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Authoritarianism

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In the aftermath of WWII there was a great deal of research interest in how the atrocities of that war could have taken place. How could regular German citizens simply follow orders to willingly participate in the Holocaust or simply look the other way and pretend they did not know it was happening? Of course, the behaviors that occurred during WWII were not isolated events in history. Humans have been very capable, both prior to and after that war, of continuing to carry out atrocities. Armenia, Rwanda, Ukraine, Greece, Cambodia, USA, Bosnia, Syria, and many others have all seen their share of death and genocidal attacks carried out by one group who first dehumanizes and then tries to exterminate the other. These are not isolated events and it is not limited to any one geography or culture. It is something dark and deep inside of the human inner core that allows these events to occur over and over. Yet, not all of us succumb and get caught up in these atrocities. Resistance can be found, even though it is often less than successful.

But what exactly are people resisting? What urges affect humanity that must be overcome to prevent a continuing string of atrocities from occurring?

One line of research examined the makeup and prevalence of the Authoritarian personality type as a possible explanation. The Authoritarian personality has “a desire for security, order, power, and status, with a desire for structured lines of authority, a conventional set of values or outlook, a demand for unquestioning obedience, and a tendency to be hostile toward or use as scapegoats individuals of minority or nontraditional groups.”

In the aftermath of WWII, in 1947, Theodor W. Adorno created the “F-Scale” or Fascism Scale.  The characteristics the F-Scale measured included: Conformity to traditional societal norms, submission to authoritarian figures, aggression to “others” who don’t fit the pattern, belief in fundamentalist religious notions, belief in superstitions, tendency towards power and toughness, a rejection of introspection, self-criticism, and tender-mindedness. The F-Scale was widely popular for a time but had some psychometric issues with reliability and faking. Since then others have created scales to measure similar characteristics with better psychometric properties. What is striking about the F-Scale from 1947, is how many of the issues you continue to hear today (similar to “these kids today”, kind of argument that happens over and over with each generation). Here are the original 30 items (http://www.anesi.com/fscale.htm) that made up the F-Scale (on a 6-point strongly agree to strongly disagree scale):

  1. Obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues children should learn.
  2. A person who has bad manners, habits, and breeding can hardly expect to get along with decent people.
  3. If people would talk less and work more, everybody would be better off.
  4. The business man and the manufacturer are much more important to society than the artist and the professor.
  5. Science has its place, but there are many important things that can never be understood by the human mind.
  6. Every person should have complete faith in some supernatural power whose decisions he obeys without question.
  7. Young people sometimes get rebellious ideas, but as they grow up they ought to get over them and settle down.
  8. What this country needs most, more than laws and political programs, is a few courageous, tireless, devoted leaders in whom the people can put their faith.
  9. No sane, normal, decent person could ever think of hurting a close friend or relative.
  10. Nobody ever learned anything really important except through suffering.
  11. What the youth needs most is strict discipline, rugged determination, and the will to work and fight for family and country.
  12. An insult to our honor should always be punished.
  13. Sex crimes, such as rape and attacks on children, deserve more than mere imprisonment; such criminals ought to be publicly whipped, or worse.
  14. There is hardly anything lower than a person who does not feel a great love, gratitude, and respect for his parents.
  15. Most of our social problems would be solved if we could somehow get rid of the immoral, crooked, and feebleminded people.
  16. Homosexuals are hardly better than criminals and ought to be severely punished.
  17. When a person has a problem or worry, it is best for him not to think about it, but to keep busy with more cheerful things.
  18. Nowadays more and more people are prying into matters that should remain personal and private.
  19. Some people are born with an urge to jump from high places.
  20. People can be divided into two distinct classes: the weak and the strong.
  21. Some day it will probably be shown that astrology can explain a lot of things.
  22. Wars and social troubles may someday be ended by an earthquake or flood that will destroy the whole world.
  23. No weakness or difficulty can hold us back if we have enough will power.
  24. It is best to use some prewar authorities in Germany to keep order and prevent chaos. [You’ll have to pretend it is 1946 when you answer this one.]
  25. Most people don’t realize how much our lives are controlled by plots hatched in secret places
  26. Human nature being what it is, there will always be war and conflict.
  27. Familiarity breeds contempt.
  28. Nowadays when so many different kinds of people move around and mix together so much, a person has to protect himself especially carefully against catching an infection or disease from them.
  29. The wild sex life of the old Greeks and Romans was tame compared to some of the goings-on in this country, even in places where people might least expect it.
  30. The true American way of life is disappearing so fast that force may be necessary to preserve it.

If you complete the F-Scale at the link provided above, your responses will be scored and an interpretation provided. A higher score on the F-Scale was supposed to be predictive of and indicative of the person having fascist anti-democratic leanings and an attraction towards authoritarian figures and political systems. Recent work by political scientist Mathew MacWilliams, implies that somewhere between 18 to 30 percent of Americans fit the definition and that number goes higher when people feel under threat. (There is no reason to assume those numbers would be any different in other countries.) He found from a large sample of likely voters, that a tendency towards authoritarianism predicted support for Trump in the last election more reliably than other any other factors.

The question has been raised repeatedly about why certain groups such as evangelicals, or voters with low income levels would vote for and continue to support Trump, whose personal behaviors and actions are in contrast to either their stated values and whose aid-cutting, tax cuts for the wealthy agenda is so clearly against their personal self-interest or professed morals. What has been less examined is the percent of those people who are attracted to the authoritarian style of leadership or because they are feeling threatened on other fronts are willing to put up with it.

