Saturday, October 19, 2019

Why Evidence still doesn't Change your Mind

I've often stated that we don't engage in political discourse here on The Walkabout. But truth be said, unless we have successfully transitioned into sovereign individuals and managed to go seasteading in international waters, politics will continue to adversely affect our lives.

In Kenya, we voted for the current leadership in August 2017. The process itself took much longer, thanks to a repeat Presidential election on October 2017. You'd then assume that Kenyans would have made better choices after witnessing the institutionalized corruption, impunity in wastage of public resources, shameless embezzlement and wanton plunder from public coffers. The years between 2013 and 2017 should have served as a lesson that neccessitated changes but not much changed. Kenyans went again and voted for different monkeys from the same forest.

This failure to correctly judge situations, to repeat the same mistakes is often driven by a number of factors. Some of the causes have publicly been shared by scholars in the past, let's have a dig at some of the reasons we so hopelessly fail at making value decisions.

Odds and Value Estimation

As outlined on the Farnam Street blog, Dan Gilbert says that humans are works in progress who mistakenly think they're finished. In other words, we wrongly imagine the same person we are today is the same person we shall be till death.

In his 2005 TED Talk, Dan Gilbert explored why we make bad decisions.
For starters, the expected value of any action is a product of the odds that one will gain something from the act, and the gain in value i.e.

Expected Value = Odds of Gain x Value of Gain.

But it turns out that we usually attach value to things based on their past value, instead of the current value on the basis of context. In other words, based on what is possible.

It is quite an interesting and insightful talk, which ends with this thought-provoking statement:

We underestimate the odds of our future pains, and overestimate the value of our present pleasures.

Confirmation Bias

This refers to the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one's existing beliefs and theories.

Writing in The New Yorker, Elizabeth Colbert points to limitations of reason, with the desire to win arguments taking precedence over straight thinking.
It so happens that when we form impressions, they persist and stay with us.

But there's a reason why once we form beliefs and the evidence for such beliefs has been totally refuted, we don't make appropriate revisions in such beliefs.
One explanation of this, is how evolution has fashioned us into social beings who collaborate and live in groups.

Accordingly, it is all about cooperation. And as James Clear writes:
We don't always believe things because they are correct. Sometimes we belief things because they make us look good to the people we care about. 

This is why we continue to hold on to beliefs that are factually false, but socially accurate.

* * *

We have in the past talked about trying to wash our hands in dirty water, or just being blind with one's eyes wide open. Humans seem to be irresistibly lured by things that actually harm them, things that may seem good, but aren't beneficial. Toxic things.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

We Think too Much and Feel too Little

Late last night, I was burning the midnight oil (not working, but on a YouTube binge).  And it was all fun and games until I clicked on the this compilation video, from which we get this:

There isn't much to add to this video, really. It's from the 1940 film 'The Good Dictator' - an American political satire comedy-drama directed by Charlie Chaplin.
But several parts of this speech easily jump out at you, and make you reconsider.

We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.

Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness.

Soldiers! don’t give yourselves to brutes - men who despise you - enslave you - who regiment your lives - tell you what to do - what to think and what to feel! Who drill you - diet you - treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men

In the 17th Chapter of St Luke it is written: “the Kingdom of God is within man” - not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people have the power - the power to create machines. The power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.

Here is a transcript of the entire speech.

* * *

Many people have often wondered why humans are able to be wonderfully good and immensely evil in equal measure. Overthinking this complexity can make you get a rush of blood to the head.
But the funny thing about humans is that if properly motivated and guided, we can actually rise up and sing our own song. And that's all what matters about us.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Have you been Scared into Not Thinking for Yourself?

Riots in Greece | PHOTO: NY Post.

At some point the year before last, I was doing some reading on the late Stephen Hawking and this led me to his Reith lectures and Desert Island Discs on the BBC Radio 4 web site.
From then on, I was hooked on the Desert Islands discs. It's been fun and insightful listening to Steven Pinker, Bill Gates, Jimmy Wales, Daniel Kahneman, Richard Dawkins, Kim Catrall, Lily Allen and many others.
It is on Lily Allen's Desert Island Discs that our story begins...

Speaking with host Kirsty Young, Lily Allen talks about openness in her music by saying:
"I'm a bag of contradictions and a massive hypocrite."

It's all said on a very light note, but the statement carries much weight. It points to an honest truth, sans embellishments about ourselves, that few dare to admit. And speaking of the way we see our lives both now and in the future, this is how Daniel Kahneman puts it:

"We are better at finding mistakes in what other people do than in what we do... People see others much more clearly than they see themselves."

And he goes on to say this:

"Emotional happiness is how you feel about your life while you're living it. And life satisfaction is how you feel about your life when you're thinking about it."

