle-class child will outearn his parents have fallen by more than half since mid-century—and the drop is greater among the middle class than among the poor.”

In the meritocracy system, parents in the elite class pass on “inheritance” in forms other than direct capital transfer – these parents invest capital heavily into the education of their kids, at orders of magnitude that middle-class parents cannot expect to match.

When we hear educators advertise “equal opportunities to education” for children, we should pause and ask ourselves: what does the word “equal” mean here? It is not sufficient to apply the same (equal) screening criteria to applicants. The pre-requisite to equal opportunities comes from equal access to opportunities. This means the resources that a child has access to should not be constrained by the wealth of the family he or she is born into.

(2) The jobs race: “compulsive overwork” of the elites vs. “enforced idleness” of the middle class

The meritocratic competition “pervades elite life” and extends far beyond school into the professional lives of those who want to sustain their position at the top:

“Evaluations that were once quarantined to exceptional moments like college admissions season or promotion to partner or managing director now infect every step of a meritocrat’s career. Every year, from preschool through retirement, includes some contest or assessment that filters, tracks, or otherwise influences his opportunities.”

Daniel points out an interesting shift in the work paterns of the elites: the “once-leisured rich” work harder than ever before today. Along with a change in work behavior comes a change in values:

“Elite values and customs have adapted to suit these new facts (of compulsive overwork). High society has reversed course. Now it valorizes industry and despises leisure. As every rich person knows, when an acquaintance asks ‘How are you?’ the correct answer is ‘So busy.’
* * *
Meritocracy makes effortful and industrious work – busyness – into a sign of being valued and needed, the badge of honor.

Daniel shares a “standard disciplinary joke” amongst investment bankers that “they will be lucky to get any day off besides their wedding day. Nor do the hours necessarily improve with seniority.” In a similar humorous fashion, the Wall Street Journal puts up an advertisement that reads, “People who don’t have time make time to read the Wall Street Journal.”

On the flip side, just as much as the elite class today take pride in being busy, they also look down on idleness & leisure. Daniel notes bankers often compain about the “outside (non-elite) world,” where “people leave work at five, six p.m.” and “take one hour lunch breaks”. These people are perceived as “just are not motivated in the same way” as they are.

The compulsive overwork of elites is “the same alienation that Karl Marx diagnosed in exploited proletarian labor” with “an added twist”, in the words of Daniel: “The elite, acting now as rentiers of their own human capital, exploit themselves, becoming not just victims but also agents of their own alienation.” Daniel believes the “busy” elite who takes pride in never creating time for one’s true self “places himself, quite literally, at the disposal of others – he uses himself up”.

An analogy is made with Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard:

“The ancient orchard that gives the play its name yields its greatest rents by being cut down to make way for holiday villas – which is to say through its own absolute destruction and the destruction of the way of life that it once sustained.”

It is hard for elites to break out of this cycle of overwork, as long hours often is one of the reasons used to justify the (extremely) high pay of those at the top:

“As a dean of Stanford Law School recently observed in a letter to graduates, elite lawyers are caught in an intensifying ratchet: higher salaries require more billable hours to support them, longer hours require higher yet salaries to justify them, and each increase generates another in a seemingly endless cycle. Whose interests does this serve? He lamented. Does anyone actually want it?”

Goldman Sachs has renamed its personnal department “Human Capital Management” – the irony is not lost that the human labor itself today is one of the most exploited forms of capital:

“Unlike land or factories, human capital can produce income – at least using current technologies – only by being mixed with its owners’ own contemporaneous labor.”

While elites are stuck in compulsive overwork, the middle class are idled. Note that the middle class are not idle by active choice, as in “reluctant to work”. Rather, they are idled as a passive outcome, as in “denied opportunities to work.” Daniel attributes this to “technological transformation” that “shift(s) the center of production away from mid-skilled and toward super-skilled labor”.

As an example, Daniel says the middle-tier manager has gradually faded out from the labor market, replaced by a much smaller number of top executives (the overworked elite class with higher pay) and a large number of lower-end workers (the squeezed middle class with lower pay):

“The managerial control stripped away from production workers and middle managers has been concentrated in a narrow cadre of elite executives, who are separated from production workers by differences of kind rather than degree. The technologies that underwrite such concentrated managerial power – not just the information systems that monitor organizations and gather & manipulate data, but also the ideas and analytic frameworks employed to make sense of the data – are enormously complex. Only intensively trained managers can possibly acquire the sophistication needed.”

The result is the labor market is divided into “glossy jobs” of the elites vs. “gloomy jobs” of the middle class. Glossy refers to jobs whose ” outer shine masks inner distress”, whereas gloomy refers to jobs that “offer neither immediate reward nor hope for promotion.”

The product of meritocracy: Nativism & Populism in the middle class

Daniel argues meritocracy is the culprit behind nativism. Take white privilege as an example, he thinks the mere idea of white privilege itself irritates whites out of the elite class, because “they’ve never experienced it on a level that they understand. You hear privilege and you think money and opportunity and they don’t have it.”

“The meritocratic suggestion that a white man who cannot get ahead must be in some way deficient (i.e., lack of merit) stokes this anger…and the meritocratic fixation on diversity and inclusion channels the anger into nativist, sexist identity politics.”

Nativism allows the “native” group to blame all their problems on the “foreign” group. This finger-pointing on “aliens” is a mask for the insecurity of “natives” – sense of guilt even – that they themselves are the reason to blame: they are not good enough, they do not have enough merits, and hence they are behind where they would like to be in this (supposedly) “meritocratic” system. The “natives” seem to be on guard against the “aliens”, but what they are really pushing back against is their own sense of inferiority.

Daniel goes on to argue meritocracy is also at the root of populism: “a deep and pervasive mistrust of expertise and institutions.”

“Class resentments in America aim at the professional classes rather than at the entrepreneurial or even hereditary super-rich: not at oligarchs but rather at the doctors, bankers, lawyers, and scientists that working and middle-class Americans feel…’are more educated’ and ‘are often looking down on them.'”

Daniel makes the interesting comparison of Obama vs. Trump: Obama (and also Hillary Clinton) as “a superordinate product of elite production”, i.e., someone who rose and triumphed in meritocracy, and Trump as “a ‘blue-collar billionaire'” who rejects the meritocratic elites – the group that Obama & Clinton are both members of.

Trumpism – and Trump’s own rise – exposes the incumbent elite’s meritocratic contempt for ordinary citizens and its own disenchanted weakness…When Hillary Clinton called half of Trump’s supporters a ‘basket of deplorables,’ she said aloud what the broad elite, regardless of party, had long thought in private. Indeed, Trump’s rise not only reconfirmed but redoubled the condescension that elites feel toward the Americans whom meritocracy excludes.

The philosopher’s angle: Meritocracy and individual rights

According to philosopher Ayn Rand, the fundamental right of the individual, which is the pre-requisite & root of all other rights, is one’s right to his own life:

“There is only one fundamental right (all the others are its consequences or corollaries): a man’s right to his own life…which means: the freedom to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of his own life. Such is the meaning of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

By Rand’s definition, in the meritocratic system we live in today, neither the middle class nor the elite class have fully realized the fundamental right to one’s own life – neither is free to pursue their happiness. The curse of the meritocratic competition – starting from education all the way throughout one’s professional life – enslaves the poor & the rich alike: the former locked in their class with little hope of upward social mobility, the latter willingly enslaving themselves in work with brutal hours that they derive little pleasure from.