And in reference to how the morally centered religious right puts up with Trump’s atrocities, racism, misogynism, xenophobia and prejudices, a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 5(4), 432-443 by Allport, G. W., & Ross, J. M. (1967) found that the average churchgoers are more prejudiced than nonchurchgoers; that people with an extrinsic (externally focused) religious orientation are significantly more prejudiced than people with an intrinsic (internally focused) religious orientation; and that people who are indiscriminately proreligious are the most prejudiced of all. Remember religious fundamentalism is often found as a marker of attractiveness to an authoritarian style of leadership.

More recent research on authoritarianism shows that it is not a single personality type, but a set of characteristics that in combination lead to a particular pattern of behavior. Using the Big-5 categorization of personality type Phillip Chen and Carl Palmer (The Prejudiced Personality, Using the Big Five to Predict Susceptibility to Stereotyping Behavior, American Politics Research, Vol 46, Issue 2, pp. 276 – 307, August 4, 2017)   found that people who scored lower on Openness to Experience (an appreciation of things like intellectual complexity, artistic expression, etc.) and higher on Conscientiousness (organization, dependability, and self-reliance) are consistent predictors of authoritarian tendencies. Ryan Perry & Chris Sibley (2012) found similar patterns in an article titled “Big-Five personality prospectively predicts Social Dominance Orientation and Right-Wing Authoritarianism. (Personality and Individual Differences. 52. 3–8. 10.1016).

People with these personality characteristics would show more of a willingness to follow an authoritarian leader, even one who is expressing clinical or sub-clinical levels of mental illness, including malevolent narcissism or the Dark Triad, a combination of the often co-morbid factors of narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism.

The incidence of the Dark Triad and its relationship to prejudice was examined by Gordon Hodson, Sarah Hogg and Cara MacInnis (Journal of Research in Personality (Volume 43, Issue 4, August 2009, Pages 686-690). They found that the Dark Triad (narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy) personality traits were positively related to threat perceptions of those not part of the “in-group” and with an anti-immigrant prejudice, a desire for social dominance and right-wing authoritarianism. It is a short jump to assume that words used to describe others by those so afflicted with this illness would include streams of insults, pejoratives and ominous warnings, none of which would necessarily be based in reality.

It is a relatively new concept to use personality characteristics to predict political orientations or how someone might vote, which leaders they would follow, or their views towards differing societal activities, but Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler, in their extensive research, simultaneously came to the conclusion that the polarization evident in American politics today was largely generated by authoritarian personality type people.

MacWilliams, describes authoritarians as “not supporting a lot of things that are basic to Madisonian democracy”, such as protecting minority rights, or maintaining religious freedom, they would have no issue with separating children from parents in asylum seeking families, as they respond aggressively to outsiders who are cast in the role of “other” or “enemy”. In one study of Republican voters MacWilliams found “that education, income, gender, age, ideology and religiosity had no significant bearing” on their preferred candidate. “Only two variables stood out as statistically significant: authoritarianism, with ‘fear of terrorism’ trailing as a distant second.”

All of these leaves one feeling unease that the USA is traveling down a precarious path. A path that can lead to horrors that must not be repeated and that must be completely and vigorously rejected.   We must turn from the path that has been set upon by those currently in power. How can we begin?

  • The coalition that elected Trump is a varied group. But what they seem to have in common is a tendency to find strong-man authoritarianism attractive. The percent who leans that way directly increases with their sense of threat. That sense of threat must be reduced and the inflammatory rhetoric used to increase that sense of threat must be clearly shown to be the hollow canard that it is.
  • Some of those who put us on this dangerous path did so because they have felt ignored by those in power and that their future (and the future of their children) is bleak. Coal miners, mid-west farmers, steel workers, fishermen, manufacturing workers, etc., we must not leave carcasses in our path as change comes to our society. And if nothing else our society has been in a state of constant change. We must protect and bring along those who will be most ill-affected by that change.
  • From years of research on workers it is very clear that one fundamental that everyone on this planet wants is to feel valued. We must make it clear that we value everyone, giving them a voice and letting them know that will not be forgotten, that they and their children have a positive and exciting future.
  • Respect & Dignity are also fundamental characteristics that people desire. Dignity is a relational factor. In other words, whether someone feels that are being treated with dignity is determined by how the see others being treated. If their treatment is perceived to be less they view it as undignified. If no one has electricity, I am not being treated with less dignity if I don’t have electricity. If everyone else has electricity and I don’t, my treatment is less dignified. If I don’t have clean water and others do, that is not dignified treatment. Respect is not a relational factor. I can feel disrespected regardless of how others are being treated. Everyone should be treated with Respect and Dignity.
  • We must protect the institutions that our society was built upon, the institutions which up to this point have allowed us to create the most successful human society this planet has seen so far. Checks and balances in our government must be restored. A free press must be protected. We must cherish and protect our planet as there is no planet B. We are caretakers of this world for our children and grandchild, we must pass to them a world in which they can thrive and live healthy lives. We must reassume our leadership position in the world, setting moral standards and leading in education, technology and scientific discovery. We must build bridges to others on this planet not walls to isolate ourselves. We must lead towards global success for everyone. And, the most vulnerable in our society must be protected.
  • It is time to define what we are going to be as a society, and not through fear-mongering, who we are going to protect ourselves from. We need to look forward not backwards.