In the modern world, how we see our lives has largely been affected by societal standards. Whereas we dwell more on attaining life satisfaction than happiness, it is interesting how we view the future.

Daniel Kahneman says that "when we think of the future, we tend to think of the future as an anticipated memory." In other words, we do many things in the hope of remembering them.
Kahneman advises that we should focus more on living, rather than on remembering.

This plays very well into how we also want to be seen in the eyes of those we encounter in our lives. We are so adept at making appearances and putting on a show of virtue that we fail to speak our minds lest we taint how others will think of us or remember us thereafter.

And this is something that Niccolo Machiavelli captured very well:

* * *

Last year, Erykah Badu spoke with David Marchese and the conversation was published on the Vulture web site.

At some point, Erykah laments that we are often held back from doing that which we desire because we are emotionally attached to how the group thinks. Whenever we want to live a certain way or do a certain thing, we do not because that hive mentality takes over.

This is the primary reason Twitter has become such a dangerous place to speak one's mind. Thee social network in inundated with people who seem ever ready and willing to express outrage, propagate a cancel culture and engage in mindless outrage porn.
People are so easily triggered and have easily allowed themselves to be turned into hypersensitive keyboard warriors who eagerly await hashtags where people are almost always condemned unheard.

Malcolm Gladwell has, both in the NewYorker and on the Revisionist History podcast made a dig at this inability to resist undue influence from our peers, as often happens in times of crisis such a demonstrations and riots.

We are more open to doing the popular thing, even if deep down we know that it isn't right or beneficial. And more importantly, there is a threshold that determines when an individual succumbs to external factors that affect his or her behavior.

* * *

"Utaambia watu nini?" seems to be the one reminder not to deviate from societal expectations, and this is something that few can resist. The overwhelming temptations is to be like Royals, or aspire to be like them by faking it till we make it.
And in any case, isn't it always time to pretend?

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

We are Bound to Others...

"If you think you know who you are, you've no idea."
- Sgt John Ryan, in 'Crash'

Every time I'm asked to name my top favorite movies, my listing invariably starts with the following:
  • Cloud Atlas.
  • Crash (2004 release).
What's common in these movies is that they seek to explore a better understanding of human behavior, particularly how we relate to each other in times of great anguish or crisis situations.

In addition, how we treat others if and when we are in a position of advantage compared to them.

* * *

The Butterfly Effect

In chaos theory, the butterfly effect explains how very little changes in initial conditions can create significantly different outcomes in complex systems. In other words, seemingly inconsequential things can result in vastly altered situations in places and times that may not be immediately easy to relate or connect.

"Our lives are not our own,
From womb to tomb, we are bound to others,
Past and present.
And by each crime and every kindness,
We birth our future."
- Somni 451, in Cloud Atlas.

There is another concept that hinges on social connections to show how we are largely connected to others. It is called the six degrees of separation.

Consider this recent happening in Kenya that was quite tragic:

6 days from today last year, a bus operated by Western Cross Express Company Ltd was involved in a road accident that resulted in 58 fatalities and shattered many lives thanks to serious injuries suffered by those who survived.

The bus, christened "Homeboyz" was being driven by one Lucas "Abdallah" Asang'asa, a 72 year old man.

From media reports and the investigations that followed, it emerged that various instances of negligence and blatant disregard of the law led to that horrific accident.

It is not possible to point out exactly what caused the accident itself, but a number of things such as having excess passengers, an elderly driver working many hours sans rest and driving long distances, vehicle defects, or a failure by traffic police on roadblocks to do a proper inspection of the bus and the passengers therein.
Apparently, the driver himself had also complained that the bus had faulty brakes.

Many factors, some seemingly harmless, all contributed to this terrible tragedy.

Granted, not all social connections are tragic. Here is an embarrassing, yet fun way to illustrate the same concept:

In essence, we have this nauseating habit of assuming that people we engage and interact with today will still be in the exact same situations in the future.
And all too often, we get to be reminded that these same people can be something very different the next time we meet then, sooner or later.

Meditations in an Emergency

My current writing project is anchored on this very premise - that we are connected to others and our thoughts, words and deeds always have an effect on others in addition to ourselves.

The Meditations in an Emergency book will tackle often-difficult-to-talk-about-subjects and hopefully elicit dialogue and action on those things that affect us, yet remain unattended.

* * *

I recently read a comment on this YouTube video, about humans having an amazing ability to underestimate non-immediate threats. We get very concerned and display shameless outrage porn at things that are both current and highly visible. Some even profit from rage. It happens to be quite easy to see and share loud and popular opinions on such things as fire on a mountain.
But you gotta wonder, do we ever have conversations with ourselves?


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