“A worker can quit his job. A slave cannot.” This is the curse fallen on the elites, who deceive themselves into believing they owe it to their expensive education to hold high-paying jobs with long hours, even those that they have little interest in.

“Man cannot be forced to devote his life to the happiness of another man nor of any number of other men.” This is the curse fallen on the middle class, who see themselves as producing for the consumption of the elites, whereas not moving up the social ladder themselves.

The collective illusion: Why it’s hard to critique meritocracy

Although the middle class and the elite class alike are harmed by meritocracy, both groups blame each other rather than critiquing the meritocratic system itself:

Fragile elites disdain middle-class habits and values as a defense mechanism to ward off self-doubt. Meritocrats lionize achievement, or even just distinction, and disparage ordinariness as a bulwark against rising insecurity. They cling to any attitudes and practices – ranging from the absurd (food snobbery) to the callous (corporate rightsizing) – that might confirm their merit and validate their advantage, to others and, above all, to themselves.”

It leads one to wonder: why have we heard so little critique of the meritocratic system itself? Here is Daniel’s explanation:

“Mankiw sums this up when he observes, ‘When people can see with their own eyes that a talented person made a great fortune fair and square, they tend not to resent it.‘”
* * *
“The meritocratic transformation entails, bluntly put, that equality’s champions must justify redistribution that takes from a more industrious elite in order to give to a less industrious middle class. This makes meritocratic inequality difficult to resist.”

The success of a few in the meritocratic system has been used as the poster child to justify the merit of the system itself. The real danger of meritocracy lies not in it being unequal, but in it being justly unequal. It is white-washed to such an extent that those enslaved by meritocracy believe the way out is via the meritocratic system itself – the middle class believe in realizing the “American dream” via “meritocratic education” despite not even competing in the same arena as the elites; the elites cling to their high-paying jobs attained via “meritocratic job selection” despite physical fatigue and emotional voidness for work they feel little attachment to.

We are blindfolded, and yet we believe the way to see is to put more blinds over our eyes. Such is the irony. Such is the power of the meritocratic illusion – it not only makes us not see, it makes us refuse to see. This has to be the most ingenious form of slavery.

The way out: How should we fix the problems?

Daniel suggests we should go back to tackle meritocracy at its two major forms of manifestation, i.e., education & jobs.

For education, he suggests: ” Private schools and universities should lose their tax-exempt status unless at least half of their students come from families in the bottom two-thirds of the income distribution. And public subsidies should encourage schools to meet this requirement by expanding enrollment.”

For the job market, he suggests: “favoring goods and services produced by workers who do not have elaborate training or fancy degrees. For example, the health-care system should emphasize public health, preventive care, and other measures that can be overseen primarily by nurse practitioners, rather than high-tech treatments that require specialist doctors.”

As Daniel admits, change will not come easy: “Any victory will be long-fought and hard-won.” The key first step is acknowledging the problems of meritocracy, and the need of a united force to tackle them. I leave you with the last sentence from the book:

To update an old slogan: the workers of the world—now both middle-class and superordinate—should unite. They have nothing to lose but their chains, and a whole world to win.

Daniel Markovits

How Strangers Confused Spies and Diplomats (Reading “Talking to Strangers” by Malcolm Gladwell)

Malcolm Gladwell is back in town with a new book this month: Talking to Strangers. Great read – insightful & crisp like Gladwell’s earlier works. Never dry, sometimes actionable, frequently inspiring. Full of specific stories & research, a walking example of Gladwell’s belief: “Most interesting people talk about things with a great deal of specificity.

For podcast lovers: Oprah Winfrey interviewed Gladwell about this book in the latest episode of Super Soul Sunday. A nice intro into the book.

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From Neighbors to Strangers: Change in Interactions

Setting up the context in the opening chapter, Malcolm talks about how we interact with others have changed:

Throughout the majority of human history, encounters – hostile or otherwise – were rarely between strangers. The people you met and fought often believed in the same God as you, built their buildings and organized their cities in the same way you did, fought their wars with the same weapons according to the same rules.

Our ancestors mostly interacted with “neighbors”, as in people who lived in close proximity and had a common base for communication – including a common language & common cultural norms. This “common ground” reduced the cost of communication, making it very unlikely that things were “lost in translation” – both literally & metaphorically.

In contrast:

“Today we are now thrown into contact all the time with people whose assumptions, perspectives, and backgrounds are different from our own…struggling to understand each other.”

Today, we live in an Era of Strangers – people whose beliefs, upbringings & habits that are drastically different from our own. Yet, we could be terrible at times in understanding these differences. As Malcolm put it, the book “Talking to Strangers is about why we are so bad at that act of translation.”

Let’s dig in to look at key takeaways from the book.

Two Puzzles We Got from Spies & Diplomats

Fidel Castro released a documentary on Cuban national television titled The CIA’s War Against Cuba:

“Cuban intelligence, it turned out, had filmed and recorded everything the CIA had been doing in their country for at least ten years – as if they were creating a reality show…On the screen, identified by name, were CIA officers supposedly under deep cover…The most sophisticated intelligence service in the world had been played for a fool.”

The Cuban government had, in effect, converted almost all of CIA agents in Cuba into their agents, and fed fake information back to CIA for years. Years!

Malcolm says the CIA’s spectacular failure brought up Puzzle #1: “Why can’t we tell when the stranger in front of us is lying to our face? Why did the CIA – with the world’s top minds trained in espionage – failed to realize their agents lied to them for years?

Similar misjudgments happened on the other side of the world, in Britain. Before World War II broke out:

“(Then UK Prime Minister) Chamberlain’s negotiations with Hitler are widely regarded as one of the great follies of the Second World War. Chamberlain fell under Hitler’s spell. He was outmaneuvered at the bargaining table. He misread Hitler’s intentions.”

Others in Britain saw through Hitler – Winston Churchill was one of the people who “never believed for a moment that Hitler was anything more than a duplicitous thug.”

What’s interesting, though, is although Chamberlain spent hours with Hitler in person, Churchill only read about Hitler on paper. “The people who were right about Hitler were those who knew least about him personally.” Here comes Puzzle #2: “How is it that meeting a stranger can sometimes make us worse at making sense of that person than not meeting them?

Even trained spies & diplomats could get it all wrong when it comes to strangers – just imagine how complicated this whole thing is:

“We have people struggling with their first impressions of a stranger. We have people struggling when they have months to understand a stranger. We have people struggling when they meet with someone only once, and people struggling when they return to the stranger again and again. They struggle with assessing a stranger’s honesty. They struggle with a stranger’s character. They struggle with a stranger’s intent.”
* * *
“It’s a mess.”

Talking to strangers is a mess indeed. Below are some tips that may provide some guidance.

“Default to Truth” is A Mental Shortcut that Works Most of the Time, but Trips Us Over at Unexpected Times

Psychologist Tim Levine did an experiment: he asked participants to watch videos of students talking, and try to spot liars among them. The result:

“We’re much better than chance (>>50%) at correctly identifying the students who are telling the truth. But we’re much worse than chance (<<50%) at correctly identifying the students who are lying. We go through all those videos, and we guess – ‘true, true, true’ – which means we get most of the truthful interviews right, and most of the liars wrong.”