This is just the start of how we begin to change the path we are on, away from the seduction that some feel towards authoritarianism. An authoritarianism which has led to unspeakable horrors time after time throughout history. It is time, more than time, to redefine ourselves in a manner that lets all of us thrive and live life to its fullest potential.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

July 1, 2018 at 4:46 pm

Privacy, Persuasion and Fundamental Rights

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Perhaps, not surprisingly, it started with a lie. In 1957, James Vicary, on a hot summer day, in a Fort Lee, NJ movie theater, claimed to have run an experiment where he said he inserted frames into a movie and flashed on the screen the words “Eat Popcorn” and “Drink Coca Cola”. He claimed this subliminal (meaning literally below threshold) advertising resulted in huge increases in the sales of popcorn (up 58%) and Coca Cola (up 18%).  Vicary stated that subliminal communication was so powerful and had such potentially dangerous uses that he suggested warning the public when subliminal techniques were in use, and even seemed to think that some sort of governmental regulation might be needed.

Congress held hearings, legislation was proposed, but not passed. The public felt they were being manipulated. Norman Cousins, editor of The Saturday Review, warned his readers about subliminal communications. Among the uses his article warned about was the potential to manipulate voting patterns for political candidates and influence the outcome of an election.

On the fifth anniversary of his “experiment”, Vicary admitted that it was a hoax, a ruse and that his goal was to revive his failing consulting practice (Advertising Age, Sept 17, 1962). Apparently, his thinking was it did not matter if his findings were real or not, just that his potential clients believed that they were real. By this time, he was the director of survey research for Dun & Bradstreet as he attempted to resurrect his career as a psychologist.  Some question whether the insertion of the words ever took place.

So, is subliminal perception and its ability to influence people pure bunk? Thijs Verwijmeren, et.al.  (Journal of Consumer Psychology, April 2011) came to a conclusion that subliminal advertising can have some limited effect, but it is not all that powerful. Subliminal ads, for instance, can’t make you do something you don’t want to do. Others question the very concept. If something can’t be perceived, because it is subliminal, how can it possibly affect behavior? The notion is that you can affect the subconscious mind without the conscious mind being aware of the affect. Regardless of the efficacy of this particular technique, the temptation to influence people, to change their behaviors continues, through various other avenues and methods.

Classical economic theory states that humans are rational thinkers and make decisions that are in their best economic interest after considering all the facts. Much economic policy over the years has been based on this concept and of course it is wrong, for humans are anything but cool, rational thinkers as they work through their decisions. We all take short-cuts in our decision-making using bias, heuristics or rules-of-thumb to get through the day (these are decisions or judgements we make without necessarily being conscious we are making them). Without them the number of decisions you would be required to make would simply paralyze you. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, two psychologists, drove those points home with a substantial body of research that gave rise to the field of Behavioral Economics. One cornerstone of their work was their definition and description of System 1 and System 2 type of thinking that humans use to make decisions.

System 1 thinking is automatic decision-making. It is quick and easy, requiring little to no effort when making a decision or passing judgement. System 1 thinking speeds decision-making and allows you to make thousands of unthinking decisions each and every day. The path you will drive to work, what you are likely to order in your morning coffee, do you put butter or cream cheese on your English muffin are all quick, ponderless, System 1 decisions you make. System 2 is when you use deliberative thought in order to make a decision. For instance, if you are ordering a new PC or Mac, if you are like most people, you methodically work through your options and the associated costs, prior to making a decision on what equipment to buy and how to configure it. You may check with friends and read reviews, part of your decision may be based on brand loyalty or a “coolness” factor that you perhaps can’t quite articulate, or one of our many human biases, such as WYSIATI, which stands for “What you see is all there is”, may come into play. Meaning you choose from the options before you and tend not to look for less obvious or unseen options. And you can be assured that the manufacturers of these devices are doing their best to influence your decision.

The speed limit sign says “30 MPH”, the sign on the escalator says “Stand Right, Walk Left”, in the parking garage there are signs that say “small cars only”, the express checkout line at the grocery store says “8 items or less”. We are informed that in order to enroll our kindergarten-aged child into school that we have to show proof of vaccination. All around us, every day there are attempts to influence our behavior, to modify what we are doing or to inform us what is allowable and what is not. While not perfectly so, these rules tend to be imposed when your behavior has the potential to negatively impact others around you, either directly or indirectly. The reason you are not trained to drive with a “use your best judgement on what your speed should be”, is 1. You may not be familiar with the road you are on, 2. If left to their own devices, some people’s judgement (especially younger or inexperienced drivers) might not be that good, 3. There is a tremendous potential for harm occurring to others if you make a poor decision. So, a sign is posted that informs you what is an appropriate speed for that road (and there are consequences to violating that sign’s speed limit). Your child’s ability to spread disease and contribute to epidemics (not in a good way) is the reason for the vaccination (and it does not matter if what you personally believe about vaccinations and autism goes against all the known science – no vaccination, no school – another penalty).

Writing in Scientific American (March 30, 2018), Marcello Lenca and Effy Vayena, describe Cognitive Liberty as “the freedom to control one’s own cognitive dimension (including preferences, choices and beliefs) and to be protected from manipulative strategies that are designed to bypass one’s cognitive defenses.” This was written in response to the Cambridge Analytica scandal where, in an attempt to influence the last presidential election, at least 87 million Facebook users, unbeknown to them, were targeted for customized digital ads and other manipulative information in a manner that “circumvents user’s awareness of such influence”. And that is the key difference between a speed limit sign, a vaccination requirement and subliminally trying to get you to drink more Coca Cola.  One approach is direct and in-your-face, it is transparent, while the other tries to influence you without you realizing you are being influenced. They continue, “most of the current online ecosystem, is an arm’s race to the unconscious mind: notifications, microtargeted ads, autoplay plugins, are all strategies to induce addictive behavior, hence to manipulate”.

