The Unanticipated Consequences of Unfettered Emotions

“Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel.” ― Jean Racine

The chart in the previous post showed a general trend toward very negative emotions and behaviors among those having Closed Comfort Bubbles and Control issues.  It is troubling when you see it in the chart, but apparently it doesn’t seem to affect us when we see it in real life.

Starting small and perhaps simple, let’s take some current situations and see if they show a general pattern that involves our Comfort Bubbles, Emotions and resulting Behaviors and tosses them in with earlier ideas of Missing Information and Gap Theory (acting emotionally on Incomplete Information and therefore too quickly).  I think the apparent general pattern will quickly become clear:

Conspiracy Theories

    • I choose (i.e., exercise my free will) to believe (i.e., trust in the validity and “truth” of my considered opinion and position) by faith (i.e., that the limited “facts,” observations and information I have are more than sufficient and need not be tested nor added to) that the Earth is flat. I can “prove” this by holding up a ruler at arms length and see that the surface of a pond is flat.  This is my position and Comfort Bubble.  I am so affirmed in this belief that I reject all “information” from outside this bubble in order to build up a defense against any and all ideas contrary to my position and prevent any further incursions.  And I will shout it out on my Twitter feed and Facebook page.
    • I choose to believe by faith that the US did not put a man on the moon. I can “prove” this by the anomalies in the apparent images transmitted “back to Earth from the moon’s lunar surface.” This is my position and Comfort Bubble.  I am so affirmed in this belief that I reject all “information” from outside this bubble in order to build up a defense against any and all ideas contrary to my position and prevent any further incursions.  And I will continue to shout it out on my Twitter feed and Facebook page.

Innocuous enough, perhaps, but not really convincing. After all, these Comfort Bubbles are rather harmless.  But how about this one,

  • We choose to believe by faith that vaccines are not safe. We can “prove” this by reading the anti-vaccine postings on Facebook.  This is our anti-vaccine position and Comfort Stronghold.  We are so affirmed in this belief that we reject all “information” from outside it.  We will build up a defense against any and all ideas contrary to our position and prevent any further incursions.  We are angry and will take action (Congressional Hearing Disrupted; Morals and Measles).

A bit more disconcerting, and, unfortunately, with many lives being impacted. Let’s cast a broader net,

Life in These United States, now

“Anger is an acid that does more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.” – Mark Twain

Apt when he spoke it, but unfortunately, not so apt now.

    • I choose to believe by faith that immigrants are invading the United States. I can “prove” this by looking at all the immigrants in my community. This is my position and Comfort Stronghold.  I am convinced and so affirmed in this belief that I reject all “information” from outside it.  I will build up a defense against any and all ideas contrary to my position and prevent any further incursions.  “I am angry” and will take action (“I’m the shooter”, the El Paso shootings).
    • I choose to believe by faith that my Human Resources Department has discriminated against me. I can “prove” this by seeing that they did not act on my issue.  This is my position and Comfort Stronghold.  I am convinced and so affirmed in this belief that I reject all “information” from outside it.  I will build up a defense against any and all ideas contrary to my position and prevent any further incursions.  I am angry and will take action (Disgruntled Cook, but with a mass shooting prevented).
    • We choose to believe by faith that capitalism and politics are not working. We can “prove” this by seeing that the income gap between the average worker and the rich elite is increasing and that Washington does not work*.  This is our position and Comfort Stronghold.  We are convinced and so affirmed in this belief that we reject all “information” from outside it.  We will build up a defense against any and all ideas contrary to our position and prevent any further incursions.  We are angry and will take action (Why Socialism Is Back).
      (*”Washington does not work,” pathetically, currently even extends to their NFL team, here.)
    • We choose to believe by faith that conservatives (or liberals, or Democrats, or Republicans) are responsible for screwing up this country. We can “prove” this by simply reading the media reports about how they have failed to act on solving the problems we see in this country. This is our position and Comfort Stronghold.  We are convinced and so affirmed in this belief that we reject all “information” from outside it.  We will build up our Stronghold defense against them and any and all ideas contrary to our position and prevent any further incursions.  We will take action to further prevent their ruining of this country (How Everything Became the Culture War; Why the Left Is Consumed With Hate).
    • We choose to believe by faith that members with other viewpoints are responsible for screwing up our political party. We can “prove” this by simply watching how they have blocked our proposals and therefore failed to act on addressing this country’s problems.  This is our position and Comfort Stronghold.  We are convinced and so affirmed in this belief that we reject all “information” from outside it.  We will build up our defense against them and any and all ideas contrary to our position and prevent any further incursions.  Not only that but we will take action to further prevent their ruining of this party (The Five Wings Of The Republican Party; The Six Wings Of The Democratic Party).

I am reasonably certain this could go on for both sides (the Either/Or people) of current and past domestic issues (racism, sexism, police, union actions, education, Medicare-for-All, etc.) as well as global situations (climate change, the global economy, Hong Kong, Brexit, the Middle East, etc.) to say nothing about historical differences.  It’s part and parcel of a “feeler’s” tragic rapid automatic appraisal of events.  But to thinkers it is not funny.

The greater issue is, if (IF?) some of us (who think about these situations after our own rapid automatic appraisals) can see the negative results of the mixing of all of these emotional and behavioral aspects of our humanity, what are we going to do about it?

One answer might be: hope that someone else (Washington, London, Brussels, the tooth fairy) solves the issue.  This is the Fix The Blame attitude, demonstrated fairly clearly in the situations above.  If you think that, please go back and reread this blog, starting at the beginning, here.

The alternative is the Fix The Problem approach, to recognize and take up our own personal responsibility, that “thing” that precedes but is permanently attached to freedom, and step out of our own Comfort Bubbles (or Strongholds).  To help with this, here are some helpful questions,

What’s in your Comfort Stronghold?

Who else is in there with you?

Who’s really in charge of building and maintaining your Comfort Stronghold?  You?

Or someone else?

All of these thoughts, and possible revelations, about emotions and behavior make me think it is about time to look a bit deeper into the problems of our political environment and education and test them there.  Next posts.

Posted in 00: Bubbles, 06: Incomplete Information, 13: Values & Self, 14: Behavior, Gap Theory, Lessons from History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Affliction of Emotions

We have no problem in recognizing, or staking claim to the fact that we are highly evolved thinking beings (our conscious cognitive state) who also possess a strong free will (our conscious volitional state), both of which take significant time to develop.  What we severely underestimate and often fail to recognize, to our detriment, is the strength and influence of our innate emotions (our affective state of consciousness), which is there from birth.

Given that we are social beings and that our emotions are both innate and the primary motivators of our lives, the question arises, “How do we, our emotions, a situation, and other people merge together in one instant of time to result in a particular emotional episode?”

Part of the answer, I think, lies in a more fundamental question, “How do our innate emotions get carried along during our development into thinking, free-willed individuals, and then get expressed when we later behave in “particular” ways in various circumstances?”

Working with an earlier concept that describes the main factors in the progress of our development,

An inherited Genotype (Nature) + Environment + Triggers (Nurture, Events) + Chance + Choices (free will) determine our expressed Phenotype (who we are),

I propose combining the primary universal emotionsidentified by Edman in Emotions Revealed, into a hypothetical answer to the question.  Before getting to the result, some simple explanations might be useful:

Nature– refers to the biological/genetic “predispositions” we are born with and their impact on our human traits.  This is where we begin: our DNA, genes, genotype, and what is genetically endowed to us.  Among other things, it defines a temperament, including some level of each of the 14 primary emotions.