Malcolm calls this “default to truth: our operating assumption is that the people we are dealing with are honest.” More importantly, Levine finds “we stop believing only when our doubts and misgivings rise to the point where we can no longer explain them away”. In other words, for us to switch off the default-truth mode, we not only require some doubt – we require enough doubt, unshakable doubt, undeniable doubt that it would take an insane person to not change his or her opinion.

Borrowing words from the legal principle of “innocent until proven guilty” here, we all practice the mental shortcut of “trust until proven a lie” – and this burden of proof has an extremely high threshold. We require evidence to go way, way, way beyond reasonable doubt.

As Malcolm summarizes it:

“That is Levine’s point. You believe someone not because you have no doubts about them. Belief is not the absence of doubt. You believe someone because you don’t have enough doubts about them.
* * *
“Just think about how many times you have criticized someone else, in hindsight, for their failure to spot a liar. ‘You should have known. There were all kinds of red flags. You had doubts.’ Levine would say that’s the wrong way to think about the problem. The right question is: were there enough red flags to push you over the threshold of belief? If there weren’t, then by defaulting to truth you were only being human…doubts trigger disbelief only when you can’t explain them away.”

Our mental shortcut of “default to truth” is not completely useless – to the contrary, it is an evolutionary toolkit that gives us “efficient communication and social coordination” – at the cost of “an occasional lie”:

Lies are rare…it doesn’t matter so much that we are terrible at detecting lies in real life. Under the circumstances, in fact, defaulting to truth makes logical sense. If the person behind the counter at the coffee shop says your total with tax is $6.74, you can do the math yourself to double-check their calculations, holding up the line and wasting 30 seconds of your time. Or you can simply assume the salesperson is telling you the truth, because on balance most people do tell the truth.”

Every day, we make countless decisions about whether or not to trust someone. Our default decision is to opt for the higher-probability scenario, i.e., the other side is telling the truth. In a handful of scenarios, we misjudge and pay for misplaced belief in a liar.

But overall, the total cost we pay is lower than the reverse “default to lie” position – imagine aggressively fact checking & analyzing every word others say, every action others take. It would be impossible to go on with life without becoming schizophrenic!

“Default to truth biases us in favor of the mostly likely interpretation.”

Related reading: A case in point of when “default to truth” goes wrong is the story of the scandal of Theranos – a company that made repeated lies that tripped over some of the world’s best investors & experts, who refused to change their belief in the company despite red flags. I highly recommend the investigative journalism into this: Bad Blood. Page-turner. Amazing story about ethics, business, and the human mind.

Image result for bad blood john carreyrou

What the TV Show “Friends” Got Wrong: Transparency of Feelings is Rarer than We Think

For those who watched Friends, think about this: “it is almost impossible to get confused (when watching the show)…you can probably follow along even if you turn off the sound.” Why is this?

Malcolm cites research done via the Facial Action Coding System (FACS), a scoring system for facial expressions:

“FACS analysis tells us that the actors in ‘Friends’ make sure that every emotion their character is supposed to feel in their heart is expressed, perfectly, on their face…the facial displays of the actors are what carry the plot. The actors’ performances in Friends are transparent.”

Malcolm defines “transparency” as “the idea that people’s behavior and demeanor – the way they represent themselves on the outside – provides an authentic and reliable window into the way they feel on the inside.”

I would define transparency as an idea about consistency: “transparency” = the facial expression someone displays is consistent with what the majority of people would display, if they felt the same feelings. Borrowing the terminology “group-think”, perhaps this could be called “group-face”, i.e., have facial displays that the majority of your group would put on if put in the same shoes.

For example, a person who feels happy and wears a wide grin is being ‘transparent’, whereas the same person would be considered ‘not transparent’ if he frowns instead. Friends is a TV show of high transparency.

Image result for friends TV show

Fans of Friends, beware – the transparency you see in the show is rarely seen in practice!

“Transparency is a myth – an idea we’ve picked up from watching too much television and reading too many novels where the hero’s ‘jaw dropped with astonishment’ or ‘eyes went wide with surprise.'”

German psychologists Schutzwohl and Reisenzein carried out an experiment – they created a scenario that would surprise participants, who were later asked to describe their facial expressions. Almost all of the participants “were convinced that surprise was written all over their faces.”

But it was not:

“In only 5% of the cases did they (researchers) find wide eyes, shooting eyebrows and dropped jaws. In 17% of the cases they found two of those expressions. In the rest they found some combination of nothing, a little something, and things – such as knitted eyebrows – that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with surprise at all.”

The researchers concluded “participants in all conditions grossly overestimated their surprise expressivity…[t]hey inferred their likely facial expressions to the surprising event from…folk-psychological beliefs about emotion-face associations.”

So the next time you think you have “read” someone from their facial expressions, think again. People are less transparent than you think.

Related TV show: Lie To Me is a US TV series about solving crimes analyzing micro-expressions, i.e., voluntary & involuntary facial expressions which happen so fast that they are not captured by the untrained naked eye. The show’s story-line rests on the premise that certain micro-expressions may be involuntary and universal across cultures, a helpful tool for investigators to decipher the real feelings that criminals are trying to mask. Consider it as an alternative to your regular lie detector. There is academic research into micro-expressions too, though I have not looked at it in-depth.

Image result for lie to me TV show

What Suicide & Criminal Behaviors Have in Common: Both are Coupling Behaviors

In 1962, gas suicide was the #1 form of suicide in England, accounting for over 40% of the cases. By the 1970s, town gas throughout the country was replaced with natural gas that contained no carbon monoxide, that would give you “a mild headache and a crick in your neck” at the worst, but nowhere near lethal.

“So here is the question: once the number-one form of suicide (town gas) in England became a physiological impossibility, did the people who wanted to kill themselves switch to other methods? Or did the people who would have put their heads in ovens now not commit suicide at all?”

If you think people will go for alternative forms of suicide, then you believe in displacement, which “assumes that when people think of doing something as serious as committing suicide, they are very hard to stop.” If you think suicides will drop once the top form of suicide becomes impossible, then you believe in coupling: “the idea that behaviors are linked to very specific circumstances and conditions.” Statistics suggest suicide and crimes are both coupling behaviors tied to specific contexts.

For example, after a suicide barrier was installed on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, a survey followed up on 515 participants who once attempted to jump from the bridge – only 25 of them (<5%) tried to kill themselves in other ways.

Similarly, crime is also shown to be a coupling behavior. Studies in different cities have converged on the same result: “Crime in every city was concentrated in a tiny number of street segments.” This is referred to as the Law of Crime Concentration. Malcolm thinks the lesson for takeaway is:

“When you confront the stranger, you have to ask yourself where and when you’re confronting the stranger – because those two things powerfully influence your interpretation of who the stranger is.”

Don’t Fall Into the “Illusion of Asymmetric Insight”

Let’s play a game of word completion. Suppose I showed you “G L _ _”, which word would you fill it with?

Now suppose I handed you 3 words that a participant has wrote: WINNER, SCORE, GOAL, what could you infer about this participant’s personality? In one response, an interviewee wrote: “It seems this individual has a generally positive outlook toward the things he endeavors…indicate some sort of competitiveness.”

Now let’s flip the game on its head – suppose I asked you to complete the words, and then asked you what these words you completed reveal about your personality. Guess what? The majority of participants in this game refused to”agree with these word-stem completions” as a measure of their own personality.

This is what the psychologist Pronin calls the Illusion of Asymmetric Insight:

The (biased) conviction that we know others better than they know us – and that we may have insights about them they lack (but not vice versa) – leads us to talk when we would do well to listen and to be less patient than we ought to be when others express the conviction that they are the ones who are being misunderstood or judged unfairly.”

As Malcolm phrases it, it is easy to blame it on the stranger: “We think we can easily see into the hearts of others based on the flimsiest of clues. We jump at the chance to judge strangers. We would never do that to ourselves, of course. We are nuanced and complex and enigmatic. But the stranger is easy. If I can convince you of one thing in this book, let is be this: Strangers are not easy.

If I could leave you with only one takeaway, then let it be this: strangers are not easy. What is easy to do is to blame the strangers for any meaning lost in translation – without assessing our own biases. Hopefully this book has given all of us some actionable tips on “talking to strangers”. Once again, I highly recommend reading the whole book from cover to cover – I hope you will find it to be a page-turner as I did.

What does it mean to be “Educated”?

Education must be conceived as a continuing reconstruction of experience…the process and the goal of education are one and the same thing.

John Dewey

Education is a continuing reconstruction of experience – at least according to philosopher John Dewey. John’s quote was splattered across the first page of Tara Westover’s memoir Educated. This book is so amazing that I am at a loss of words to describe its impact – parts of it hit me like a truck, while parts of it softened me like a lullaby; parts of it sent chills down my spine, while parts of it swelled warmth in my chest.

If I could only recommend one book to read this year, Educated would be my pick. In the words of Bill Gates, this is “the kind of book everyone will enjoy. It’s even better than you’ve heard.”

Tara’s book is aptly named and poses this grand question, among others: what does it mean to be educated? What makes one deserving of this word?

Educated = Claiming Selfhood. Unapologetically.

You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal.
* * *
I call it an education.

Tara Westover

“I am not a good daughter. I am a traitor, a wolf among sheep; there is something different about me (from my family) and that difference is not good. I want to bellow, to weep into my father’s knees and promise never to do it again.”

Traitor. That was how Tara Westover felt when her father & family wrestled for control over her life, and she attempted to fight back.

That was how Tara felt after she rushed her injured brother to the hospital instead of to her mom’s herbal therapy. That was how Tara felt for simply thinking about going to school instead of growing up into her “rightful” place as a stay-at-home mom & wife. That was how Tara felt for telling her brother to stop physically abusing her and throwing her onto the floor. That was how Tara felt for wanting to try on jeans & fitting crops, clothes that she were told to belong to “whores”.

There were moments where Tara had doubts about what she was taught by her parents:

“Sometimes I wondered if perhaps school was less evil than Dad thought, because (my brother) Tyler was the least evil person I knew, and he loved school – loved it more, it seemed, than he loved us.”

But these seeds of doubt & curiosity rarely blossomed into the fruits of action. These prescient signs of Tara’s claim to her selfhood were crushed time and time again in a vicious loop:

“Mother had always said we could go to school if we wanted. We just had to ask Dad, she said. Then we could go.
* * *
But I didn’t ask. There was something in the hard line of my father’s face, in the quiet sigh of supplication he made every morning before he began family prayer, that made me think my curiosity was an obscenity, an affront to all he’d sacrificed to raise me.”

Naval Ravikant said: “If you want to see who rules over you, see who you are not allowed to criticize.” I would take that one step further – if you want to see who has the greatest power over you, see who you do not allow yourself to even question.

Such power at its most forceful throws its slaves into this endless cycle of rejecting one’s claim to selfhood, over and over again. Such power at its most damning whispers the hyptonizing words “to simply be is to be evil,” until these words are tatooed into the victim’s soul. One feels its chilling effect from Tara’s words: “I believed then – and part of me will always believe – that my father’s words ought to be my own.”

The most lethal poison is one that you drink as if your life depended on it; the most deceitful mask is one that you wear as if it were part of your natural skin. Eventually, you are no longer able to discern between what is your voice vs. what is the voice from others – they blend into one, and you take the latter as your own. You have rejected selfhood. You have given up believing in selfhood.

The dictionary definition of “selfhood” is “the quality that constitutes one’s individuality; the state of having an individual identity”. Interestingly, according to Google Books, the frequency that the word “selfhood” appears in English works have been on the rise in the past two centuries. This upward trend coincides with the rise of individualism and freedom of expression:

I argue what sits at the core, as the prerequisite, of being “educated” is to claim our selfhood. To claim our selfhood unapologetically. To question others’ claim over our selfhood critically. Becoming educated starts with saying: “I recognize and honor my innate right to define and continuously redefine my self.” Selfhood is where education starts. Selfhood is where identity starts. Selfhood is where living as a free, breathing being starts. As Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

Tara remembers vividly the defining moment where her brother, Tyler, stood up for his selfhood:

“‘College is for extra school for people too dumb to learn the first time around,’ Dad said (when Tyler wanted to go to college). Tyler stared at the floor, his face tense. Then his shoulders dropped, his face relaxed and he looked up; it seemed to me that he’d stepped out of himself. His eyes were soft, pleasant. I couldn’t see him in there at all.”
* * *
“I will always remember my father in this moment, the potency of him, and the desperation. He leans forward, jaw set, eyes narrow, searching his son’s face for some sign of agreement, some crease of shared conviction. He doesn’t find it.”

Selfhood starts when we no longer copy the “shared conviction” of the group. When we “step out of ourselves” to inspect who we are. When develop convictions that we could truly call our own.

Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind…If I yielded now, I would lose more than an argument. I would lose custody of my own mind. This was the price I was being asked to pay, I understood that now.
* * *
What my father wanted to cast from me wasn’t a demon: it was me.

Educated = (Re-)Creating the Structure of Life. Unconstrained.

You are like a river. You go through life taking the path of least resistance…The underlying structure of your life determines the path of least resistance.
* * *
Structure determines behavior.

Robert Fritz, The Path of Least Resistance
The shape of water is defined by the structure it is in

“‘It’s time to go, Tara,’ Tyler said.
The longer you stay, the less likely you will ever leave.
‘You think I need to leave?’
* * *
Tyler didn’t blink, didn’t hesitate.

‘I think this is the worst possible place for you.’ He’d spoken softly, but it felt as though he’d shouted the words. ‘There’s a world out there, Tara…And it will look a lot different once Dad is no longer whispering his view of it in your ear.

Leave. Leave home. This was the advice Tara’s brother Tyler gave her, before he himself walked away from home, and never looked back.What Tyler was really telling Tara was this: change the structure of your life. As long as you are stuck in the same structure, you will never know what the world is like out there. Worse still, you will never be able to imagine what life on the other side is like.

Tara’s recalls her experience taming a wild horse:

“In the space of a moment, he had accepted our claim to ride him, to his being ridden. He had accepted the world as it was, in which he was an owned thing. He had never been feral, so he could not hear the maddening call of that other world, on the mountain, in which he could not be owned, could not be ridden.