The Cambridge Analytica CEO in an undercover interview with Channel 4 News in the UK stated, that it did not matter whether something was real and factual, just that people believed that it was. People, of course, are more inclined to believe information that supports their existing viewpoint, whether it is real or not. Remember Pizzagate – the falsehood spread by certain websites that specialize in spreading falsehoods and the alt-right during the election, that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring in the basement of a Pizza Parlor, except she wasn’t and the accused Pizza Parlor did not even have a basement. But never-the-less, a true believer went to that Pizza Parlor with his gun and started firing in a System 1 thinking pattern. He never paused to consider the information he was receiving in a rational manner. The shooter viewed himself as a “good guy with a gun” going to stop bad people, except it was all a delusion meant to influence behavior. A delusion that was crafted by the inappropriate use of big data to find people’s fears, to manipulate them and to capitalize on them. So here you have potentially deadly consequences to falsehoods spread on social media, for which there is no penalty.

It wasn’t the first time and it certainly won’t be the last time that occurs.  And to underscore that this wasn’t some accident, during the last presidential election you also had Republican operatives making statements on TV interviews such as “we are not going to let facts determine the outcome of this election”, or we are presenting “alternative facts”, in other words just like James Vicary’s “Drink Coca Cola” ruse, it did not matter whether it was real or not, just that a population critical to your success, potential customers or in the case of an election, potential voters, believed that it was real.  And because of that orientation and the lack of regulation or penalties around it, the spread of disinformation, enabled by social media and Russia attacking our democracy, reached unprecedented levels.

Our technology, once again, is much more advanced than the social structures we surround it with, at least at first.  Partly that is due to pace of innovation being quite a bit faster than the pace of social structure change. But this is nothing new. For instance, when we, as a species, starting writing down our stories, our gurus at that time were those who could read. They assumed a special elevated status within society and because of their skill set they were the bearers of the “word” and able to manipulate and persuade the masses, for who could argue with someone about a text that you could not read? The priests of today are those who can create and harness the technology that can influence the masses and those who can build smart systems to enable that to happen more effectively.  In a special section on AI appearing in The Economist (March 31st-April 6th, 2018), it was estimated that for each capable AI tech person in a company today, the value of that company increases by 5 to 10 million dollars, so it is no wonder that sophisticated AI talent today draw 6- and 7- figure salaries.

Sander van der Linden in Psychological Weapons of Mass Persuasion, (Scientific American, April 10th 2018), quotes a study covering 3.5 million people which “found that psychologically tailored advertising, i.e. matching the content of a persuasive message to an individual’s broad psychographic profile, resulted in 40% more clicks and 50% more online purchases than mismatched or unpersonalized messages”.  We have come a long way, with the help of our technology, from flashing “Eat Popcorn” and “Drink Coca Cola” on a screen. And more importantly he states that these messages when carried over into a political environment can have the ability to either suppress voting for the candidate these messages are targeted against or can swing some potential voters to switch candidates. When elections are often decided by a percentage point or two, that small effect can have a large impact. In addition to the USA presidential election, it now appears that Britain’s EU exit vote was influenced using the same techniques.

So yes, we are at risk, in an unregulated, wild-west of a technology world, elections can be affected, Cognitive Liberty, our very democracy can be undermined, autocrats/dictators or would-be tin-pot dictators with effective social media disinformation and targeted voting campaigns can be voted in. What can we do?

Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, stated in a recent townhall meeting in Chicago that “privacy is a human right”.  That aligns him with his predecessor, Steve Jobs, who in 2010 stated, “”Privacy means people know what they’re signing up for, in plain English and repeatedly.” “I believe people are smart and some people want to share more data than other people do. Ask them. Ask them every time. Make them tell you to stop asking them if they get tired of your asking them. Let them know precisely what you’re going to do with their data.”

The European Union has just enacted GDPR or General Data Protection Regulations, which does align with the sentiments of both Steve Jobs and Tim Cook. In a nutshell, among the GDPR requirements are that individuals give permission for their data to be collected, be informed regarding what data is being collected, how it will be used, how and for how long it will be stored, and at any time they can see what data you have on them and they can demand that they be erased from your systems. There are many other requirements as well and violations result in large fines. In an editorial, The Economist recently called for the USA to adopt the EU data protection regulations.

But in addition to protecting the data we can work towards making people savvier about what they see on social media and how to determine reality from delusion or disinformation. For instance, some possibilities include (and I am sure if a group put their minds to it, many more possibilities would emerge):

  • Transparency can be increased, for instance, just like restaurants in NYC get cleanliness ratings, social media sites can get ratings regarding the veracity of the information they carry. Is the information verified in any fashion or is it just put out there?
  • Sites that label themselves as news, or TV stations that label themselves as news should adhere to certain news worthy standards in order to keep that designation. Each program should be clearly labeled as meeting “news standards” or should be clearly labeled “opinion” not just at the start of the show, but the whole time the show is on.
  • News organizations used to adhere to a separation of church and state. Meaning the news side of the business should not be influenced by the business side of the business. To achieve a certain news rating this standard would have to be met.
  • One method towards getting people to become better consumers of information is to educate them on how humans consume information and make decisions. It is a first step towards taking them out of System 1 thinking when appropriate and having them activate System 2 thinking.
  • Penalties can be implemented for knowingly spreading false information.