Nurture– describes the impact of learning and other influences from one’s Environment. These are the external factors that influence who we develop into through some of the actors below.  Nurture acts on Nature’s temperament to develop personality through both positive and negative events and environments.  It also generates conditions where we would share/experience emotions with or against others.  The actors are,

  • Family, which strongly influences personality more or less by imposition (Regression to the Cultural Mean)
  • Friends, Others, and Events. Their influence is primarily acquired but could be imposed
  • Opponents, who would have a negative emotional influence

The net effect of Nature and Nurture is the creation, development and maintenance of our Comfort Bubble – our preferred circumstances, situation, and/or Cultural Environment that provide safety and positive emotional situations and/or a defense against negative emotional situations.

A Person– You and me, as individuals who experience our temperament, personality, and values developing by broad and varied influences from both Nature and Nurture.  Our emotional activity, these fast automatic and potentially cascading appraisals, are run by a subconscious Affect Program that can be either,

  • Open – learning, engaging, or
  • Closed – which can then be either
    • Isolating (a Flight reaction), or
    • Confronting (a Fight reaction)

Affirmation– this, honestly, is the basic human need for received emotional support or encouragement that results in a positive emotional feeling about ourselves.  (“Affirmation” here is a family of related desires of varying strength, including esteem, respect, recognition, etc., usually received from external sources (received external validation), while self-respect and self-esteem are learned and felt directly (self-validation).)  Affirmation can also come indirectly through Altruism where one serves others or has a giving nature, or through ControlControl appears to be expressed in two ways: the first is neutral or potentially negative in its influence on others, and the other as purely negative.  In the negative mode it appears we are primarily observing the taking of external validation behaviors,

  • Power Over others, or
  • Denigrating others

In seeking to find an answer to the earlier more fundamental question, combining the universal emotions with a description of our development into thinking, free-willed individuals seems appropriate.  Simplifying our development statement as follows,

Nature plus Nurture form a Person who chooses to seek Affirmation through Behavior,

and then asking how the 14 emotions might be expressed or developed in various scenarios, results in a 2 dimensional chart.  It looks like this (click here to open a new tab, then click on the chart to enlarge, click again to be able to scroll),

I decided that positive emotions towards the top should be green and negative ones, going down the bottom, red.  These “assessments” are based on both Ekman and personal experiences.  (You can also think of green for constructive growth upward, and red for blood spilled from destructive behaviors.  Just a thought…)

I made some assumptions, and am still processing how valid these may be:

Nature, through our genes, is assumed to endow all the emotions with equal probability (the left column in the chart).  Once temperament begins to be expressed, differing emotional profiles can then be seen.

Environments are more complex and have multiple components,

Family is assumed to influence the development of positive emotions more often (or at least it should), although there is ample evidence that negative emotions and events are also experienced.  After all, none of us is perfect.

Friends are assumed primarily to influence positive emotions, i.e., that’s what friends are for.

Others and Events are more or less neutral and could influence both positive and negative emotions depending upon the circumstances.

Opponents, by definition, influence negative emotions not positive ones (except perhaps when you defeat one).

A person will develop, experience, and respond to situations from their Comfort Bubble (see above).  Emotional triggers arise from both within and without our Bubbles, and the type of Affect program that helped to define our Comfort Bubble will influence these responses,

An Open Affect Program, with which we will gravitate toward positive emotional experiences (and learn to avoid negative ones), or

A Closed Affect Program.  We could choose to be Isolating (Flight response: avoiding either extremes), or be Confronting or Destructive (Fight response). This latter response seems to be more adept at creating or experiencing negative emotions (until the person wins).

Ways that Affirmation can be received include,

Altruism, referring to those apparent “selfless” acts that to an extent benefit ourselves not materially but by providing positive emotional experiences indirectly through serving others (received external validation).  Recall that there’s always a bit of “Self” in everything we do (here).

Since the so-called negative emotions are not always experienced as unpleasant (here), it is not surprising that Controlling personalities, at least by broad experience, appear to experience some measure of internal positive emotions by exercising/expressing outward control over others, or in a more extreme case, denigrating others (taken external validation).  Overall, this is surely a Negative Sum behavior.

Some Generalities

Looking at “general” trends on the chart (granting that it is my hypothetical creation but based on other’s research and years of personal experience), the following seem to be a pattern:

  • Positive emotions and experiences (ecstasy, joy, happiness, wonder, contentment) tend to be developed or significantly reinforced in environments with family, friends, and positive events (towards the upper left of the chart in various sections). This is not to say that family environments are all and always positive (realistically, how many family members are integral members of your own Comfort Bubble?).
  • The negative emotions and experiences (agony, fear, contempt, anger, and disgust) tend to be developed or be significantly reinforced in environments with opponents (actors) or negative events (circumstances) (towards the lower right of the chart in various sections). Here again it is unfortunate to remark that sometimes family situations fall into one or both of these two categories.
  • A person with an Open Affect Program (more able to control their emotions) seems generally to experience positive emotions and experiences more often. (And yes, we experience the immediate negative experience of failure, but generally extract the long-term positive experience of something learned.  But it takes work.)
  • A person with a Closed Affect Program can either be Isolating and have a Flight response, in which case they probably would consider the relief of escape to be very positive… or Confronting and/or Destructive (the Fight response). In the latter case it appears that while negative emotions prevail in their expression, the unexpected revelation that experiencing these may actually be positive if not unpleasant must also be considered.
  • And that brings us to received Affirmation. With some thought I think it can be agreed that people who are in some way giving, who can at times practice an Altruistic attitude, can indeed benefit with positive emotional experiences indifferent to any material benefit (received external validation).  The oddity in the pattern is that Affirmation for controlling people appears to come through their power over others, or even worse, through their denigration of others (taken external validation).  In the latter case the negative emotions of contempt, anger, and disgust stand out.

It has been said that just before we die, as our physical abilities and consciousness fade, the emotions still remain.  They are there at the beginning, and they are the last to pass.

In between, we have a choice.  Either we succumb to this ever-present “affliction” and let our emotions control our lives, or we can minimize the “affliction” by learning to recognize and manage them and turn them into a strength.  Some “learnable” patterns and lessons emerge from the chart above.  The next question is, “Can, or will we choose to learn the lessons and apply them?”

We’ll look at some current observable consequences of both choices in the next post.

Posted in 00: Bubbles, 04: Games People Play, 05: People, 08: Observing, Listening, Learning, 11: Growth, 12: Character, 13: Values & Self, 14: Behavior, 16: Culture, 17: Choice, Gap Theory | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Root of Our Emotions

Last time I posted (here) it was about the progression from benign conspiracy theories to fake news to hate vitriol.  As much of an unfortunate start that benign conspiracy theories are, an even worse ending is when they morph into hate vitriol.

How does that happen?  And why?  And more importantly, is this relevant to the partisanship and polarizations we are experiencing in the country and world today?

A very important book, Emotions Revealed by Paul Ekman, which deals with universally experienced emotions (valid cross-culturally), was mentioned in the last post.  I realized that it has such great importance that it was worth the time to look at some major takeaways.  These will, I hope, help us not only to understand and manage our own emotions, but also be able to recognize the effects of emotions in others’ behaviors, whether as individuals, groups, or nations.  That, I trust, will help shed a brighter light on current events.

The Takeaways

First the primary takeaways (basic things we should know about our emotional selves), and then in a following post we’ll look at some of the various cascade effects and consequences of “emotions unchained” [emphasis mine]:

  • The universal emotions we experience are (in family groups of related emotions; less positive/more negative going down the list)
    • Positive (signaled more by voice than face)
      • Ecstasy
      • Joy (unconditional)
      • Happiness (conditional)
      • Wonder
      • Contentment
    • “Neutral”
      • Excitement (alone, or merged with one or more positive emotions)
      • Relief (always preceded by some other emotion, positive or negative)
    • Negative (signaled primarily by facial expressions)
      • Sadness (passive; resignation and hopelessness)
      • Surprise
      • Agony (protest; attempts to deal actively with source of loss)
      • Fear
      • Contempt
      • Anger
      • Disgust
    • Emotions are what motivate our lives. We organize our lives (and behave) to maximize the experience of positive emotions and minimize the experience of negative emotions (page: xxi)
    • Very importantly, the so-called negative emotions are not always experienced as unpleasant (58). (This is not necessarily obvious and is an unexpected but pertinent revelation)
    • Emotions are so powerful that they triumph over hunger, sex, and the will to survive (xxi)
    • Up until 1969 most psychologists accepted the theory that human behavior is all nurture and no nature, that everything in human behavior was instilled by parenting, family, clan, and environment (“It Takes A Village”). Little credence was given to inherited factors, the genetics that lead to a person’s temperament (12).  (Some anthropologists still remain unconvinced, even today)
    • More recent research has demonstrated that our emotions are a “process,” a particular kind of rapid automatic appraisal occurring before we think about a situation that is heavily influenced by both our evolutionary (inherited) history as well as our personal (experiential) past. It’s a combination of both nurture and nature (13).
    • Since we are primarily social beings (it’s tough to exist alone in a relational vacuum), emotions are primarily about how we deal with other people, and how we build and react to the relationships in our lives (24).
    • Separate from emotions themselves, the events that trigger emotional reactions are influenced not just by our individual experience (nurture) but also by our common ancestral past (nature) (29).
    • There are nine paths that personal triggers can use to turn on our emotions (37):
      • Operation of the automatic-appraisal mechanism
      • Reflective appraisal (reflecting on an event)
      • Recollection of a past emotional experience
      • Imagination
      • Talking about a past emotional event
      • Empathy
      • Others instructing us (Regression to the Cultural Mean)
      • Violation of social norms (Violation of the Cultural Mean)
      • Voluntarily assuming the appearance of emotion
    • When gripped by an inappropriate emotion, we interpret what is happening in a way that fits with how we are immediately feeling and ignore knowledge that does not fit (self-defense in our Comfort Stronghold; avoidance of the Repugnant Question) (39).
      • Emotions change how we see the world and how we interpret the actions of others. We do not seek to challenge why we are feeling a particular emotion; instead, we seek to confirm it (39).  (We separate others into “Them” or “Us”)
      • During an emotional event, we are unable to incorporate information that does not fit, maintain, or justify the emotion we are feeling (Gap Theory) (39).
    • Our temperament is a genetically (nature) based emotional disposition (64).
    • The inherited central mechanism that directs our emotional behavior is known as an affect program; we have either (65-66):
      • A Closed program, in which nothing can be inserted by experience; or
      • An Open program, which allows for additional input/growth during one’s life span.
    • Cultural traditions and upbringing within a culture, along with temperament, play a role in shaping one’s attitude about feeling or displaying sadness and agony (and other emotions; Regression to the Cultural Mean) (91).
    • Most of us presume that everyone else feels an emotion the way we do, or that our way is the only correct way (97). (This is Solipsism: “If I don’t know it, it doesn’t matter because it doesn’t exist; if I don’t understand it, it’s wrong”)
    • Anger controls; anger punishes; anger retaliates; and anger calls forth anger (111).
      • The personality trait that plays a central role in anger is hostility (125).
    • Contempt is related to but different from disgust (180-1):
      • Contempt is only experienced about people or the actions of people;
      • There is an element of condescension toward the object of contempt (a feeling of moral superiority);
      • The offense is degrading, but one need not necessarily get away from it, as one would in disgust.
    • Disgust (removing us from what is revolting) is triggered by four primary culturally learned interpersonal triggers (175):
      • The strange;
      • The diseased;
      • The misfortunate; and
      • The morally tainted (as culturally defined, outside the Comfort Bubble or Stronghold)
    • Emotional episodes can differ (232):
      • In the speed of emotional onset;
      • In the strength of the emotional response;
      • In the duration of the emotional response; and
      • In how long it takes to recover and return to a baseline state.
    • The frequency of emotional episodes is a crucial feature in understanding an individual’s emotional profile (233).

While all these takeaways may seem like a lot, just remember that we are very complicated beings.  And also very stubborn.  Ponder them awhile.

Next post we will look at how emotions cascade through our lives and some of the resulting consequences of behavior.

(Check out the book.  It is enlightening).

Posted in 00: Bubbles, 05: People, 06: Incomplete Information, 14: Behavior, 16: Culture, Gap Theory | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Jump From Benign Conspiracy Theories to Fake News to Hate Vitriol

On most occasions we would find something minorly amusing when the media presents us with a wacky conspiracy theory.  The Earth Is Flat comes to mind, as possibly does The Moon Landing Was Faked.2  However, some conspiracy theories loom much larger and encroach, sometimes dangerously, on our daily lives:  Vaccines Cause Autism 3, for instance. Our default reaction is typically that these are cultural outliers that have somehow survived, at least until the Internet, after which they just seem to persist.

Unfortunately, it turns out this is wishful thinking as the recent excellent article by Maggie Koerth-Baker on FiveThirtyEight (Conspiracy Theories Can’t Be Stopped) reveals. There’s more to conspiracy theories than we thought, and so, after highlighting some points in this article, we will dig a bit deeper and see that there is apparent method, a pattern, in the madness.

“Conspiracy theories now appear to have become a major part of how we, as a society, process the news.  It might be harder to think of an emotionally tinged event that didn’t (emphasis mine) provoke a conspiracy theory than it is to rattle off a list of the ones that did.”

In case you glossed over it, the almost casual phrase “emotionally tinged” carries significantly more impact, as we will see below.  Continuing,

“For years, the potentially dangerous consequences of conspiracy led many researchers to approach belief in conspiracies as a pathology (disease or injury) in need of a cure.  But that train of thought tended to awkwardly clash with some of the facts.  The more we learn about conspiracy beliefs, the more normal they look …

The experts I spoke with all said that the Internet has changed the way conspiracies spread, but conspiracies, both dangerous and petty, have always been with us.”

That conclusion follows after research showed that published letters in newspapers alleging and discussing conspiracy theories had been pretty constant over the last 120 years, and that it was reasonable to assume that these reflect what interests readers more than what interests editors.  The research is significant in coming to realize and understand conspiracy belief as a societal (cultural) norm.

“As it turns out, most of us believe in some strange goings-on behind the curtains. More than half of Americans think there was more than one person involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, for example.  A 2014 study found that more than half of Americans believe in at least one medical conspiracy – a list that includes things like giving children vaccines they know to be dangerous or the idea that the Food and Drug Administration intentionally suppresses natural cancer cures because of pressure from the pharmaceutical industry.  The more specific conspiracies you ask about in polls, the higher the percentage of Americans that believe in at least one. … it’s likely everyone has a pet conspiracy to call their own.”

There are also “broader categories of what are known as ‘erroneous beliefs’ ” – things such as paranormal experiences, gambling fallacies, etc.  The research shows that as we learn more about conspiracy beliefs, the more they have in common with these other kinds of wrong ideas.

“Feeling a lack of control over various aspects of life, a tendency toward paranoid thinking, failure to understand and use statistics and probabilistic reasoning – all those things correlate with belief in ghosts and slot-machine prowess as much as with belief in the Illuminati.  … If you believe in the paranormal, you’re more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, and vice versa.

At the same time, conspiracy theories have a sociopolitical aspect that makes them stand out.  Researchers think of belief in conspiracy as an interaction between individual tendencies and social circumstances (emphasis mine).  So, for instance, if you’re part of a group that is marginalized or lacks power in important ways you’re more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.  That means being a member of a racial minority is a predictor of conspiracy belief – and so is unemployment, low economic status, or even just being a member of a cultural group that’s looked down upon by people in positions of power.”

To be thorough, however, one must also consider who is accusing whom of engaging in conspiracy,

“… (the) study of newspaper letters to the editor tracked the social status of the letter writers.  Consistently it was found that conspiracies were “punching up.”  Not only did average people write more than 70 percent of the conspiracy letters – as opposed to elite members of society – the conspiracies alleged were usually aimed at people in positions of power.  There’s also no evidence that conspiracy belief is a phenomenon of the far right or the far left. Americans broadly believe in a “them” pulling the strings and manipulating the country.

To be sure and also to complicate individual thinking, there is evidence from history,

“… this is where conspiracy beliefs start to get tangled up with truth, because history does contain real examples of conspiracy.  Pizzagate was a dangerous lie, but that incident also exists in the same universe as the Tuskegee experiments, redliningand the Iran-Contra Affair.”

The belief in conspiracies can also have political consequences,

“ ‘During the Bush Administration, the left was going f-ing bonkers … about 9/11 and Halliburton and Cheney and Blackwater and all this stuff.  As soon as Obama won they didn’t give a sh*t about any of that stuff anymore.  They did not care.  It was politically and socially inert.’  In turn, conspiracy theories about Obama flourished on the right.  Uscinski (the researcher quoted above) said he is frustrated by this tendency for partisans to build up massive conspiracy infrastructures when they are out of power, only to develop a sudden amnesia followed by deep concern about the conspiracy mongering behavior of the other side once power is restored.” (I think I really like Uscinski.)

Can conspiracy beliefs potentially offer benefits, such as,

“ ’… tools for dissent used by the weak to balance against power?’  Some scientists do disagree.”

Although the world is complex (understatement), conspiracy theories are

“… viewed as largely negative – erroneous beliefs like gambling fallacies, but with the power to disrupt whole societies rather than just one person’s bank account.”

Another researcher, following a thought to eliminate conspiracy theories, is

“… working on a line of research to see whether a false conspiracy belief can be corrected by giving the people who believe in it something that they’ve lacked – power and control over their lives. …”

That is, empowering people by giving them a sense of control, operating with transparency.  Indications are that conspiracy theories seem to become less appealing.

“Trouble is, in the real world, who has the ability to offer that kind of empowerment?

That’s right, THEM!

If a group of people strongly distrusts a government or group of leaders, anything they do will raise suspicion.  Whether they want to get rid of conspiracies or not, scientists (and global leaders) are kind of stuck.  Conspiracy beliefs are the norm, and difficult to shake because the people with the most interest in shaking them are, usually, the very people conspiracy is meant to fight.  It’s not an easy task.”

Although the article presents the broader scope of conspiracy theories to a wider audience, there appear to be two remaining questions: What drives the need for conspiracy beliefs on an individual scale, and What motivates their propagation? Now we can dig a bit deeper.

First, on an individual scale, we all should but typically do not realize or accept that in any given situation there is always Missing Information (Fundamental Principle 6).  In other words,

We don’t know that we don’t know what we don’t know.

When we are confronted with this in a situation, we are also confronted with a lack of control over some aspect of our life. Our normal Bubble, our Comfort Zone is disrupted.

Second, we all should recognize that we are uniquely emotional beings who are built for social interaction.  A marvelous and important book on our emotions (and how to recognize them in ourselves and read them in other people) is Emotions Revealed by Paul Ekman.  A necessary fundamental understanding of ourselves is,

Emotions are what motivate our lives.  We organize our lives to maximize the experience of positive emotions and minimize the experience of negative emotions.4

This helps explain why the article remarks that it is hard to think of an “emotionally tinged” event that didn’t provoke a conspiracy theory – because we are all emotionally involved with our surroundings and circumstances.  The positive emotions we seek are typically joy, happiness, wonder and contentment.  The negative ones we seek to avoid are include sadness, agony, fear, contempt, anger, and disgust.  Our responses can be quite visceral and begin before we can cognitively process what is happening.

Third, triggered by our emotional reaction to an event or circumstances, we are confronted with this Gap in information. Gap Theory recognizes that since we do not have the patience or possibly the skills and resources to readily identify and find the pertinent missing information, we try and quickly close the “gap” between our partial knowledge of what we saw or heard and create a “reality” or “truth” in order to accomplish the following,

    • Attempt to Identify “the Truth” – fill the “gap” with any believable information that “explains,” usually resulting in overemphasis on “knowledge” be it real or improvised (the “conspiracy”) in order to bring calm back into our Comfort Zone;
    • Attempt to Fix the Blame – looking to identify a cause or source, especially if the issue is outside of our control and is perceived as a threat to our Comfort Bubble (stronger than a ‘zone’ and now built to resist or keep out undesirable stuff) and resides with those who have perceived “Power” (spread the “conspiracy”). After all, it can’t be anything we did or didn’t do that contributed to the situation (avoiding The Repugnant Question);
    • Continue to pursue the above, moving away from the personally experienced negative emotions (fear, lack of control, anger at an outcome, contempt and/or disgust at those we blame) and intentionally moving to experience positive emotions (happiness and/or joy through regaining control, even when this is accomplished by directing anger, contempt, and disgust at others) (use the “conspiracy” as leverage to regain some control and feel more positive);
    • Do this as quickly as possible – one doesn’t have the time to Filter, Organize, Process to Understand and then Apply the hard-to-find Missing Information, especially if this involves accepting contrary facts and/or dealing with statistics and probabilistic reasoning (avoid disrespecting or challenging the “knowledge” establishing the “conspiracy”);
    • Use the Internet to quickly find confirming real or improvised “knowledge,” build upon it by adding one’s own “knowledge,” and then repeat it online (propagate the “conspiracy”).

The benefits of these actions not only include reestablishing control over and experiencing positive emotions in one’s Comfort Bubble, but also bestowing perceived self-esteem by setting oneself apart from the ignorant masses who are outside of our Comfort Bubble (and, we think, pretty much belong there).

These pretty much describe all of us at more than one time or another, and since we each are guilty of our own privately held conspiracy belief(s), it pretty much describes how we got there.

The interesting next step, not the individual “creation” of the conspiracy belief itself, is the process by which the propagation becomes possible, i.e., how do conspiracists congregate/flock together and share and spread?

First, since we are socially relational beings, we need to recognize how socially (culturally) acceptable beliefs propagate, building upon our “Nature.”  Our primary unchosen (birth) social group is among family, clan, or tribe.  Within these groups of varying size, common beliefs are acquired by “Nurture,” which can either be via a happy nurturing and teaching environment, Regression to the Cultural Mean, or result from an imposed Coercion to the Cultural Mean.  The Culture or sub-culture that is developed is designed to help members understand who “is one of us” and, by inference, who is “not one of us.”  We are always connected with this culture, even if we have been excluded (Exclusion from the Cultural Mean).

Second, we need to understand what sociologists recently recognized and which has roots going back to pre-Roman times.  We tend to choose to encircle ourselves within a small group of “close connections,” close because of common roots, common responsibilities, and/or common beliefs. The number is almost always no larger than 150, and is recognized as the Dunbar Number or Group.  It’s whom we are most comfortable with, within certain constraints depending upon the commonality.  This group probably comprises or contains our Comfort Bubble.  It’s rarely family.  Remember,

You can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family.

Both of these are strongly supported by the observation in the article that belief in conspiracy is an interaction between individual tendencies (emotions, information, and regaining individual control, above) and social circumstances (birth and/or Dunbar Groups, the environments for reinforcing social relationships, above).  The interaction is stronger in groups that are marginalized by society or lack (or feel they lack) power.  As a consequence, the research strongly suggests that conspirators are punching up, that is, fixing the blame for their circumstances on those above them in social control and power.

This punching up is just one aspect of conspiracy belief and theories.  It appears, generally from the newspaper letters, that adherents to the belief are targeting their anger and blame on those above them who have done something directly to the group of adherents.  One can look at this behavior as the victims (adherents) perceiving themselves in a Zero–Sum environment (only so much to go around) and are punching up at those who are perceived to have intentionally taken something that the adherents had a right to but were denied access.  In other words, they are perceived as Takers outside the adherent’s Comfort Bubble or world.

Adherents at this point can feel that they are helpless victims and justify complaining by engaging in reiterating gossip or certain forms of “fake news” both verbally and online.  The Florida Man memes come to mind.

But a second and more negative consequence of conspiracy belief and theories arises when adherents make the jump to feeling they must not only blame the perceived beneficiaries of the conspiracy, but also confront or attack them.  Here the adherents can be pictured as not in a Comfort Bubble but in a Comfort Stronghold that they not only have constructed for defense, but a place from which to take the fight to “them.”

Instead of just repeating or lobbing the “fake news” they come across, they engage in creating “fake news” with an intent to negatively influence others and events.

This can also escalate to the realm of hate crimes, racial intolerance, and a host of other issues.  There is no argument that strong emotions play a role here.  This arena is addressed by another fascinating scientific article (in Nature) specifically about the propagation of hate online.  An interview with the lead author, N. F. Johnson, appears in The Guardian and discusses research results that indicate that online hate does not spread from individuals, but from the “aggregation of individuals into communities” (think Dunbar Groups).  The communities actually help constrain behaviors by collective reinforcement (think Coercion to the Cultural Mean), so that they tend to do them again and again.  From the interview,

“People say [online hate] is like cancer, it’s like a virus, it’s like this, it’s like that – no.  It’s exactly like gelation, which is another way of saying the formation of bubbles” (ah ha! Think Comfort Strongholds.  A good example is How a conspiracy video on YouTube went viral on its own).

The math that models the spread of hate online is virtually the same as the math that describes the formation of bubbles in boiling water.  If you want to stop water from boiling, you don’t stop the individual molecules; you stop the bubbles from forming.  So, among the very interesting policy proposals based upon the conclusions from the research are,

    • To stop hate spreading online, go after the smaller (Comfort) bubbles (they are not yet as close-knit and haven’t yet developed bonds to discuss how they got banned and how to avoid it and get back online (i.e., haven’t yet formed into a Comfort Stronghold));
    • Instead of banning individuals (the current approach), because of the “interconnectedness of the whole system (groups on the Internet), the math shows you only have to remove about 10% of the accounts to make a huge difference in terms of the cohesiveness of the network. If you remove randomly 10% of the (Comfort Stronghold) members globally, this thing will begin to fall apart.”

Cutting lines of communication can also disrupt the cohesiveness.  Pinterest’s approach has apparently been successful in blocking the spread of anti-vax conspiracy activity (here), whereas policymakers’ approaches have not yet recognized the root driving force behind this particular conspiracy theory (Morals and Measles).

Bottom line, we are all emotional beings, invariably seeking to maximize the experience of positive emotions (either directly, or indirectly by expressing negative ones on others).  We also suffer from not knowing that we don’t know what we don’t know.  As a consequence we create Comfort Zones and Comfort Bubbles, very often choosing to ignore information outside of them.  And if these don’t provide sufficient positive experiences and if the influx of missing information becomes too threatening, we create Comfort Strongholds, acting defensively and impulsively, to the detriment to others.

While the math indicates we can currently begin to control conspiracy theories online, at least the more virulent and dangerous hate ones, by focusing on a limited number of propagating communities or Bubbles, the greater issue is how do we close the Attitude Gap that sends our individual behavior into the realm of generating and acting on conspiracy theories and hate. We have to be honest with ourselves in identifying how our birth and/or Dunbar Groups nurture our Comfort Bubbles and Strongholds and develop the Attitude Gap in the first place.

Some practical ideas start with:

    • Explicitly teach that the world is not Zero Sum;
    • A Comfort Zone is nice and relaxing, but a Comfort Bubble precludes learning and growing and actually exercising control; and
    • Teach Moral Foundations Theory so that an individual begins to understand what their concept of “control” is foundationally based upon.


1 There Is No Gravity.  Things Fall
  Looking for Life on a Flat Earth
  Are Flat-Earthers Being Serious?
  What it’s like to attend a flat-earth convention?
  How the Internet Made Us Believe in a Flat Earth

2 Moon-Landing Hoax Still Lives On, 50 Years After Apollo 11
  Conspiracy theorist punched by Buzz Aldrin still insists moon landing was fake
  Fox’s 2001 Special – Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?

3 It’s old news that vaccines don’t cause autism. But a major new study aims to refute skeptics again
Morals and Measles
The Real Horror of the Anti-Vaxxers
‘It will take off like a wildfire’

4 Emotions Revealed, p. xxi


Posted in 00: Bubbles, 04: Games People Play, 06: Incomplete Information, 11: Growth, 12: Character, 13: Values & Self, 14: Behavior, 16: Culture, Gap Theory | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

On Freedom and Responsibility, via a Parable

I settled on this topic in March, but did not begin it until May, and it is now August.  Life intervened.  This time in the form of extended travel – first to Eastern Europe on a fact-finding mission, then to the west coast for a memorial service and time with dispersed family and friends.  These, however, were quickly followed by the throes of organizing and planning the flow of content for a business conference in Eastern Europe to be held in September – thus the urgency and re-focus (“Squirrel!”) – which just a couple of weeks ago, not unanticipated, was postponed until next year.  At least much good preparation was accomplished, with a possible broader impact. Only now are calendar and mind free enough to go back, reread the blog draft and try and remember where I was and where I was going with this.  In the meantime, also not unexpectedly, interesting and pertinent news events continue to surface.

Now, back to the post.  Sometimes complex concepts are best demonstrated simply and in the form of a parable.  (Note: or ‘parabolically’ as I almost wrote, before accepting that, while correct, the word is still rather obscure…)  The parable (which you can read on multiple levels, but try and keep it simple):

“Call the Master of the Mint!” cried the Emperor.  “I want new coinage!”

The Master of the Mint was hastily summoned and meekly presented himself before the throne, “Yes, Your Highness.  How may I serve you?”

“These old coins are too big and cumbersome.  They need to be lighter, but not smaller.  And I want my image to be the only image visible!  The solution I have thought of is very simple – make me coins that are only one-sided!  Then only my image will be visible and the coins will be less cumbersome!”

“But, your Highness…!” whimpered the Master of the Mint.  “Enough!” retorted the Emperor.  “Have some new coins to me by tomorrow.”

The Master returned to the Mint and pondered his assignment.  Then he had a sudden insight, “I’ll simply cut off the back side of a coin!”  His apprentice cocked his head in disbelief, but held his tongue.

The Master took old coins and tried cutting them in half between the front face and the back.

Alas, no matter how careful he was, each cut left him with thinner and thinner coins that still had two-faces.  What was he to do?  It was nearly dawn, so in trepidation he returned to the palace.

“Have you succeeded?” demanded the Emperor.  “I have done my best,” replied the Master of the Mint.  “But every time I cut off the back side of a coin, another side appears! Perhaps if I cut them thin enough there will be no second side!  Give me another day to finish.”  “Very well. Return with your success tomorrow, or there will be a new Master of the Mint,” said the Emperor.

The Master returned to the Mint in despair.  The apprentice listened quietly, and then humbly suggested, “Perhaps the Emperor doesn’t realize that there will always be two faces to a coin.  But, if you hammer and stretch out the gold until it becomes thin enough, then only one image of the Emperor needs to be put on it, as this image will be able to be seen looking to the left on one side of the coin, and to the right on the other… Perhaps that will make him happy.”

The Master again went to work and hammered and stretched the gold until it was so thin you could almost see through it.  He carefully embossed the Emperor’s image on a coin, and lo and behold!  The image appeared on the backside looking in the opposite direction.  “Ah-ha! This should please him!” regaled the Master.

The next morning the Master took a few coins and went to the palace to present them to the Emperor.  “Well, let’s see your handiwork!” exclaimed the Emperor.  While inspecting the coins he marveled at his images, raised and boldly looking right on one side, and indented and looking left on the other. “Marvelous!  There’s just one of me, but doing two things at once!  I love it! Proceed to issue these from the Mint as soon as possible.”

The Master did as he was instructed, “striking” as many new coins as he and his apprentices could manage.  They bagged them and began to circulate them.

Very quickly but very quietly there arose a problem.  The merchants, left with no other choice, found it difficult to count out the coins, or to verify a count upon receiving them, but persevered.  Citizens, on the other hand, were much more realistic.

“Look at these ‘coins!’  They certainly aren’t worth much because they have no weight to them.  They are so thin they crumble and tear, if I can ever find them in my purse.  These Two-faced Emperors are worthless as currency.”

The shrewd, however, collected enough coins to melt into more substantial black market currency, while the not so shrewd simply shoved them in an old crock.

The Emperor never knew.

Now, back to reality and the point: some things just cannot be separated without major difficulties.

Often when we selfishly want something we choose to ignore the surroundings and the obvious.  And the unintended consequences.

It is an interesting and informative exercise to ask the following questions:

What do you call the backside of a coin or paper currency?

Most likely you will hear answers such as, “backside,” “tails,” or “reverse.”

Then ask,

What is the front side called?

You will most likely hear, “front,” “face,” or “heads” (for a coin), as typically there is someone’s face (or head) printed or embossed on it.

Finally ask,

That is the common name, but what is the original and technically correct name for this side?

Usually you get a long pause and the scratching of heads.  Few people know.

While we easily recognize the backside of a coin or bill as the Reverse side (easily remembered because that’s also what we call the gear that makes a car (or any vehicle) go backwards), we don’t recognize the true name of the front as the Obverse side.  (Many people might assume that this word is a synonym for Reverse that has fallen out of usage.)

And perhaps we should be grateful at that, because with the advent of motor vehicles we have also changed reverse (a noun, the backside of a coin or other object) into reverse (a verb, to drive a vehicle backwards, or change directions).  Consider the oddity of sticking to the original Latin terms and having to put the car into Obverse to go somewhere (a verb, to go forward).

How does this relate to freedom and responsibility?  Very glad you asked.

Freedom and Responsibility are inevitably bound, like the two faces of a coin.  You cannot separate them, cannot have one without the other.

Our cultural issue is that we’ve put the emphasis on freedom so much that we’ve begun to ignore the responsibilities that must go with it.

After all, it’s foundational to our values.  “Life, liberty (i.e., freedom), and the pursuit of happiness” is in the Declaration of Independence.  THAT we remember, without fail. That American citizens would take up the duties and responsibilities for the common good that go with these values is assumed by the authors.  The word itself does not appear.

So, the unintended consequence?  The word Freedom has become so frequently used (and misused) that it in fact has become just like the legacy word “Reverse,” which became the most commonly recognized label that, consider this, actually describes the back-or least important side of a coin.  By usage we’ve made Freedom, which is the desirable result of practicing Responsibility, the more important thing, standing alone, forgetting its obverse.

The inseparable “obverse” for Freedom?  That’s Responsibility.  The front, first, and most important face of the duo.  In other words,

First demonstrate Responsibilities, and then enjoy Freedoms.

Choice is a gift, and Responsibility is a choice. It comes first.  Having demonstrated one can handle Responsibility appropriately, freedoms can follow.  Not the other way around.

With that in mind, it should be easy to recognize some consequential cultural behaviors that scream this ‘reprioritizing by omission’ loud and clear:

  • Adolescents who boldly proclaim, “It’s a free country, I can do what I want.” (Yeah, been there, done that, and subsequently had to deal with that.  It’s parenting.)
  • Supposed adults who proclaim the same thing, and then behave like it (see below).
  • On a specific cultural note, our aversion to taxes –
    • While we remember that one of the motivations for founding this country was “No taxation without representation,” we actually only remember the first part, “No taxation.” We have de-emphasized the importance of representation (the more important obverse or first part of the demand) to mere insignificance.  We do have representation* now, we just still complain about taxes being too high.
      (*but only if they agree with our views);
    • We ignore that the actual US tax rate per capita is among the lowest among all developed countries;
    • As one consequence of this attitude, a recent investigation showed that it would take about 80 years to fix the neglected bridge infrastructure (~48,000 bridges) in the US, if tax monies were allocated. (Remember the 2007 Interstate bridge collapse in Minneapolis?  By the way, 80 years is longer than it took to originally build them.)

A few other observations about Freedom and Responsibility:

  • For a bit of irony and backhanded support, Australia’s new (2019) $50 banknote has a typo. The yellow denomination, which had 46 million notes printed before the error was discovered, misspells the word, “responsibility.”  (Apparently they will still circulate them, figuring no one will notice.)
  • The Internet was envisioned as a neutral platform to be able to disseminate facts and information. How did it get so broken and misused?  How did the web become a force for extremism, fake news, corporate greed, and tyranny?  Crazy/Genius, a podcast series from The Atlantic, “probes these questions, beginning with the “shape-shifting concept of privacy” in which we ponder the realization that privacy apparently used to mean to a lot of people the guarantee of acting in freedom w/o responsibility (unless you were mature), and now this acting has spilled over onto the Internet.”  (It will be enlightening to pursue in a later post just why we do this.)
  • In a related situation, the apparent disconnect between freedom and responsibility also pops up here: White House declines to back Christchurch call to stamp out online extremism amid free speech concerns.  (The reasoning, apparently, if that it will interfere with the Freedom of (irresponsible) Speech.)
  • I realize this might be touchy (and some might say condescending and over-generalizing, but I didn’t write the linked article): Here’s how many millennials get help from their parents to pay rent and other bills.  The common observation is that they “Can’t afford their current life-style w/o help,” which then begs an inquisitive person to inquire, what’s the missing obverse of this life-style?  Why does it sound like there is more valuing Freedom (to live) over Responsibility (to live responsibly)?  But then,
  • Consider, that the de-emphasis on societal responsibility versus “freedom to maximize earnings” on behalf of everyone else in society has led to the economic conditions experienced by the millennials above (and a larger swath of society).