People commonly believe that if they change their behavior, they can change the structures in their lives. In fact, just the opposite is true.
* * *
If you are in a structure that leads to oscillation, no solution
will help. This is because these psychological solutions do not
address the structure, but rather the behavior that comes from
the structure.

Robert Fritz, The Path of Least Resistance

In the memoir, Tara wrote about native Apache women, whose fate were dictatated by the customs & rules set in their community:

I thought about the Apache women. Like the sandstone altar on which they had died, the shape of their lives had been determined years before…Decided. Choices, numberless as grains of sand, had layered and compressed, coalescing into sediment, then into rock, until all was set in stone.

Just like the Apache women, the shape of Tara’s life has been determined years before she was born. Before she was born, her parents had decided not only what she would become, but also what she would believe. She would believe schools and medicine were evil. She would believe women should not work. She would believe giving birth at home with a “midwife” without any formal training or certification was safer than giving birth in a hospital. She would believe the “non-believers” – those who held opposing beliefs – were out here to get her. She would believe the Feds could come with their guns to hunt her family down anytime.

As long as Tara was stuck in this structure, she would never have a shot of truly breaking free:

“I could have my mother’s love, but there were terms…that I trade my reality for theirs, that I take my own understanding and bury it, leave it to rot in the earth.”
* * *
“All I had to do was swap my memories for theirs, and I could have my family.”

Leaving her birth family was an educated decision for Tara. It is hard to imagine how she felt as she wrote these words: “You can love someone and still choose to say goodbye to them…You can miss a person every day, and still be glad that they are no longer in your life.”

It takes education and courage to re-create the structure of life, such that the path of least resistance takes you to where you want to go, such that you re-shape the cup so the water morphs into the shape you have in mind.

This could mean saying goodbye to people you love and / or people who love you:

“We think love is noble, and in some ways, it is. But in some ways, it isn’t. Love is just love. And sometimes people do terrible things because of it.
* * *
“It’s strange how you give the people you love so much power over you…It’s very difficult to continue to believe in yourself and that you’re a good person when the people who know you best don’t.”

Perhaps part of us would always miss the old structure that we broke away from, just as a part of Tara would always miss her family – or rather, the parents she wish she had:

“…(I thought of) my father as I wished he were, some longed-for defender, some fanciful champion, one who wouldn’t fling me into a storm, and who, if I was hurt, would make me whole.”

But to be educated means the ability to detect the unsolvable conflict between the present structure & your future self. To be educated means the audacity to craft a new structure where your true self could blossom. After the initial ‘cultural shock’, you will eventually find peace:

“I shed my guilt when I accepted my decision on its own terms, without endlessly prosecuting old grievances…I learned to accept my decision for my own sake.”

Believe it: you will eventually find your inner peace when you let your inner self blossom.

Education is about Making a Person

I leave you with one last quote from Tara:

An education is not so much about making a living as making a person.

Tara Westover

Educated means claiming selfhood – your right to define yourself as a person. Educated means crafting structure – the birth-bed to let your selfhood flourish.

Borrowing words from the rationalist school of thought that it’s not about being more right but being “less wrong”, the making of a person is not about becoming more perfect but “less flawed” and “less plastic”.

Circling back to John Dewey’s quote at the very top: education is the continuing reconstruction of experience. I wish we all continue smoothly along the journey of education, of bringing us closer to the person we want and deserve to be.

The Best Relationship Advice: “When People Tell You Who They Are, Believe Them”

The golden rule for relationships – any type of relationships – is encapsulated in 9 words: “When people tell you who they are, believe them.”

Such are the words of wisdom shared by Dr. Maya Angelou in a conversation with Oprah Winfrey. Oprah added onto what Dr. Angelou said: “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time. Don’t wait until the 29th time. When a man doesn’t call you back the first time, when you are mistreated the first time, when someone shows you lack of integrity or dishonesty the first time, know that this will be followed many many other times, that will some point in life come back to haunt or hurt you.

Here is a great story to illustrate this Golden Rule for Relationships. In the memoir Educated, Tara Westover shared her struggles living with her abusive brother Shawn. A brother who called her a whore. Broke her toe. Dragged her on the floor. Pushed her head into the toilet.

Tara recalled the day when she was assaulted again by Shawn:

That night, with a heavily wrapped wrist (hurt by Shawn), I scratch out a journal entry. I ask myself questions. Why didn’t he stop when I begged him? It was like getting beaten by a zombie…like he couldn’t hear me.

Educated, memoir by Tara Westover

Tara struggled to find an explanation for Shawn’s abusive behavior:

I began to reason with myself…I decide that if I had asked (him to stop hurting me) differently, been more calm, he would have stopped. I write this until I believe it, which doesn’t take long because I want to believe it. It’s comforting to think the defect is mine, because that means it is under my power.

Educated, memoir by Tara Westover

Such is the paradox of fabricating an excuse to explain why someone mistreated us: on one hand, excuses serve as a painkiller – by telling lying to ourselves that he/she is neither crazy nor hurting us on purpose, by telling pretending to ourselves that he/she still cares about us, we numb the pain with a false sense of control. We feel as if we could not control what happened to us in the past, we could at least control how we feel about it at present – even at the cost of ignoring the discrepancies between reality and our perception of it.

On the other hand, the excuses we fabricate are the deadliest poison that kills our self-esteem, the tightest chains that defines our slavery. The excuses are the reasons we stay, even though we would like to be treated better. Because somehow we tricked ourselves into believing the pain of staying & withering a little every day is better than the pain of leaving & tearing apart. We think we are hiding in a safe haven by staying, but in reality we are digging our own graves by not leaving.

As Tara continued to reflect and replay the assault scene in her head, she had a sudden revelation:

His expression is unforgettable: not anger or rage. There is no fury in it. Only pleasure, unperturbed. Then a part of me understands, even as I begin to argue against it, that my humiliation was the cause of that pleasure. It was not an accident or side effect. It was the objective.

This half-knowledge works in me like a kind of possession, and for a few minutes I’m taken over by it. I rise from my bed, retrieve my journal, and do something I have never done before: I write what happened. I do not use vague, shadowy language, as I have done in other entries; I do not hide behind hints and suggestion. I write what I remember.

Educated, memoir by Tara Westover

And here comes my favorite part of Tara’s reflection. She wrote in her journal: “It’s strange how you give the people you love so much power over you...He had defined me to myself, and there’s no greater power than that.” The illusion of empowerment brought by our excuses always dies down. In its place, at its core, is the erosive power that feeds on our self-esteem.

It is not easy. It is damn hard to walk away from the people you love and care about. But to get the relationships we deserve, we must abide by the 9-word rule: “When people tell you who they are, believe them.” Believe that they are not who you think they are (or would want them to be). Believe that they are not meant for you, nor compatible with your identity. Believe that leaving is an easier & better option than you imagine it to be.

It is the truth – truth of the world, truth with ourselves – that always sets us free.

I end with this quote by Dr. Maya Angelou:

When a person says to you that “I’m mean” or “I’m selfish” or “I’m unkind” or “I’m crazy” – believe them. They know themselves better than you do.

Dr. Maya Angelou

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The Tastiest Pizza is often the Messiest One

Splitting a city into residential, commercial and business zones is like throwing dough, cheese and pepperoni into the different compartments of a bento box and calling it a pizza.” In this article, Uber product manager Florent Crivello write about what he calls the “efficiency-destroying magic of tidying up”.

Florent shares this picture that he calls “an urban planner’s dream pizza” – I bet it’s not what you have in mind as your perfect pizza:

The word chaos has a negative connotation in most contexts. In fact, the Oxford dictionary defines chaotic as “in a state of complete confusion and disorder“. Chaos tends to stir up emotions of being lost, not knowing what to do.

When we are at a loss of what to do, more often than not it is because we do not truly understand. The flip side of that is, in the words of Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: “To understand is to know what to do.”

This was echoed in Florent’s article:

If outsiders complain, but people living inside the system seem happy with it, it probably means that the chaos is serving them right, and that it’s just foreign eyes who are unable to perceive its underlying order.

The Efficiency-Destroying Magic of Tidying Up, by Florent Crivello

It is tempting to equate a lack of order (or at least lack of what we perceive to be order) with a lack of value or quality, which justifies a need for intervention. This is not ill-advised in some cases, with the emergency of rule of law as a case in point. A complete lack of any legal order in a community threatens the safety of its members.

In contrast, some corrections of chaos could produce outcomes that go against our wishes instead of in their favor. Apart from the pizza example above (I assume 99.9999% of the population prefers a ‘messy’ pizza where the ingredients are mixed instead of separated), another example is the free market vs. central planning: a “chaotic” free market is magically more efficient than central planning, in terms of the total sum of outputs produced. Of course, free market is not without its limitations – which is a separate topic.

The point here is: the presence of chaos does not automatically equate a need for correction. If chaos should warrant anything, it should warrant a drive to understand the underlying order, the “invisible hand”, the hidden structure that are yet elusive to our foreign eyes.

Resisting the urge to “correct” chaos may not be that easy. As Brian Arthur, pioneer of complexity theory & complexity science, mentioned in an interview, subjects such as economics seek “equilibrium, a place of statis (stability) and simplicity”. In a sense, equilibrium is (perceived to be) at the opposite side of chaos.

Brian Arthur points out what seems to be in equilibrium could be different from what is actually in equilibrium – this depends on how macroscopic vs. microscopic our view is. For example, the sun seems to be in equilibrium when we look up at it in the sky – it is a beautiful sphere held in place by gravitational forces. Yet, the sun close up is full of plasma bursts – what you could call “chaotic” reactions.

Instead of viewing chaos & equilibrium as opposing concepts, we could view them as relative concepts instead. Instead of being either chaotic or in equilibrium, an object could be both – depending on the context & our level of understanding.

So give chaos some credit – just as the tastiest pizza is not the orderliest one, the best scenario may not necessarily be the most organized one. The next time you find yourself anxious about a chaotic environment? Think about how delicious that bite of pizza littered with messy toppings is – then sit back & relax.

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“All models are wrong, but some are useful”: Man’s Journey to Make Sense of the World

All models are wrong, but some are useful.

George Edward Pelham Box, British statistician

This quote by a British statistician is, arguably, not limited to describing statistical models. Every thought we have shapes our map (mental model) of the territory (how the world works).

An article on the rationalist blog Less Wrong believes the “abstract concept of ‘truth” is better thought of as “the general idea of a map-territory correspondence“.

The map is not the territory” is a core mental model:

The map of reality is not reality…If a map were to represent the territory with perfect fidelity, it would no longer be a reduction and thus would no longer be useful to us.

Farnam Street blog, “The Map Is Not the Territory

This is the paradoxical takeaway: the flaw & value of the map both lie in it being a reduction of reality. On one hand, every reduction is a conscious decision to be imprecise – some information is inevitably lost. On the other hand, compression is what makes it of use to us: focusing on what is the most important (or per the 80/20 rule, focus on the 20% that yields 80% value) allows us to maximize the value density of information we have, i.e., think of it as value per “unit storage space” of information.

I could not attribute the source of this – but someone said: the world always makes sense. If you think something “does not make sense”, what really does not make sense is your model of the world.

For those who are into rationality & critical thinking, I highly recommend this fanfiction: Harry Potter & the Methods of Rationality – after all, what could be a more fun way to learn about something than mixing it with magic? 🙂

Here is a quote from the fiction: “I ask the fundamental question of rationality: Why do you believe what you believe? What do you think you know and how do you think you know it?

As the author wrote in another post: “We need the word ‘rational‘ in order to talk about cognitive algorithms or mental processes with the property ‘systematically increases map-territory correspondence‘(epistemic rationality) or ‘systematically finds a better path to goals‘ (instrumental rationality).

Striving to be rational means striving to improve map-territory correspondence, while acknowledging we could aim to be less wrong but never completely right. This recipe of curiosity plus humility combo is what powers us to build a model that is inevitably wrong, but hopefully helpful.

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[Big Ideas 003] Role of Museums in Education & Science vs. Religion

Context: This article is part of the Big Ideas series, where I synthesize takeaways from interviews by Discovery Magazine with the world’s best experts in multiple disciplines. This series is inspired by Peter Kaufman’s take on the multidisciplinary approach to thinking. Peter spent 6 months reading 140+ of these interviews, and came out knowing “every single big idea from every single domain of science”. I wrote more about Peter’s insightful ideas in this article.

Credit: Special thanks to ValueInvestingWorld for compiling the interviews in a single PDF here.

Former Head of Chicago’s Field Museum John McCarter

John McCarter is the CEO & president of the Chicago Field Museum. He “oversees the work of 200 scientists” on diverse research topics from protecting endangered tropical environments, to molecular evolution. He is also “one of the leading critics of the intelligent design movement (that argues life is created by an intelligent cause, or God)” and “an outspoken proponent of teaching modern evolutionary theory to all students.” Read the original interview in the May 2006 issue of Discover magazine here.

Why it’s hard to sustain kids’ interest in science

McCarter thinks there are two challenges to science education:

First, “kids get turned off to science at some point—fifth grade, sixth grade, seventh grade —when science is perceived as too hard and too complicated.” He proposes counteracting the problem “by telling stories”:

We try to make the museum experience telling enough that it becomes a conversation with families over the dinner table two nights later.

John McCarter

Second, it’s hard to attract or sustain attention amidst the “competition for time” in the digital age:

Two comedians with light talk on CBS and NBC had 80 percent of the market in that time slot…yet only 2 percent of the population is listening to NPR (National Public Radio). I think institutions like this don’t have a crack at people’s attention and time, so you have to be really good at delivering messages or explaining controversies in a way that sticks in people’s minds.

John McCarter

Museums in the science vs. religion debate

Shortly before the interview with McCarter took place, the Chicago Field Museum launched an exhibit – Evolving Planet – in March 2006. It showcased the 4-billion-year evolutionary journey of life on Earth.

McCarter shares the Evolving Planet exhibit was motivated by a dissatisfaction with current exhibits on evolution “constructed in such a way that visitors rushed through to get to the dinosaurs”.

Yet, he was also challenged on whether this exhibit was intended to promote the evolutionary perspective (that he is a strong advocate of):

Interviewer
What is the harm in telling the other story (of religious narrative)?
* * *
John McCarter
I don’t think there is any harm, as long as it is not posed as a scientific alternative to the story of evolution.

McCarter believes religion itself has undergone a shift:

The mainstream theological community is already way beyond the literal interpretation of the biblical accounts of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden and seven days of creation. Instead, they are saying that those are wonderful stories, created 2,000 years ago by people who were trying to explain their world, not that they are scientific fact.

John McCarter

For McCarter, the key issues in theology worth focusing our attention on are “applied morality of behavior and guidance”.

McCarter shares that the population that visit museums are skewed to have a higher % of those who subscribe to the evolution theory (instead of religious explanations on intelligent creation). He cites ~50% of the US public accepts the evolution theory, but this number has grown to 75% amidst museum-goers.

“And for those people who don’t accept it (evolution theory), the exhibit may enable the families to have a discussion about what their 15-year-old saw and how that fits into the overall faith of the family. We are not against religion. We are very supportive of religions and religious institutions. Much of this museum is a celebration of the impact of religion on cultures. But we do that in anthropology. We don’t do that in paleontology.”

Museum as a powerful storytelling platform

I particularly like this Q&A snippet in the interview:

Interviewer
It seems museums have switched from being repositories of artifacts and information and history to being advocates for a specific viewpoint?
* * *
John McCarter
I don’t think I’d call it advocacy…I call it storytelling…You would see an object, but there was no contextual story around that object. What we are doing now is using the artifacts to tell a story.

Museums don’t just lay out facts – they use facts to present a story, a narrative. Museums could be another powerful form of storytelling or propaganda.

Stay tuned for more articles in the “Big Idea” series! And please share interesting “big ideas” by reaching me at fullybookedclub.blog@gmail.com or on LinkedIn.

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Reach Union in Sound & Energy Centers: On Nada Yoga and Chatra

Context: I tried Nada Yoga meditation for the first time and enjoyed the mindful experience it brought. The teacher guided us to tap into the 7 Chakra (energy centers) in the body via sound. I researched on the basics of Nada Yoga, shared below.

Share an interest in yoga or mindfulness? I’d love to hear from you – reach me at fullybookedclub.blog@gmail.com or on LinkedIn.

Nāda yoga (नादयोग) is an ancient Indian metaphysical system.
It is equally a philosophical system, a medicine, and a form of yoga.

Wikipedia

Nada Yoga: Unify the Individual Mind & Cosmic Consciousness via Sound

“Nada” stands for sound (vibrations) and “yoga” for union. Put together, Nada Yoga refers to “the union of the individual mind with cosmic consciousness through the flow of sounds”:

When the river of consciousness is impeded by the ego, Nada or special sounds can remove the obstruction, allowing the river of individual consciousness to unite with its source, the ocean of pure consciousness.

…Space is connected with the ear, and the ear is the receptacle to sound…sound is the primal experience of all in comparison to smell, taste, vision and touch. It is also the most accurate and more precise than the others.

What is Nada Yoga? – The Sacred Sound on the Nada Yoga Blog

Nada (sound) could be grouped into inner vs. outer music

Nada (sound) comes from:

  • Anahata = inner music, i.e., our own sound vibrations. Anahata is considered to be (a) inseparable from the self, i.e., I cannot share my Anahata with someone else, and (b) sacred – with the potential to hep individuals open their Chakras, i.e., energy centers. Chakra is introduced in more detail below. Nada Yoga believes we receive Anahata not from our ears, but from the anahata chakra – this is also explained below.
  • Ahata = outer music. We receive Ahata via the sensory organ of the ear.

The aim of Nada Yoga practice is to help us better listen to and receive Anahata, our inner music – the music that carries “spiritual weight”.

Inner music is mentioned as the key to achieving Enlightenment in some Buddhist literature

In the Shurangama Sutra, a buddhist sutra, it is recorded that the Buddha gave praise to Avalokitesvara, who claims to have been enlightened by his inner music:

All the Brothers in this Great Assembly…should reverse your outward perception of hearing and listen inwardly for the perfectly unified and intrinsic sound of your own Mind-Essence, for as soon as you have attained perfect accommodation, you will have attained to Supreme Enlightenment.

The Buddah’s praise of Avalokitesvara

Chakras: Energy Centers Vital to Harmony of the Body

To understand Chakra, we need to go back to a medieval-era theory of human life that originated in India. This theory believes that there are two dimensions of human life – the physical body (mass) and the subtle body (energy).

The subtle body is thought to be made up of nadi (energy channels) that are interconnected by chakras (energy centers / nodes). There are different claims as to how many chakras each person has – below I introduce the popular 7-chakra system, which is also taught during the meditation practice I attended.

1. Root Chakra (Muladhara, “Root”): Trust

Located at: base of spine

When open, we feel: grounded, secure, stable

Lotus: Red with 4 petals

2. Spleen or Sacral Chakra (Swadhisthana, “Where the Self is Established”): Creativity, Sexuality

Located at: lower abdomen

When open, we feel: creative, pleased, high sexual energy

Lotus: Orange with 6 petals

3. Navel or Solar Plexus Chakra (Manipura: “Jewel City”): Power

Located at: upper abdomen

When open, we feel: high self-esteem & confidence

Lotus: Yellow with 10 petals

4. Heart Chakra (Anahata, “Unstruck”): Love, Healing

Located at: center of chest

When open, we feel: full of love, peaceful

Lotus: Green with 12 petals

5. Throat Chakra (Visuddha, “Purest”): Expression, Communication

Located at: throat

When open, we feel: expressive, articulate, keen to communicate

Lotus: Blue with 16 petals

6. Third-Eye or Brow Chakra (Ajna, “Command”): Intuition, Awareness

Located at: middle of forehead

When open, we feel: imaginative, intelligent

Lotus: Indigo with 2 petals

7. Crown Chakra (Sahasrara, “Thousand-Petaled)”: Spirituality

Located at: crown of our head

When open, we feel: connected to a higher consciousness

Lotus: Violet with 1,000 petals

Linking back to the spiritual theory introduced at the beginning, the first three Chakras are the Chakras of Matter, the last three are the Chakras of Spirit, and the middle one (Heart Chakra) is the connection in between.

Nada Yoga practice aims to help us unblock the chakras to achieve better harmony and spiritual enlightenment.

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Witch Hunt 2019 Version: On What Grounds Do You Stand?

“What if everything we are taught in economics 101 is not only wrong, but may even be setting us up for populism, dictatorship or revolution?”

Find this question provoking?

Check out the eye-opening answer of Professor Timur Kuran in an interview with Eric Weinstein on “The Portal” podcast. I don’t think the show notes are exaggerating too much by saying “(t)his could well be the most important economist you’ve never heard of.” This episode is especially relevant given the current political discourse & climate.

Note: For podcast lovers, I highly recommend The Portal – I have found each and every episode thus far to be of consistently high quality. The podcast is thoughtfully named “The Portal”, to refer to different portals (ways) of looking at the world.

The 1st guest on the show was Peter Thiel, who spoke highly of the Mimetic Theory proposed by French philosopher R. Girard. I have written about it in Life is the Ultimate Imitation Game.

Fake Your Ground via “Preference Falsification”

Question: You go to your friend Emma’s birthday party. She greets you at the door with a hug, takes a step back and spins in her green dress with gigantic, yellow polka dots. Emma smiles up at you and asks: “My brother bought this new dress for my birthday! What do you think?” Honestly, you find the dress to be shockingly hideous (or hideously shocking). How do you react?

Multiple Choice: Your response is

(A) Honesty Brutality is the best policy. Say it to Emma’s face that you find this dress to be an utter disgrace, and she should dump it in the bin right now and change before more guests arrive at the party – so as not to embarrass herself.

(B) Be the best lying friend you think you should be. Say it with a forced big smile that you find the dress to be gorgeous.

(C) Bring out your dark human side. You remember Emma told you last Christmas that pair of purple socks with snowman icons were adorable. You wore that to your first date with your crush, and she found it absolutely incredible laughable. It is time for revenge. You tell Emma with the most sincere smile and starry eyes you could put on, and encourage her to wear the dress all the time.

I would wager most people would go for option (B), i.e., what you say is different from what you really prefer. This is what Timur Kuran refers to as preference falsification, i.e., “misrepresenting one’s wants under perceived social pressures“.

Fake Ground Protects You in the Modern “Witch Hunt”

Question: You live in a neighborhood where durian is treated as a sacred food that everyone should love. Durian is everywhere, e.g., durian flavor is the only flavor of ice-cream allowed. However, you secretly find its smell vomiting. One day, a tourist new to town stops you on the street and asks you about what this “durian” thing is, as she has never heard about it before.

Multiple Choice: Your response is

(A) Tell her (in secret) that while everyone else says durian is awesome, you find it disgusting, and she should run away from it.

(B) Exclaim with enthusiasm that durian is the best food out there – just like what all of your community members would say – and recommend her to check out the durian ice-cream shop around the corner.

Before you decide, you weigh your options carefully. If you go with option (A), you are aware of the risks that words get out – if any of your friends know that you whispered slander against durian, they would immediately cut all ties with you. They would unlike all your Instagram pictures, and unfollow all your social media feeds. You risk your date dumping you. You risk your parents signing you up for “durian acceptance” workshops. You risk opening up your mailbox and discovering 10 books on durians, sent from “Durian Anonymous” group.

As Professor Kuran illustrated, a common type of social pressure that leads to “preference falsification” is the presumption of one & only one orthodox preference – and the rejection of the rest as heresy.

Durian is tasty and everyone loves durian. Case closed. You are simply not allowed to have a different preference. By claiming yourself openly as a “hater of durian”, you immediately declare yourself as the “enemy of the people”.

The minute you voice a different preference, you subject yourself to a modern version of the Witch Hunt – and be prepared for “reputational violence” as punishment, if not something more severe. Just like those labelled witches in the Middle Ages, expect yourself to be the outcast in your circle and consider a cold shoulder as the mildest form of sanction you would get.

Preference falsification – applauding the orthodox view in public while rejecting it in private – is a tactic to stay safe in the modern version of witch hunt. A milder tactic is to remain silent – and saves you the pain of the schizophrenic pressure to balance between a fake voice vs. your true self.

Note: There are two concepts related to preference falsification – chilling effect (i.e., self-censoring for fear of backlash) and strategic silence (i.e., purposefully silencing others or information, usually with the intent to control the narrative). I’ve written about these concepts in What Silence Quietly Says: On The Chilling Effect & Strategic Silence. In this case, the chilling effect is in sharp contrast to preference falsification – the former keeps silent, the latter shouts out loud though in a “fake” voice.

And speaking of being open-minded to different opinions, I took a stab at what the word “open-mind” means in this article (that features delicious pictures of ice-cream & durian): “Are you open to durian ice-cream” & an Open-Minded look at Open-Mindedness.

The Witch Hunt in the Middle Ages scarred communities – people lived in fear and dialogues were stifled. Likewise, the modern version of Witch Hunt has its negative consequences. When a large percentage of society practices preference falsification, our political system could produce an outcome that “very few people actually want”:

You open up the possibility that because people are not openly expressing what’s on their mind, the system of knowledge production & knowledge development…(the system) of solving problems…that gets corrupted.

Eric Weinstein

When preference falsification is prevalent, you end up with the weird scenario where everyone in the room wears a pink shirt, although the majority actually prefers the blue one. The irony here is everyone thinks they are wearing pink because everyone around them prefers pink. Hence you are stuck in this weird lose-lose “equilibrium” where as if the collective solved for the wrong problem (or opted for the wrong solution) of how to “minimize utility”. We end up with a schizophrenic world where everyone struggles with the conflicts between their private preferences vs. public preferences.

Middle Ground = Underground?

The two extremes, both are playing this game of “you are with us or against us”, reinforcing each other. They are completely agreed on that.
* * *
There is no middle position. And having a middle position, having the media pay attention to people in the middle, would hurt them (the extremes) both.

Timur Kuran

In this “Economy of Deception” littered by falsified preferences, the middle ground – a nuanced and open-minded stance – has to seek shelter underground. As Professor Kuran points out above, the extreme ends on either side of the spectrum do not want to entertain the possibility of a 3rd option, i.e., seeking compromise and resolution.

Eric Weinstein calls this a “black market (in the marketplace) of ideas“, i.e., underground concepts, ideas, fears that “can’t be discussed in a curated market managed by institutions“. Going back to the durian-lover-community example, think of this as forming a secret club that meets discreetly underground every month to discuss your shared detest for durian.

Occasionally, you have seen brave friends who declare their distaste for durian in the open and advocate for plurality-of-fruit-choices. You admire their bravery, and you relate deeply to this quote:

“We are dependent on people of integrity who risked everything, when it was least popular to do it. We could hold these people in reserve, so that when the madness becomes too great, we could turn to them.”

Eric Weinstein

Where We Go From Here

I leave you with this excerpt from the preface in Professor Kuran’s book Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference:

(D)espotic government is not the only source of fear the only obstacle to overt and candid discourse. A more basic factor is public opinion. For one thing, despotism is unsustainable without at least the tacit consent of public opinion. For another, public opinion is itself a determinant of people’s willingness to reveal their innermost selves.

To be sure, time and again the courts have ruled that unpopular views, no matter how outrageous, are protected by the law. Yet a person may be free under the law to enunciate despised views without enjoying the same esteem, in the eyes of others, as people with widely accepted views. However strictly enforced, freedom of speech does not insulate people’s reputations from their expressed opinions.

My preoccupation with the darker side of human nature was not without reward. I became more sensitized to the independent streak in the human character, to the spirit that gives on the courage to say ‘no’ when the pressures of the moment demand a ‘yes.’ With a heightened appreciation for the complexity of the human personality, for the tensions we all endure in trying to mediate between our needs for social approval and those for self-assertion, I gained more respect for the nonconformist, the pioneer, the innovator, the dissident, even the misfit. It is my hope that the reader will come to share in this appreciation.

It is also my hope that the reader – you – will come to share in this appreciation. The consistency in aligning one’s public preferences with one’s private ones. The audacity in listening to one’s innermost self and reach peace with the outer world.

May we all have a mindful journey.

What are some good materials you’ve come across on public discourse? I’d love to hear from you – please reach me at fullybookedclub.blog@gmail.com or on LinkedIn

Enjoyed reading this? Apart from publishing articles on this blog, I also send out a newsletter with original content and curated ideas. Subscribe here or view past issues here.