Social media now has the power to cause great harm to others and to our society. As the saying goes with great power comes great responsibility, but so far social media has not proven itself capably of operating in that responsible fashion. We are in a variation of the “Tragedy of the Commons” moment when it comes to social media. The tragedy of the commons describes a situation where individuals acting independently put their own self-interest above a common interest in a shared resource. Because each is only concerned about their own interest, they each use the resource until it is despoiled and of no use to anyone. Collective action is needed to save the resource so it can be used by all to mutual benefit. While originally the concept of the commons was based on shared unregulated grazing ground over the years it has morphed to mean “any shared and unregulated resource such as atmosphere, oceans, rivers, fish stocks, or even an office refrigerator”. While social media is an unlimited resource, it too will be despoiled if it is only used by individuals for their own self-interest without regard to the harm it is causing others and to society.

 

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

April 15, 2018 at 4:28 pm

Reality

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There is a question that floats around out there, it goes something like this: “If everything in the universe can be described by physical laws and mathematical equations, how is the universe any different than a computer program or a simulation/computer game?”  The answer is that it is not. But there are subtleties and nuances in there and reactions are varied.

One reaction that I have heard from physicists is “why is that an interesting question?” The physicist is trying to understand the laws and equations, and those goals are independent of discovering whose computer our universe is running upon, a more philosophical and perhaps unanswerable question, for you would have to look outside of our universe for that answer. You immediately bump right up into religious notions. For instance, what would be the difference if we were a simulation, simply an advanced program (maybe not so advanced), running on some alien teenager’s bedroom computer and god? From our perspective, there would not be any, for that alien teenager would have all of the capabilities of a god. (Alt-Ctrl-Delete).

Another reaction is that what we are doing when we humans are programming is trying to mimic (not necessarily intentionally and of course in a very limited fashion so far), rules that govern our universe, or at least our corner of the universe. And in that we have no choice, since those are the laws. So, it is not that we are a simulation, but rather that we (and our math, our physical limitations and by extension our programs/simulations), are governed by the same laws that govern all things in the universe. 1+1 must always equal 2. The initial question then is in essence somewhat backwards. It is not that we are the same as a program, a simulation, it is that our programs need to abide by the laws and properties that govern all things.

There are a number of physical constants (e.g. the speed of light) with somewhat arbitrary values that define how our universe operates, and if some of them were different we would not be here to have this discussion, for it would have been impossible for stars to coalesce, for life to emerge. This state of affairs gives rise to what is called the Anthropic Principle, which says that the fact of our existence, beings that can measure these physical constants, requires those constants to be such that beings like us can exist. In other words, we perceive reality, because we are here to measure it. There could have been or there could be right now an infinite number of universes, with different physical constants, and life would emerge only in certain universes and only under certain conditions. We drew the lucky straw. So, a third reaction is to respond with a “why does this matter”? A variation on the first reaction above. We have to live in our world, our universe as defined, so let’s get on with it. It’s properties, rules and laws are what they are. We are not capable of looking outside the box, so live with it, and get on with it. Reality is reality.

Reality is reality. Simple phrase but our human perception of reality is subject to constant manipulation by others, to innate biases, driven by evolution and by learned response, to limited sensors, like our eyes, ears, our sense of touch, smell and proprioception and of course to our very limited and flawed processing center, our brain. Human perceptions of reality are very different than the measured physical realities that shape our universe. Maybe that is pointing out a flaw in the English language, with the word reality itself. Maybe it is too simplistic of a concept, given the challenges of determining the reality that humans have. Your perception of reality, my perception of reality is very often different from another’s perceptions of reality, and all three are very likely different from actual reality. And each of us, of course, assumes that our perception of reality is the correct one. The first step towards perceiving reality more accurately is to be aware of our shared human short-comings and foibles.

I assume that at least some of you have seen the monkey business illusion. If not, you can watch it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGQmdoK_ZfY. It nicely illustrates how easy it is for each of us to miss what is right there staring at us, to misinterpret reality.

In order to make good decisions and come to correct conclusions, humans must be able to overcome their inherent processing deficits, not giving into innate or shaped biases, and not being persuaded by the latest PT Barnum that comes onto the scene, simply saying what you want to hear rather than what is real. Decisions need to be based on data, on scientifically derived facts and on sound judgments.

When it comes to intuition’s role, or gut instinct on sound judgments, Herb Simon, the economist, studied and defined intuition as coming from the repetition associated with practice. Meaning that intuition is actually recognition of a situation that the decision-maker has experienced before. There is no such thing as simply having good instincts. Good instincts are borne out of training and experience.

Meanwhile, Phil Tetlock and his Good Judgement project have developed techniques that have been repeatedly shown to lead to more accurate predictions and better decision-making. Among the techniques is the ability and willingness to continuous take in new information and to use that new information to modify your predictions and decisions.

Other research has repeatedly shown what is all too obvious today. People tend to seek out and absorb only information that supports their existing points of view and to reject as “false” any information that does not support their preconceived notions. Simply put, this tendency flies in the face of everything we know about how to make good decisions and has people believing realities that are based on missing or skewed information.

Bottom-line? People can improve their ability to perceive what is real and what is false and by extension their decision-making. Among the techniques that can help are basing decisions on data and science, practicing decision-making techniques, being open to new concepts and ideas, and a willingness to recognize human’s inherent short-comings when it comes to perceiving reality.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

June 28, 2017 at 12:15 pm

Nothing

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Can you remember when you were young, on a long hot summer day, school was out, and a sibling or friend would ask, “whatcha doing?” Your response of “nothing” could only mean that there must have been something good going on and that the sibling or friend was being left out.  Humans have a very hard time thinking that nothing is really just that, nothing, and the implications are somewhat staggering.

Let’s start with the esoteric. Michael Shermer, writing in Scientific American (February 2017, pp. 73), starts off by asking “Imagine nothing. Go ahead. What do you see?” In this case he is really asking you to imagine nothing, no galaxies, no stars, no planets, no energy, no space, no time, not even darkness. Nothing. Go ahead, give it a try. People can’t do it. If everything started with nothing, we would not be here, for what can arise from truly nothing? He goes on to argue that nothing is not stable, and not the natural state of things, citing findings in classical and quantum physics.

Fast forwarding a bit from the origins of the universe, as humans developed counting systems, nothing was again a difficult concept to grasp.  John Matson writing in Scientific American on the origins of zero (August 21, 2009), describes its origins as somewhat murky. But here is something you can try. Try writing zero in Roman numerals. Can’t be done. Zero is nothing, the absence of a quantity, formally depicted by the Arabic numeral 0. (Each Arabic number was represented by the number of angles in the number so the representation of the number 1, had one angle hence its value. Zero was depicted as 0, a symbol that had no angles.) The concept of zero arrived in the west by way of North Africa approximately in the year 1200 CE, when a mathematician named Fibonacci figured out how to incorporate it into his work.  In addition to the later Arabic refinement of zero, earlier work on the concept happened in both India (circa 500 CE) and among the Mayans (circa 100-200 CE). But the point is that the notion of zero did not always exist, for nothing was a difficult concept for humans to grasp and the Romans built a whole mathematical system that excluded it. We are simply not built to think of nothing very well.

Janis Joplin in the lyrics to her song, Me &Bobby McGee, states that “freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose”. So if you truly have nothing, you have freedom (according to Janis), but the reality is that as long as we are clinging to even a shred of hope or a shred of life we all have something and humans with their natural tendency to resiliency tend to have hope of one sort or another, especially if they are given some assistance in generating that hope. (Ok, I am pushing it here a bit). But the song struck a chord and was very powerful in its time of turmoil and protest, and has been used by people willing to stand up and fight for what they believe, for when everything has been taken away, well, what do you have to lose?

In this last election there were many people who felt that prosperity had slipped past them and they had nothing to lose, so they were free to take a risk. Trump himself in trying to promote that idea and get votes in the black community said, “What have you got to lose?” He was attempting to make them feel like they had nothing.

There is tremendous strength in a community that can band together to solve problems. The notion is that you are not alone, with nothing, with no one to help, but that there is hope, there is help, and there are options. And with the generation of hope, resiliency springs forth and all things suddenly become possible. The tendency to band together for mutual benefit was stated eloquently by Martin Luther King Jr. as “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”

Anyway, the point is that humans grapple with the concept of nothing and don’t always do it very well. How does our inability to deal with nothing play out in organizations?

It is quite clear that when there is a lack of information or opaqueness on a topic, say a change in leadership, a reorganization, an acquisition or a downsizing, etc. that people will fill in the missing information for themselves. And in the absence of actual information, people are quite willing to just make things up. In fact they can’t help it, we are programmed to fill in the blanks, not to leave things at zero or at nothing. And what they make up is generally more negative, often much more negative than reality.

As you can imagined, and as we have all recently experienced, people are more than willing to use this human foible to achieve their own ends. When James Comey of the FBI publically announced that a new email investigation was underway on Hillary Clinton, and then provided no details, people, especially swing voters began to fill in the missing details for themselves. And just like in other organizations the stuff they made up was much worse than reality. It is human nature. You would expect that someone in Mr. Comey’s position would know that would happen.

Are we all really that different? A friend of mine in India, Shuba, sent me a link to an advertisement on Danish TV.  The ad showed a large group of people who are segregated into separate boxes drawn out on a large floor. They were placed into these different boxes by certain characteristics. The educated go into a certain box. People struggling to get by went into another box. Wealthy people into another box. People with somewhat scary characteristics went into another and so on. They all stood there in their separate boxes looking at each other somewhat distrustfully. Then the moderator enters and said he was going to ask them some questions. Some of which may be somewhat personal, but he would appreciate it if they answered honestly, and if the question applied to you, to walk together into the middle of the room.  The first question, “Who in this room was the class clown?” The second question, “Who in this room are stepparents?” As people from all the different and separate boxes come together they realize that they have more in common than they thought. What is the underlying commonality here? Their humanity and the normal things that happen in each and every one of our lives that make us all human. It was a very powerful message and can be seen here: https://www.onedayonly.co.za/blog/?post=this-danish-tv-ad-is-literally-the-best-weve-ever-seen-300.

You see, here is the bottom line, if we want to search for differences those differences can be found. If we want to look for the things that we all have in common, we will find that as well. The choice is ours. If we approach life as a win/loss equation, that in order for one person to win, somewhat else has to lose we will constantly be at each other’s throats. If we approach life as a win/win, all parties can find mutual benefit.  Will we let people drive us apart? Using the fears that we all harbor to achieve power and position for themselves? Or will we celebrate what we all have in common together? Our Humanity. Celebrating our humanity together is a path to common prosperity. From nothing we can create something, together.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

February 6, 2017 at 9:31 pm

Avoiding Tough Questions

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I was moved this morning when reading a piece in the paper about a 35 year old woman who was diagnosed with stage 4 stomach cancer.  She felt that her life was being unfairly cut short, especially given the way she had led her life, and her belief system up to that point. She felt that her religious beliefs should have protected her from illness.

The article reminded me of how people often avoid tough questions by answering for themselves simpler questions and by giving into a human tendency, a human need to have things that occur make sense, to have some sort of explanation (no matter how convoluted the logic) for what happens around us. The tough questions we avoid can be in the area of business, in politics, in religion or in other aspects of our lives.

When you see a celebrity endorser of a product, the advertiser is counting that you will not ask the tough questions of whether the product is right for you or if it is any good at all, but rather to have the well-known figure come across as an expert in which you should simply put your trust and buy the product. And that you can be like that celebrity, living the good life, if you too use the product. (Not all blame goes to the celebrity or “expert” as they have the same human short-comings of any of us and may come to believe in their own “expertise”.)

These two tendencies, avoiding the tough questions and the overwhelming need for explanations, causes us to rely on others, who we perceive as somehow expert, when forming our own judgements or making choices about a situation or event. What lulls us into this pattern? Sometimes the experts are right, sometimes they are wrong. When they are right we use that as justification for reinforcement of our belief system and when they are wrong we tend to dismiss the contradictory evidence or explain it away.

For instance, a high-profile crime occurs and rather than waiting for the evidence or asking ourselves and thinking through why the perpetrator acted the way they did, we tend to readily accept the hypothesized motives and explanations offered up by various media sources.

When a politician says “Trust me, it will be great”, they are also counting on these same decision-making tendencies to win support, rather than having people deeply probe their explanations to determine if they truly make sense. They use sound bites and count on human short-comings to garner support.

What can you do? The first and perhaps most important step before you simply accept what one person says to you, as they try to persuade you to their point of view is to slow down. The tendency to make quick decisions to process information in a knee-jerk reaction must be slowed down to enable you to make better decisions. Take a deep breath, think it through and ask yourself rather than taking it on faith, “does this truly make sense”?

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

February 14, 2016 at 9:21 am

Sunk Costs

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The patient in the ICU had given instructions for no heroic life support. Heroic is of course subjective as one person’s routine might be deemed heroic by another. Never-the-less over a period of almost two weeks the measures taken would be described by most any observer as heroic. How did it happen?

It started as simply some abdominal pain. A trip to the ER revealed a small perforation in the intestine, a complication of diverticulitis. The patient was admitted, put on intravenous antibiotics and a small amount of supplemental oxygen. At first the antibiotics seemed to be working, but then the patient took a turn for the worse. An abdominal abscess was discovered, the dosage of the antibiotics being given was increased and a pathology report led to a change in the type of antibiotic being used. Again, positive signs emerged. Up to this point fairly routine healthcare.

After a day or two the patient once again took a turn for the worse with the infection having turned into sepsis, an infection of the blood itself. Sepsis led to edema, where the fluids that normally travel in the bloodstream leak through small blood vessels into surrounding tissue, including the lungs. The patient now required large amounts of replacement fluid via IV as without the fluid in the blood itself, blood pressure plummets. Pressers, a class of drug to raise blood pressure, were now begun to help counter the loss of fluid. Increasing the amount of fluid of course also increases the amount of fluid leakage. And the continual fluid build-up led to each breath becoming increasingly more difficult. Abdominal pressure also caused by the fluid buildup was increasing to critical levels and it was putting dangerous levels of pressure on the internal organs. The patient was obviously struggling. A decision to intubate the patient, to breathe for the patient had to be made, it was thought that a few days, at most, of being intubated would allow the body to fight off the infection. It was only one small additional step. The family gave the go ahead to intubate.

The infection continued to rage and it was now thought that the abscess that had been discovered needed to be physically drained in order to help the body heal. A procedure was scheduled as it was only another small additional step. The abscess was successfully drained, but the patient did not improve. All of this had now been going on long enough that nutrition had become an issue. A nutritional IV bag, a very small additional step was hung and added to the numerous other medicines and fluids the patient was receiving. A few more days went by. Small signs of improvement were noted. Diuretics were started at a low level to relieve some of the pressure on the internal organs. As soon as the diuretics kicked in the blood pressure once again plummeted. One option that was out on the table was major surgery to clean out the abdominal cavity from additional abscesses that had developed. The odds of the patient surviving the surgery were not good. It was clear now that things were on a continual downward trajectory. If you took a step back and looked at the patient surround by beeping and whirling machines, IV bags, and numerous sensors, it was clear that the desire for no heroic measures had not been met and the culprit was sunk costs.

Sunk costs is a common factor in human decision-making. It is when a series of incremental decisions or investments are made, each one by itself relatively small. Each one requiring an investment in capital, effort or other resources that is made more likely because of the investment in capital, effort or other resources that have already been made. If the patient described above had known of the eventual end state of all of these incremental steps the decision path may have been different. Unfortunately, even highly skilled physicians are not omniscient. We begin to head down a certain road with our decisions and as we head down that road it is increasingly difficult to say to ourselves “we are on the wrong road, it is time to get off”.  Sunk costs. The expenditure of resources makes it increasingly more likely that an additional expenditure of resources will be made to achieve a goal, even as that expenditure makes the goal less and less attractive or worthwhile.

It happens in all sorts of situations. You buy a cute little house, which you thought was reasonably priced. You find out that it has termites. You fix the problem, and then find out it needs a new roof. After the new roof, a new hot water heater is required, then in quick order you deal with refrigerators, stoves, leaky windows, poorly done wiring from a previous renovation, a broken furnace and an air conditioning system that is refusing to work. When you take a step back, you realize that your cute little house has turned into a money pit and if you had known up front what was going to happen you never would have bought it in the first place. Most of us are also affected by a sense of positivism or optimism regarding outcomes arising from our decisions, along with the difficultly of deciding when to get off the path.

In the New York Times (1/10/16) there is a story about how the economic slowdown in China is affecting commodity prices around the world. What path are the producers of these commodities taking as the value of the commodities in the market plummets? From the Times: Chile is expanding its largest open-pit copper mine….India is building railroad lines that crisscross the country to connect underused coal mines…. Australia is increasing natural gas production by 150 percent….Oil sands in Canada are just starting to produce….Iron ore mines in West Africa are coming online…Freeport-McMoRan is finishing up a $4.6 billion dollar expansion of a copper mine in Peru.” It is so big it will consume 10% of Peru’s electricity production when operational. Freeport-McMoRan’s board, taking a step back and seeing the big picture asked the CEO to step down.

So is there anything that can be done to better recognize that you have begun down a path of sunk cost decision-making? Can you improve your decision-making abilities? The answer to both of those is yes. Decision-making, like other skills, can be practiced and practice and training can result in improvement in your decision-making. The first step? Understanding how people fall into certain decision-making paradigms traps.

 

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

January 10, 2016 at 12:14 pm

Why Do People Join Organizations?

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Why do people join organizations? A seemingly innocuous question that seems like it should be easily answered. To some extent the answer depends on which type of organization you are talking about. For instance, why do people join a certain employer over another? Why do they join various social or religious groups? Why do they join various charitable or other public interest organizations? Why do they join professional organizations? And today, many are puzzling over why people would join various terrorist organizations. You would think there would be endless reasons that drive people to sign up with these various types of entities, but in reality there are some fundamental underlying principles that drive those decisions. Let’s go through some of those fundamental driving forces.

Equity and Rewards: This is the notion that what you get out of the organization is fair for what you put into the organization. If the relationship is employer to employee, a sense of equity develops if you feel you are paid and have benefits that are fair. Pay is indeed a strong driver of satisfaction in the relationship, until people feel they are paid fairly, then it becomes almost non-existent. Equity can also be influenced by giving the person “things” they would not be able to get elsewhere. For instance, people may be willing to accept a lower salary level for longer-term career building experiences, being able to work with a person they admire, enhanced job security, earlier retirements than typical, the ability to travel, and flexibility in working hours, location or the willingness of the organization to adapt to their special needs.

You will almost always find for instance that remote, work-at-home, or part-timers (people who were intentionally looking for part-time work), are more positive than full-timers in a company facility. The reason is because they were given a position that met their unique employment needs. They would see the total equity equation, what they get out of the relationship with respect to what they put in as being “fair”.  The exception to this is when the organization treats these groups radically differently than the other “regular” employees, as “second-class employees”. In this case it is as though there are really two different company cultures being applied to the different groups. People are also driven by pure economics and will often accept lower salaries when they simply have no other options available to them.

When the relationship is not employer to employee there are still the equity equations that get solved for each organization that people choose to join. However, instead of money the sense of fairness may be fulfilled by other characteristics of the organization. For instance, a person may volunteer time at a food pantry or homeless shelter because of the fulfillment they receive by doing those activities.

So one aspect of why people join an organization is, in general, when fairness exists around the equity and rewards expectations of joining.

Meaningfulness of the job-itself, type of work or the type of activity: Ever notice how certain professions run in families? There are plenty of firefighters, police, tradespeople, accountants, doctors, lawyers, etc. who can trace back across multiple generations their ancestors who worked in the same professions. Why is that? One reason is knowledge about, and methods for entry into the profession is transmitted to others in the family, or the profession itself, (e.g. undertaker) is part of the family’s business. Another is certainly access and opportunity (sometimes unfair access). One aspect is that children often look up to their parents and will then strive to emulate them. There are other people, those who know what they want to do, or simply find certain kinds of work or experiences inherently interesting. For instance, some go into government or the military as a way to serve to their country, others go into healthcare to serve humanity, others into academia or research to further mankind’s knowledge base. People tend to join organizations that allow them to chase their dreams and to have experiences that fulfill them. People become full of pride in the organization when the mission of the organization, the meaningfulness of what they are doing, what they are accomplishing is held in high regard by themselves and others.

The Brand/Alignment with the Mission:  Another factor which influences people to join various organizations is the brand image of the organization. If a brand or the mission is well thought of in someone’s mind that makes joining that organization more attractive. The reasons which makes a brand attractive are varied. For instance, a company can be attractive if it has an outstanding reputation or industry dominating products. A religious organization may be attractive if it aligns with personal belief. A terrorist organization may have an attractive brand if it is seen as righting a wrong, aligned to personal or the beliefs of other family members, is seen as strengthening ones identity, or is viewed as more effective than the other parts of society in which it exists. A civil rights organization attracts people who are interesting in creating just conditions. People join organizations, of all types, when they see it as having an attractive brand image. The marines promote their brand as exclusive. “The few, the proud, the marines.” Not everyone can get into this organization, but if you make the cut, you become part of something special. This sense of exclusivity if you join is very intoxicating for many.

There are of course other factors that come into play, like convenience, a sense of long-term future opportunity, or little to no alternatives that influence why a person would join a specific organization. But one thing that research has shown has no effect, contrary to what you often read, are generational differences. People are mostly looking for very similar things when they voluntarily join an organization regardless of which generation they belong.

There are some separate and distinct factors that increase the likelihood of people leaving an organization and there are a few surprise explanations there as well.

© 2015 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

March 26, 2015 at 6:13 pm

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