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.

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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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

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Life Is The Ultimate Imitation Game (René Girard reading notes 1)

Man differs from the other animals in his greater aptitude for imitation.

Aristotle, Poetics, 4

This article is inspired by “Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World” by René Girard – Book I: Fundamental Anthropology, Chapter 1: The Victimage Mechanism as the Basis of Religion. All Girard quotes below are from this chapter unless otherwise specified.

Imitation is A (The) Portal Onto the Past, Present & Future

Mind-blowing.

If I could only describe René Girard’s model of the world in one word, “mind-blowing” is my pick, and even that may be an understatement.

I first heard about Girard in an interview with Peter Thiel, where he spoke highly of Girard’s Mimetic Theory on the role of imitation:

It’s a portal onto the past, onto human origins, our history.

It’s a portal onto the present and the interpersonal dynamics of psychology.

It’s a portal onto the future in terms of whether or not we’re going to let these mimetic desires run amok and lead us to apocalyptic violence.

Peter Thiel commenting on Girard’s Mimetic Theory, The Portal podcast

Understanding imitation is a portal – perhaps THE portal – to understanding the one big question in the “science of man”:

[T]he precise domain in which the question of man will be asked…is that of the origin and genesis of signifying systems…it is the problem of what is called the process of hominization.

René Girard

Let us dissect the question of hominization from multiple angles below:

The Evolutionary Biologist: Survival is the “Who-Creates-More-Imitations” Game

Let us go back in time and look at the rules of the game that govern the evolution of species.

In a highly entertaining book on evolutionary biology, “The Ape that Understood the Universe: How the Mind and Culture Evolve” (with its entertaining feature evident from the entertaining title), Prof. Steve gives a concise summary of key ideas behind gene selection:

Genes are selected to the extent that they propagate themselves in the gene pool. Often, they do this by helping their owners to survive and reproduce, or by helping their owners’ kin to survive and reproduce.

…adaptations are designed to pass on the genes giving rise to them. And human beings, along with all other organisms, are gene machines.

Steve Stewart Williams, “The Ape that Understood the Universe: How the Mind and Culture Evolve

The highest & sole purpose of existence of a gene is to propagate copies of itself – to create imitations. Interestingly, in the case of humans (& many other species that mate to reproduce), the reproductive process creates genes (children) that are close imitations of either parent, instead of exact replicas. It is an imitation, not a 100% copy, in the truest sense of the word.

More interestingly, at the start of time, cells reproduced without mating and simply replicated an exact copy of itself – 100% original, 0% room for experimentation. However, this copy-and-paste approach – while efficient (saves time of finding a mate) – is detrimental to the propagation of the original gene in the long run. In other words, 100% cloning limits the ability to create more imitations (replicas) as time goes on:

…while clonal reproduction helped bacteria pass on beneficial mutations, it also left some entire colonies at risk when dangers such as bacteria-infecting viruses arose, because the cloned bacteria possessed too many of the same inadequacies in their defense mechanisms. Sexual reproduction changed that in a big way.

…Organisms that reproduced sexually had more genetic losers that their clonal forebears, but they also had a far greater possibility of evolving genetic winners.

Jamie Metzl, “Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity

Being too predictable in the Survival Game (reproducing via clones that are 100% replicas) makes a species hack-able – what kills one in your species could, in theory, wipe out the entire species. Predictability kills at times. The hack to that is to create imitations – close enough but not entirely the same. The cost of hack is the reproductive process is more time-consuming. Nature is fair with trade-offs.

The Philosopher: Identity is the “Who-Should-I-Imitate” Game

“What is my identity” is a trendy way of phrasing the questions:

  • Who am I?
  • Who do I want to be?
  • Who do I see myself becoming?

Identity is not just a static question of who I am at present – identity creates the drive to change, to move dynamically towards an ideal persona we see ourselves becoming. The process of finding our “identity” is the process of finding what type of person we want to imitate. The act of staying true to our identity is the act of not deviation from the imitation game we are playing to mimic the perfect, model persona in our minds.

When we say we “identify with” someone or something, we mean we see the similarities – we see the other side as imitations of ourselves, and we want to imitate them in return.

Identity politics is the product of us carving out individuals or groups that we see more closely resembles ourselves. And on that note, let’s turn to the politician’s point of view.

The Politician: Campaigning is the “Freedom-To-Imitate” Game

When a gay couple fight for their right to marriage, they are effectively saying is: I don’t want to be forced to imitate the conventional marriage structure of others.

When some people oppose gay marriage, they are effectively saying is: You should imitate us – our way of living, our understanding of marriage.

When politicians promise on a campaign to protect the rights of homosexuals, what they are effectively saying is: I will let you freely choose who or what behavior you want to imitate.