I wonder if all this naturally flows from the human condition of default (lazy) binary thinking (i.e., either/or): we grab a hold of the outcome, freedom, forgetting there is the connected ongoing process to retain it, responsibilities.

The progress of this mode of thought seems clear enough: freedom is something for me; responsibilities I have to perform for someone else.

All this leads to a greater emphasis on Individualism (which we also recognize is a strong if not dominant American value, but which actually originated during the Renaissance).  In Individualism, we lose, abandon, or abdicate focus and strong accountability to a utilitarian greater good and in its stead substitute accountability to a special interest good (often self), for which the benefit to the greater overall good is either negative or zero.

A subsequent unintended consequence is that when we, as social beings, necessarily choose to create social organizations and systems to permit us to mingle together for mutual and common benefit, the only choices we have to mingle with are other people (many of whom exhibit the behaviors described above).

Then we end up with a situation where our organizations and systems are neutral but screwed up by a minority of people.  How much flak have politics, government, the church, capitalism, socialism, business, unions, and even families and marriage directly taken while ignoring the inadequacies of certain people involved?

Finally, what is more interesting and potentially more worrying, is this is an apparent underlying shift in the central focus of our societal values.  The shift is there, but it is unarticulated because it is not fully recognized.  Or it is just simply politically incorrect.

Posted in 04: Games People Play, 10: Integrity, 12: Character, 13: Values & Self, 14: Behavior, 16: Culture | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Funny Things That Happened on the way into March

“Laughing, like elation, seems to help people think more broadly and associate more freely, noticing relationships that might have eluded them otherwise…” – Daniel Goleman

And it is about this time of year when we long for a much-needed bit of warmth and sunlight, preferably accompanied by a few good laughs.  In the off chance that you might also enjoy some respite, I offer the following items collected over the past couple of months.

Brexit Drama

It is probable that you are unaware of Britain’s trying to leave the European Union, so let it first be said that this is an ongoing two-year+ political “drama” (since summer of 2016) with tremendous consequences in every phase of British life (and some in European life, also) with downstream global economic impact.  The Woes and Throes are particularly well summarized in the daily Brexit Newsletter from Bloomberg.

Overall, this is not funny.

But what is funny is the following photo of the current state of mind regarding Brexit from the offices of one of the European Union countries (I’ll leave you to search for that).

(Photo: NYTimes)

Normally my experience is that sports teams employ animated mascots to stir up the fans and sometimes shoot wadded up tee shirts into the stands, especially during long periods of inactivity on the field.

The photo above raises some speculation: granted that over two years of Brexit “action” more closely resembles two teams trying to push a large unwieldy weather balloon over one goal line or the other and making near zero progress, exactly what sort of excitement could this character stir up anywhere?  And beyond that, that is a pretty lame tee shirt to give away to bystanders.

However, the photo did bring back to mind a sports mascot introduced late last year by the Philadelphia Flyers ice hockey franchise, a “mascot” that only Philadelphia, somehow, could dream up,

Photo: Quartz

I see Sasquatch’s cousin with a tee shirt gun.  Others noticed something else,

Critics from across America immediately showered hate on the carrot-colored creature.  “Flyers’ new mascot is met with universal ridicule,” blared headlines.  But—like the president he would soon be compared to—Gritty found a way to turn on his tormenters and forge their ridicule into a mighty weapon.  After a barrage of negative national media coverage, the city rallied around him.  If there’s one thing that unites Philadelphians, it’s a good war with everyone else in the country.  (CityLab)

Apparently Gritty resonates well with Philly fans, who, in their unabashed enthusiasm, apparently also like to throw batteries at opposing players at NFL games (here).

While I deemed this as funny peculiar (thank you Stan Freeburg), I have to admit that as far as lasting impressions go, Gritty takes the cake.

It Takes All Kinds

Continuing along this rather weak thread of tee shirts, a former student recently sent me this item, remarking that it reminded her that if I had ever had this tee shirt I would have indeed worn it to class, much to the puzzlement of at least half the class,

I’ll leave further contemplation to you.

Next Week We’ve Got To Get Organized

I remember a picture that my father had hanging in his office, ca. 1955. He started, built and later sold a very successful mortgage banking and servicing business, but his filing system generally consisted of not-too-organized-piles-on-his-desk.  Sort of an early form of a category ABC “to-do-piles.”  The picture was a gift (“reminder”) from my mother,

This remained a staple in the family over the years.

I was reminded of this picture when a Vogue article on the passing of the designer Karl Lagerfeld appeared in my RSS feed.  His passing is a loss (although I must admit I knew nothing about his design legacy until I read the article – he was creative director of the French fashion house Chanel), but the photo accompanying the article riveted my attention and triggered many memories as well as a good laugh,


(Photo: Vogue)

As I pondered this visual reality, I think I eventually came to a stunning revelation about creative minds, whatever their individual size.

I have a pile near my desk, and maybe a few small stacks of notes on my desk.  (I once had a pile of sticky notes of blog ideas on my bedside table, a collection that came to me at around 4:00 am over a number of mornings. It’s true; you can see it here).  I know what’s where, and eventually I’ll get to them. But they’re small piles.

Karl Lagerfeld is in another class of his own, organizationally.  It is clear that he, and certainly no one else, is going to mess with this desk.  Think of the consequences, of losing perspective of where “it” is.  Think of the cat!

Then, out of my laughter, came a revelation.

Most likely you and I think topically when (if?) we organize things.  Things are arranged by topic, maybe then by date, placed in folders, and then maybe in drawers.  In our Bubbles we are thinking linearly, at best two-dimensionally.  This is the concept behind our computer desktops, with various “folders” and/or files arranged “neatly” in an array of rows. Click on a folder to open it and we drop into the second dimension, a linear list of files sorted by name or date.  It works, for the rest of us.

Then the stack of stuff reminded me of when I would go hiking out west and use USGS topographic maps, two-dimensional maps that represented elevation, the third dimension, by contour lines.  So in reality they were really “two-and-a-half-dimensional maps.”

And then what came to me is that Karl Lagerfeld, and probably many other “creative” people, don’t think linearly, or even two dimensionally.  They inhabit a different Bubble, and not just creatively.  They must be able to organize and think topographically, in real three dimensions,












(Photo: SweetpeaPapercraft, Etsy)

and then be able to recall, “It’s right over here, and about this far down in the stack.  Yes, here it is!”

That was my Dad.  I think.  It was not my Mother.

File drawers would never work.  Even a database like Evernote with #hashtags might work, but you could never come close to actually seeing the larger picture.

I’ll never look at that Vogue picture again without a great deal of appreciation.  Coupled, of course, by my limited two-and-a-half-dimensional Bubble vision.

But I will be grateful for the laughter.  It helped me to think more broadly, and I learned something valuable.

Posted in 00: Bubbles, 07: Getting It, 08: Observing, Listening, Learning, Lessons from History | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Morals and Measles

“It will take off like wildfire”

Within the last few weeks it has become apparent not only that a major measles outbreak is occurring in multiple locations (reports here and here), but that the cases are continuing to increase in numbers.  The outbreaks are all associated with regions of strong resistance to having children vaccinated.

The outbreak north of Portland, OR, has increased from 23 cases to over 50 with a public health emergency declared.  Other outbreaks are in Brooklyn, the lower Hudson River Valley, Atlanta, while in Europe over 41,000 cases were reported last year, resulting in 37 deaths.

In spite of attempts to correct a widely held belief that vaccinations contribute to autism, the “belief” continues to circulate especially in some enclaves.

Most attempts have proven less than effective in part because of incorrect assumptions about parent’s underlying motivations.

The current outbreaks have once again focused wide attention on “vaccination hesitancy” and “vaccination refusal” and the consequences to children and communities.

A key paper that helps to understanding parent’s motivations actually appeared in Nature in December 2017, but remains obscure not only because of its academic nature but because it seeks to identify a correlation with the little known and underappreciated Moral Foundations Theory (MFT).  Even a very recent article in Slate, People’s Fears About Vaccines Aren’t Just About Vaccines, fails to garner the attention it should in the public’s eyes.

The typical (and rational) assumption in the medical and health community (and the media, politics, and public) is that parents are primarily relying on personal values of not wanting to cause potential harm to their children.  Fears of side effects, of actually inducing the disease or causing other health consequences (autism) are assumed to be the predominant reasons.  While not widely recognized, these fears correlate strongly with the Care/Harm values foundation identified in MFT.

It is this limited assumption, while rational, that leads to the creation of “appeals to reason” using valid medical evidence that seem logical but are actually ineffective in bringing results.  Still other appeals, peppered with scolding charges of “irrationality,” “science denial,” and “madness” result in even less success and even greater frustration on behalf of both sides.

The article in Nature sheds light on understanding parents’ anti-vaccination motivations, but also surprisingly presents an opportunity to address an even greater “conundrum” in a much broader arena: economics.  I’ll return to that connection at the end of the post after a summary of the results of the study and MFT, and the enlightening conclusions.

First is a broad and important phenomenon also applicable here and that is how little we recognize that bright and well-informed people can see the same set of facts, here regarding childhood vaccination, and draw such radically different conclusions.  This should not come a surprise, as most of us experience this on a daily basis.  However, understanding why this happens just might be a surprise, because it is also consistent with what I shall paraphraseas

The Four Very Comfortable Bad Habits of Everyone:

  1. Our not recognizing and accepting that we live in Bubbles,the limited social environments in which we subconsciously operate by
  2. Unconsciously depending upon our Confirmation Bias (which emphasizes that information which adds further validity to our preexisting values, beliefs, and hypotheses), which is
  3. Reinforced by our Availability Heuristic (a mental shortcut which limits what knowledge we organize and use based on how easily an example, instance, or case comes to mind), resulting in the ongoing condition
  4. That We Don’t Know That We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know

– yet we consistently ignore them.

Second, the heart of this specific issue of vaccinations involves underlying values, emotions and individual psychology, and in particular the foundations for these values and emotions.  The failure of other approaches suggests looking and seeing if the different value foundations proposed by Moral Foundations Theory can explain the behaviors that are seen.

The study in Nature looked at some of the fundamental motivations behind various parental “attitudes” towards vaccination.  Parents were grouped as being in one of three categories: as having low hesitancy (meaning they were willing to vaccinate even if they had questions), medium hesitancy (there were significant questions and discussion but eventual vaccination), or high hesitancy (refusal to vaccinate).  They then completed a standard MFT survey to identify how their personal values were distributed among the six value foundations of MFT.

MFT focuses on the basic moral codes by which we each judge right and wrong (the balance or emphasis among them is not the same for everyone).  These then provide a fundamental sense of how we should behave and how society should operate.  These are the “lenses” through which we view the world or its immediate proximity, our behavior as well as the behavior of others, and the issues of the day.  These “lenses” vary from person to person but tend to be similar for the social groups with which we associate (think Bubbles).

The MFT six foundations, as positive/negative pairs (with examples), are: Care/Harm (caring for others, or not); Fairness/Cheating (eliminating corruption); Loyalty/Betrayal (to personal, tribal or group values); Authority/Subversion (e.g., patriotism); Sanctity (or Purity)/Degradation (holiness, cleanliness vs. pollution); and Liberty/Oppression (personal freedom) (all of these are discussed more in depth here).

The reported results are extremely informative.  One study (of multiple ones in the paper, all consistent) revealed the following for 1007 subjects:

  • Low Hesitancy parents (73% of the group) provided the reference or “control” distribution over the six MFT foundations;
  • Moderate Hesitancy parents (11% of the group) were twice as concerned with Purity/Degradation values as the Low Hesitancy group (i.e., to protect the purity of their children and not degrade their bodies); and
  • High Hesitancy parents (16% of the group) were twice as concerned with both the Purity/Degradation and Liberty/Oppression values as were the Low Hesitancy group (i.e., both to protect the purity of their children and not degrade their bodies, as well as protect the parents’ liberty to make this decision and not be oppressed by governing officials to vaccinate).

Critically, as opposed to the assumptions made in formulating “arguments” to convince parents to vaccinate, neither the Moderate Hesitancy parents nor the High Hesitancy parents were motivated by Care/Harm values at all.  In other words, on this issue, vaccination hesitant parents were not motivated by any care-for-others value (i.e., the greater community). This explains why the (moral) argument used to appeal to parents’ sense of a greater civic responsibility, that their unvaccinated child might infect some other children sick, doesn’t work. It’s an appeal to a less important moral value and thus less effective.

It does explain why vaccine hesitancy tends to be found in small enclaves, the Bubbles in which people find community with others of the same primary values, even though overall childhood vaccination rates remain high both in the US as well as in most of these communities (but not high enough).

In other words, vaccine hesitant parents are not acting “irrationally.”  They are actually acting very rationally with respect to their moral value system, which happens to have different priorities for different value foundations within Moral Foundation Theory than do other larger groups.

For all of us, not just the vaccine hesitant, these priorities are heavily determined by the information we already received (via the Availability Heuristic) that is consistent with what is already comfortable (affected by the Confirmation Bias) that is typically fed by like-minded people in our individual Dunbar Bubble (our social environment).

In other words, we don’t know that we don’t know what we don’t know, and we’d prefer to keep it that way.

It is true that some resistance to vaccinations is so entrenched (see above) that only higher hurdles for opting children out of vaccinating as a requirement for public school enrollment will do any good. Economists would call this “nudging.” (As I am writing this, protests have occurred in the state of Washington over plans to change the law limiting the permissible reasons for “opting out” of vaccinations (in an article from the Huffington Post curiously titled, Parents Protest For Kids’ Right To Suffer From Preventable Illness).  This further highlights the strength of the Liberty/Oppression value foundation among this group.)

Speaking of economics and economists, I mentioned I would return to them.  As a group economists have been criticized for long assuming that what they call homo economics (we, the human species that engages in economic transactions) will make rational decisions with regard to spending, saving, and investing. Over the last century this has proven to be an assumption that does not work.  To date they have not figured out that what they call irrational economic behavior might actually be very rational economic behavior, just based on a differently prioritized set of values.  Worth coming back to in a later post.


1With apologies to Stephen Covey.

2I chose to call these Bubbles, but various other names have been used to describe the concept: echo chamber, fortress, stronghold, worldview, etc.  The description chosen might bear some relationship to how many people would actually fit into it…

Posted in 00: Bubbles, 04: Games People Play, 06: Incomplete Information, 07: Getting It, 08: Observing, Listening, Learning, 13: Values & Self, 14: Behavior, 16: Culture, Gap Theory | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment