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The Scipionic Circle 93: The Power of Incremental Mind Shifts, Psychological Moonshots, and The Evolutionary Design
"The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence." — Jiddu Krishnamurti
Welcome to another issue of The Scipionic Circle — I hope you find something of value.
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Food for Thought
I. Embracing Updates: The Power of Incremental Mind Shifts
"Changing your mind frequently, especially about important beliefs, might sound mentally and emotionally taxing. But, in a way, it’s less stressful than the alternative. If you see the world in binary black-and-white terms, then what happens when you encounter evidence against one of your beliefs? The stakes are high: you have to find a way to dismiss the evidence, because if you can’t, your entire belief is in jeopardy. If instead you see the world in shades of gray, and you think of 'changing your mind' as an incremental shift, then the experience of encountering evidence against one of your beliefs is very different. If you’re 80 percent sure that immigration is good for the economy, and a study comes out showing that immigration lowers wages, you can adjust your confidence in your belief down to 70 percent. It may later turn out that study was flawed, or further evidence may come out showing that immigration boosts the economy in other ways, and your confidence in your belief may go back up to 80 percent or even higher. Or you may find additional evidence about the downsides of immigration, which could gradually lower your confidence even further below 70 percent. Either way, each adjustment is comparatively low stakes.
"Even my fellow cheerleaders for changing one’s mind tend to say things like, 'It’s okay to admit you were wrong!' While I appreciate the intentions behind this advice, I’m not sure it makes things much better. The word admit makes it sound like you screwed up but that you deserve to be forgiven because you’re only human. It doesn’t question the premise that being wrong means you screwed up. Scouts reject that premise. You’ve learned new information and come to a new conclusion, but that doesn’t mean you were wrong to believe differently in the past. The only reason to be contrite is if you were negligent in some way. Did you get something wrong because you followed a process you should have known was bad? Were you willfully blind or stubborn or careless?
"But most of the time, being wrong doesn’t mean you did something wrong. It’s not something you need to apologize for, and the appropriate attitude to have about it is neither defensive nor humbly self-flagellating, but matter-of-fact. Even the language scouts use to describe being wrong reflects this attitude. Instead of 'admitting a mistake,' scouts will sometimes talk about 'updating.' That’s a reference to Bayesian updating, a technical term from probability theory for the correct way to revise a probability after learning new information. The way people use the word updating colloquially isn’t nearly so precise, but it still gestures at the spirit of revising one’s beliefs in response to new evidence and arguments.
"Software engineer and product manager Devon Zuegel encourages readers to view her blog posts not as her permanent opinions, but instead as 'a stream of thoughts, caught in the middle of updates.'
"You don’t necessarily need to speak this way. But if you at least start to think in terms of 'updating' instead of 'admitting you were wrong,' you may find that it takes a lot of friction out of the process. An update is routine. Low-key. It’s the opposite of an overwrought confession of sin. An update makes something better or more current without implying that its previous form was a failure." — From The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly, and Others Don't by Julia Galef.
II. Psychological Moonshots: Redefining Innovation through Perception and Design Thinking
"Alphabet, the parent company of Google, runs a division that is now simply called ‘X’. It was founded as Google X, with the aim of developing what the company calls ‘moonshots’. A moonshot is an incredibly ambitious innovation; instead of pursuing change by increments, it aims to change something by a factor of ten. For instance, X funds research into driverless cars, with the explicit aim of reducing road-accident fatalities by at least 90 per cent. The argument for X is that the major advances in human civilisation have come from things that, rather than resulting in modest improvement, were game-changers – steam power versus horse power, train versus canal, electricity versus gaslight. I hope X is successful but think that their engineers will find it difficult. We are now, in many cases, competing with the laws of physics. The scramjet or the hyperloop might be potential moonshots, but making land- or air-travel-speeds so much faster is a really hard problem – and comes with unforeseen dangers.
"By contrast, I think ‘psychological moonshots’ are comparatively easy. Making a train journey 20 per cent faster might cost hundreds of millions, but making it 20 per cent more enjoyable may cost almost nothing. It seems likely that the biggest progress in the next 50 years may come not from improvements in technology but in psychology and design thinking. Put simply, it’s easy to achieve massive improvements in perception at a fraction of the cost of equivalent improvements in reality. Logic tends to rule out magical improvements of this kind, but psycho-logic doesn’t. We are wrong about psychology to a far grater degree than we are about physics, so there is more scope for improvement. Also, we have a culture that prizes measuring things over understanding people, and hence is disproportionately weak at both seeking and recognising psychological answers.
"Let me give a simple example. The Uber map is a psychological moonshot, because it does not reduce the waiting time for a taxi but simply makes waiting 90 per cent less frustrating. This innovation came from the founder’s flash of insight (while watching a James Bond film, no less) that, regardless of what we say, we are much bothered by the uncertainty of waiting than by the duration of a wait. The invention of the map was perhaps equivalent to multiplying the number of cabs on the road by a factor of ten – not because waiting times got any shorter, but because they felt ten times less irritating. And yet we spend very little money and time looking for psychological solutions, partly because, in attempting to understand why people do things, we have a tendency to default to the rational explanation whenever there is one." — From Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don't Make Sense by Rory Sutherland.
III. The Evolutionary Design of Pleasure and Dissatisfaction: Unraveling the Human Predicament
"We were 'designed' by natural selection to do certain things that helped our ancestors get their genes into the next generation—things like eating, having sex, earning the esteem of other people, and outdoing rivals. I put 'designed' in quotation marks because, again, natural selection isn’t a conscious, intelligent designer but an unconscious process. Still, natural selection does create organisms that look as if they’re the product of a conscious designer, a designer who kept fiddling with them to make them effective gene propagators. So, as a kind of thought experiment, it’s legitimate to think of natural selection as a 'designer' and put yourself in its shoes and ask: If you were designing organisms to be good at spreading their genes, how would you get them to pursue the goals that further this cause? In other words, granted that eating, having sex, impressing peers, and besting rivals helped our ancestors spread their genes, how exactly would you design their brains to get them to pursue these goals? I submit that at least three basic principles of design would make sense:
“1. Achieving these goals should bring pleasure, since animals, including humans, tend to pursue things that bring pleasure.
“2. The pleasure shouldn’t last forever. After all, if the pleasure didn’t subside, we’d never seek it again; our first meal would be our last, because hunger would never return. So too with sex: a single act of intercourse, and then a lifetime of lying there basking in the afterglow. That’s no way to get lots of genes into the next generation!
“3. The animal’s brain should focus more on (1), the fact that pleasure will accompany the reaching of a goal, than on (2), the fact that the pleasure will dissipate shortly thereafter. After all, if you focus on (1), you’ll pursue things like food and sex and social status with unalloyed gusto, whereas if you focus on (2), you could start feeling ambivalence. You might, for example, start asking what the point is of so fiercely pursuing pleasure if the pleasure will wear off shortly after you get it and leave you hungering for more. Before you know it, you’ll be full of ennui and wishing you’d majored in philosophy.
“If you put these three principles of design together, you get a pretty plausible explanation of the human predicament as diagnosed by the Buddha. Yes, as he said, pleasure is fleeting, and, yes, this leaves us recurrently dissatisfied. And the reason is that pleasure is designed by natural selection to evaporate so that the ensuing dissatisfaction will get us to pursue more pleasure. Natural selection doesn’t 'want' us to be happy, after all; it just 'wants' us to be productive, in its narrow sense of productive. And the way to make us productive is to make the anticipation of pleasure very strong but the pleasure itself not very long-lasting.” — From Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment by Robert Wright.
Quotes to Ponder
I. Epictetus on embracing the present:
"Caretake this moment. Immerse yourself in its particulars. Respond to this person, this challenge, this deed. Quit evasions. Stop giving yourself needless trouble. It is time to really live; to fully inhabit the situation you happen to be in now."
II. Jiddu Krishnamurti on unbiased observation:
"The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence."
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