Almost all political campaign messages boil down to this promise: I will give you what you want. Let’s translate that into: I will let you choose who or what you want to imitate, or you let others imitate. Or perhaps we can call this type of freedom of choice: “freedom to imitate”.

The Economist: Decision-Making is the “Mind Imitation” Game

Speaking of choice, the economists will definitely not miss out on the chance to have a say on decision-making.

In the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the two equilibrium outcomes have one thing in common: both prisoners imitate each other, i.e., they arrive at the same decision to either remain silent or frame the other person. This symmetry is a delicate balance.

In Game Theory and decision-making in daily life, we frequently decide based on what we think other people are thinking. We can think of it as a “mind imitation” game – trying to mimic the thought process of the other party. Thinking out of the box is when your mind is hard for others to imitate – hence you surprise them. The “box” is the set containing all the copies of your mind the other imitators have drawn up.

This quote aptly describes the “mind imitation” game:

I am not what I think I am, and I am not what you think I am.

I am what I think you think I am.

Charles Horton Cooley

The Engineer: AI is the “Create-The-Best-Imitation” Game

Since we started with a look at the evolutionary history of species, let us conclude with a look at an exciting topic that could shape the future of mankind: Artificial Intelligence (AI).

The very definition of the phrase AI already reveals that imitation sits at its core:

Definition of artificial intelligence

1. a branch of computer science dealing with the simulation of intelligent behavior in computers

2. the capability of a machine to imitate intelligent human behavior

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

When literature & media discuss (or predict) potential dangers of AI, they most often point to the possibility of AI breaking free of the imitation game it is wired to play – instead of imitating human beings, AI achieves a level of transcendental intelligence that we human beings are incapable of imitating (or controlling) in return.

This paragraph below captures the fear of this type of danger:

Let an ultra-intelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever…and the intelligence of man would be left far behind.

Thus the first ultra-intelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.”

I. J. Good, “Speculations Concerning the First Ultra-intelligent Machine

Life is The Ultimate Imitation Game

We are all “game theorists” – playing the Ultimate Imitation Game of Life. To borrow (& tweak) the words of Shakespeare: to imitate or not to imitate, that is the question. Every decision we make in everything we do is boiled down to whether we imitate, who we imitate, and what we want others to imitate about us.

If life were a grand game of chess, then we are all studying & imitating the moves of other players, while being imitated in return. Each “genius” move is born to be unique, unparalleled & unprecedented, while at the same time born out of imitation.

The winner emerges out of imitating the winning; the loser falls out of being out-imitated. Contrary to conventional belief, victory belongs to the best imitator, not the best creator – as there is no such thing as creation without imitation.

So imitate wisely and take on the game of life victoriously. But when you win, know that the victory is yours but not yours alone – it belongs to the collection of countless imitations that have happened before your time, happening at your time, and will continue to happen in the time to come.

The Violinist and the Symphony: How Pieces Complete the Puzzle

What You Are Really Selling

A friend working in the finance industry was sharing his observations at work. “Investors are looking for a return like this for the overall portfolio,” he said, while making a gesture of an upward trend-line with his hand, “but the returns of a single investment (in the portfolio) could look at this (insert gesture of a zig-zag line), or this (insert gesture of a line of a random shape with no obvious pattern).”

The performance of a single investment, when viewed on its own, could take on different shapes. When aggregated together, the investments form a portfolio with a risk & return profile that shows the desired pattern.

By looking at one and only one stock a certain investor holds, we could not extrapolate on the investment style of this person – however, as more of his holdings are revealed to us, we start to get a better picture of what his preferences are like. I like the symbolic meaning of the phrase: “to get a picture of” – one dot alone does not paint a picture; you need the overlay of multiple dots before you could have a sense of what the subject of the picture is really about. A pattern takes many inputs to form.

Imagine you are an investment professional, trying to pitch your product to an asset manager. You are not just selling the product itself – you are selling how it fits into the overall portfolio, i.e., how it correlates with other holdings in the portfolio, and how it contributes to the desired overall portfolio performance. You are not just showing your client the “zig-zag” performance trend line of your own product – you are convincing the asset manager that your product helps him to achieve the upward trend line he envisions for the entirety of his holdings.

What you are selling is not just one item in and of itself – you are selling its relationship with other items, or a story about what relationship it will be able to cultivate with other items, and what overall result this will bring. If you were a violinist trying to join an orchestra, you are not just selling your violin skills (though they are important) – you are selling the promise that you will be able to create a great symphony together with all the other musicians.

Being Nuanced = Being Attentive to the Web of Relationships

My conversation with the learned friend above shifted from finance to politics. He said if we were to color each US state with red / blue mapping to the dominance of republicans / democrats, what we would get is not just two colors – we would not only get different shades of red & blue, but also see different shades of purple, when red hits blue. Political preferences are nuanced.

When we say an observation is “not very nuanced”, we often mean that the observer feels to appreciate other contextual factors, and how these factors influence the judgment. In other words, being nuanced means being attentive to the web of relationships. It means instead of seeing binary colors (red vs. blue), one sees a full spectrum of colors, as different doses of red & blue interact with one another.

Forks = Severing Some Relationships & Creating New Ones

I continue the conversation about politics with my learned friend. We go on to discuss “forks” of political parties, i.e., where a group of members break off from the party, and start a new party of their own, most often due to disagreement on philosophies or strategies. There are other types of forks – e.g., the Reformation is a fork of the Catholic Church; Bitcoin Cash blockchain is a fork of the Bitcoin network etc.,

The action of forking out a group is analogous to severing the relationships with certain “nodes” in your current network. The action of creating a new group (and finding new nodes to connect to) is analogous to extending the antenna to forge new relationships. Think of this as a “relationship reorganization / restructuring”.

Our identity is defined not just by what we relate to, but also by what we do not relate to. The existence of a connection could tell us as much as the lack of one. What we choose could reveal as much as what we give up.

A good violinist thinks about how to play the best tune.
A great violinist thinks about how to play the best symphony.

A good fashion designer thinks about how to create a stunning dress.
A great designer thinks about how to create a stunning collection.

A good writer thinks about how to write an insightful article.
A great writer thinks about how to build an insightful portfolio.

Listen for the symphony. Watch for the collection. Write for the portfolio.

P.S. On a final & related note, I encourage readers to kindly check out other blog articles in my portfolio. #self-promotion 😉

“It will be waiting and it is yours”: The Atlantis in Your Eyes

It’s Real. It’s Possible. It’s Yours.

Picture someone with whom you feel understood and connected.
Picture that someone standing behind you, hands on your eyes, saying in “a voice with no sign of emotion except in the spacing of the words”:

Go out to continue your struggle…But in your worst and darkest moments, remember that you have seen another kind of world. Remember that you can reach it wherever you choose to see.

Remember that it will be waiting and that it’s real, it’s possible – it’s YOURS.

– John Galt in “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand

It is real, it is possible, it is yours. This other kind of world. IT is your Atlantis, your Garden of Eden, your mind palace – shaped by and shaping your world view at the same time. It is a sanctuary of your moral code, a witness of what you hold dear, a blueprint of what your future holds.

It is what the world looks like if you were to establish every rule, uphold every principle, enjoy every encounter.

It is who you are, who you want to be, and who you want to be with.

What is a World View?

Dear reader, what is IT for you? What is the world view that propels you through moments of highs and lows?

But before we go there, you must be challenging me: “what does IT even mean, to have a world view?” (Or to put it more bluntly in the words of Rusty Guinn: “In the face of overwhelming complexity and the constant exogenous shock of human stupidity, what does it mean, then, to have a World View?”)

Having a World View means having a center – a core set of philosophies about how the world works, what is objectively true & false, and what actually matters.

More importantly, it means internalizing these philosophies so that they are second nature – and so that they become a natural lens through which we judge the world, and which we can describe succinctly to those who ask.

– Rusty Guinn, “A Man Must Have A Code

But of course!

We have all been there – we view the world through the lens of our moral code, and are let down at times by what we see, and its gap with what we expect.

Meanwhile, we have all been there – encountering a phrase, a scene, a tune, a dialogue, a person…something that reflects and completes us, something that makes us scream in ecstasy: “That is what I have been looking for!” And that alone is enough for us to keep believing in the Atlantis in our eyes.

This blissful feeling was beautifully described in the words of Dagny Taggart:

When she opened her eyes, she saw sunlight, green leaves and a man’s face. She thought: I know what this is. This was the world as she had expected to see it at sixteen – and now she had reached it – and it seemed so simple, so unastonishing, that the thing she felt was like a blessing pronounced upon the universe by means of three words: BUT OF COURSE.

…This was her world, she thought, this was the way men were meant to be and to face their existence – and all the rest of it, all the years of ugliness and struggle were only someone’s senseless joke.

– Description of Dagny Taggart in “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand

But of course IT is real – close your eyes and you will see it, search your mind and you will locate it.

But of course IT is waiting – a gift waiting for you to discover, to unwrap, to hold.

But of course IT is yours, yours fully and yours alone.

The Atlantis in your eyes.

You have seen the Atlantis they were seeking, it is here, it exists – but one must enter it naked and alone, with no rags from the falsehoods of centuries, with the purest clarity of mind – not an innocent heart, but that which is much rarer: an intransigent mind – as one’s only possession and key.

You will not enter it until you learn that you do not need to convince or to conquer the world. When you learn it, you will see that through all the years of your struggle, nothing had barred you from Atlantis and there were no chains to hold you, except the chains you were willing to wear.

– John Galt in “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand