The learning curve

I was entering in a pub quiz on Saturday evening. Nice, especially because I was a popular team member. That was mainly because I was one of the few people there over 40, but we will ignore that fact for now. There were eight rounds of questions, we became second (yes, that was all right) and we had a lot of beer and a lot of fun.

Cartoon by Royston Robertson

Sometime during evening, the conversation turned to philosophy. One of my team members was following Harvard’s ‘Justice‘ course, after my enthusiastic recommendation. He enjoyed the lectures, thought the material was interesting, but one thing bothered him: it was of little practical use. I asked why he felt that way and he explained: “Philosophy is so vague. I’m a lawyer and in that profession, the rules are clear. But with all those philosophy lectures the conclusion is: you can look at it like this, but you can also look at it like that. I always wonder, how can I use that knowledge in real life?

This conversation gives a nice indication of how I am currently feeling in my research. Incredibly instructive, enlightening and interesting. I enjoy, struggle and learn… But I am also disturbed by the same points as my fellow student: what can I DO with al the knowledge I’m learning?

From Think 101, the incredibly interesting lecture series from the University of Queensland, to my last book, Being Wrong by Katheryn Schulz: over and over again it is explained and described how the process works in your head and body. And again and again I’m left with a ‘yes and what now?’ feeling. As Daniel Kahneman said in Think 101 (to my great frustration), when asked how you can change how you think: “Choose one aspect that really annoys you, and work hard and consistently on it. Maybe you’ll see a small change then. Don’t expect too much, because I’ve been studying how to think better for more than 20 years, and my thinking hasn’t improved significantly.”

In the studies I did after Think 101, I kept reading the fact how incredibly complex it is to intervene in the system that forms your opinions and worldviews. Not only is it difficult to specify where you should intervene (after all, opinion-forming takes place in a complex dance between intuition, emotion and mind), it is also a largely unconscious and super-fast process. We are simply too late with our interventions, by the time we think of them.

My findings are a little more hopeful when I don’t focus only on what is happening inside me. Evolution theory teaches me how important our environment, our groups are to men. And it teaches me we excel in using this group strength to work together and to learn from each other. Group processes bind and blind, as Jonathan Haidt says. It is not automatically a positive influence, this group influence. But at least my research shows me that behavior, opinion and world view may be easier to influence outside of my head than inside it.

So, it’s time for a ‘come on Marian, don’t overcomplicate everything’ summary of my research so far. With a focus on the happy, nice, positive things. On concrete points that I can really do something about. Here are my ten concrete ‘yes, I can do something with this’ points:

  • We are Homo Puppy. We have genetically evolved specifically to be less soloistic and to rely more on each other. As a result, we can learn very well by imitating others.
  • From an evolutionary point of view, we can also conclude that man has come where he is, through division of labour (and thus interdependencies), the sharing of our food (needed by the division of labour) and through stories (we were eating together anyway).
  • Our moralities are not black and white, or excluding each other. All moralities around the globe are built up around six specific elements. The great thing about this is that we have a shared language when it comes to our values and norms. The differences between groups are mainly due to the priorities we set, which element(s) we value most.
  • Stories matter (see point 2). If we can hear, feel, tell each other’s stories, we can really be in dialogue. Stories about the morality of the other, written from within, make our worldview more complete and colourful.
  • We limit ourselves with help from the confirmation bias and the Dunning-Kruger effect: we only see facts that confirm our worldview, and we think we know more than we actually know. This results in an inability to look at ourselves. This inability is almost impossible to overcome. But: we can look at another person! Working together seems to offer opportunities to escape the built in pathways in our brain.
  • We think that we think, but secretly we mostly feel. Emotion and intuition have a much greater influence on our opinion than we realise. Just think back to that research that showed that people judged moral dilemmas much more strictly when they smell fartspray. Emotion and intuition is lightning fast and inevitable. But, it is also fleeting. Giving yourself time, letting the emotion go before you form an opinion, is a very effective way to let yourself be influenced less by your unconsciousness.
  • We do not reason to seek the truth, but to convince the world we are right. This is a hard truth, but an instructive one. So every argument I think of has the ‘secret’ purpose of overturning an argument of ‘the other’. It is instructive, useful and incredibly headache-causing to look at your own arguments in this way. With every argument of your own, can you find the argument from the other perspective?
  • Openness helps the process. Making mistakes, changing opinions, being wrong: the shame that comes with it in our society is the biggest reason for the festering effect. Making mistakes and being wrong can also be light-hearted and easy. Transparency and a culture in which making mistakes is not directly linked to being inferior helps to make your head and heart more flexible.
  • Laughter and fun help enormously. The main reason why doubt, making mistakes and being wrong feel so negative is because we take it so seriously. Just look at your favorite comedy shows: making mistakes and being wrong is often an important part of the humor. Or look at children, who fearlessly look for new ways to make mistakes.
  • It is impossible to take the previous nine lessons into my daily life in their entirety. But I can play with it, practice it. Reading an article from two different moral viewpoints. Recognising the elephant (your emotional and intuitive reaction) in yourself and others. Constructing the other person’s story: if I work on it, take time for it, then I (sometimes) succeed. And when I succeed, it enriches my life.

This list is probably not complete, and certainly not completely scientifically proven. But still, it works for me: Ten lessons to get started. Ten viewpoints that help to make my world more beautiful. Ten ways to change my mind in the 21st century.

Post Scriptum

An anecdote to end the tale. Yesterday my son had to do some homework. He had to come up with arguments for or against the following statement: All teachers have to take an IQ test. He could choose whether he was for or against this statement.

Choosing was difficult, but after a lot of doubt he chose to come up with arguments against the proposition. Five minutes and three beautiful arguments later, I challenged him to come up with two or three arguments in favour of the proposition.

And although it was only five minutes before that he could hardly choose whether he was for or against the proposition, it was no longer possible for him to come up with good (not cynical or ridiculous) arguments in favor of the statement. He even yelled at me irritatedly: I can’t do that mum, because I’m too much against this!

That is how fast our mind works…… And yes, there is something we can do about it! Brain gymnastics every morning, but not to remember better or to become smarter, but to stay flexible in your mind. As the Queen of the Heart in Alice in Wonderland spoke:


Sometimes things coincide in an almost magical way. Serendipity is the word: happy coincidence. Last week I wrote one of my most serious and self-critical blogs ever. I described how I systematically marginalize groups in my own society. How I don’t hear what they have to say and don’t take their viewpoint seriously.

A bleak discovery, also because I did not have an easy solution for the problem I saw. There doesn’t seem to be a magical wand that would suddenly let me look passed my confirmation bias. Was I doomed to keep my blinkers on, not ever getting beyond a hard won peak beyond the edge of the blinkers? Are we really trapped by our own prejudices?

Fortunately, I then read an article by the Correspondent (sorry, in Dutch) about silver foxes. And I read a book about Darwin and psychology. And together they managed to get me back on track. I would like to take you with me on my way back to a positive and hopeful future.

Silver (Red) Fox standing on a small hill – CA

First the silver foxes. The article of the Correspondent actually starts quite negative. They wonder why it is that man has become the boss on earth. The Neanderthalers are stronger. Yet the Neanderthaler is now extinct in the museum, while we inhabit the world. How is that possible?

Theories about this soon take on a dark tinge. From the homo economicus to Locke’s philosophies: men are often portrayed as a race that is individualistic and in search of maximizing their own happiness. Nice when they have to be, mean when they can get away with it.

And then came those foxes. A scientist had done an experiment deep in Siberia: from generation to generation he had only bred with the least aggressive fox (it is a very aggressive breed). Nothing else was selected but friendliness.

The effect of the breeding program was far-reaching: the foxes that were bred for friendliness also changed in other areas. The foxes became more childlike, more playful. Their fur got spots. Their brains shrunk, their jaws became smaller. In short, they started to look more like puppies. It looked like the domestication of the wolf to the dog. And perhaps also, the scientists said, on the evolution of man?

Picture from the Correspondent article

The theory is that people have also been breeding for friendliness for a long time. And that we have become ‘homo puppy’ in this way. When you see the pictures, you immediately believe it: our faces are much less pronounced (jaw line smaller, eyebrows smaller) and our brain pan has shrunk. To quote the Correspondent: “People became weaker, more vulnerable and more childish. We got a smaller brain, while our world became more and more complicated. Why? And how can this be an advantage?

The advantage lies in our ability to learn socially. To learn from others. Social intelligence is what distinguishes toddlers in today’s experiments from chimpanzees. Our ability to share, to receive and to work in a group makes us more effective and, evolutionarily speaking, has probably caused our dominance on this earth. Friendliness is probably man’s greatest strength.

Graph from the article. You see that Chimps, Orangetans and People score just as high in Spacial Insight, Math and Causality. The difference is in Social Learning, people score much higher than the other great apes.

This realization made me happy. The book ‘The Righteous Mind’ by Jonathan Haidt helped me even further out of my winter dip. Not that this book is so very positive. The book tells about three important discoveries in the field of morality:

  1. Intuition comes first, rationality comes after that.
  2. Morality is more than honesty and care.
  3. We are 90 percent Chimpanzee and 10 percent Bij.

His first point boils down to the fact that according to Haidt, human reason cannot be pictured as a driver of a carriage (where the carriage is our emotion and intuition), but better a rider on an elephant. The elephant (our intuition) is so big, that it can only be adjusted marginally by the rider. The rider can try to steer, but will usually have to make due with a plausible reason why he wanted to go to where the elephant was walking anyway. In other words: in 95% of the time we do not reason to find truth, but to justify our actions.

Not very positive of course, but insightful. It became a positive thing for me when Haidt told me how to deal with my elephant. The intuitive reaction to things around you cannot be switched off. But this reaction is not only superfast (and therefore always earlier than reason), it is also fleeting. Subjects who had to wait 2 minutes to answer moral questions, answer more clearly and rationally (not triggered by the elephant) than subjects who had to answer immediately. Tranquility, time, attention: it can help to guide your elephant. It feels a bit like anger or sadness: pushing the elephant away can lead to enormous problems and is usually not as efficient, but letting it rage for a while, can give room for a more balanced conversation.

His second point is why we disagree about what is morally good. There are, says Haidt, several parts of morality. And although these parts are limited (he comes to six ‘tastes’: Care, Liberty, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority and Sacredness), the combinations that can be made with them are infinite. As a result, groups may start from the same base set of norms and values, but because they consider different parts to be the most important, they may arrive at a different moral assessment. Understanding this consideration, says Haidt, cannot be done without immersing oneself in all six parts of morality. A plea for more insight and curiosity about the other person’s truth.

Finally, Haidt discusses the eternal opposition between psychologists and sociologists: is it about the individual or the group? Haidt states that both are at essential parts of understanding morality, and that we should not skip group dynamics when trying to understand it. Group processes such as raves, religion and the Sunday football game make us more resilient, efficient and – for the others within our group at least – nice. Group processes can also have very nasty effects, especially for those we do not count as part of our group. But the solution that every person should belong to everything, John Lennon’s vision of the future in the song ‘Imagine‘, could be very negative according to Haidt. We need – he says – belonging to a group. If only because in that group we can really use the advantage we have as ‘Homo Puppy’. The Homo Puppy thrives best in a pack.

What did the book and article teach me? That I can expand my blinkers. I want and will dive into that moral plurality. From my background and environment I am much more familiar with the parts Honesty, Care and Freedom of morality. Loyalty is kind of neutral to me, Holiness is a large white space in my mind and Authority even evokes negative associations with me. I want to feel and notice how these parts are of value to other people, how they can have a positive contribution to the moral compass of a society.

The images of the Homo Puppy, who excels in learning from others, and of the rider with the elephant, who has an immediate but fleeting first reaction, will also stay with me. The Homo Puppy gives me the confidence that we can move forward together. That setting a good example really makes it easy to follow. Something we also see in today’s society. It’s not only torment and sorrow, tribalism and polarisation. There is also a Gilette advertisement (see link below), which shows how men can be a better role model for their sons.

Still from the Gillette advertising

And my elephant? From now on I will give them more attention and space just to be present. Without behaving like an unwilling follower of his preferences. He may make the first move, but if I, as his rider, will take the time to have the last laugh.

The mirror cracked

The new year starts with a new point of view for me. Or rather: the slow realisation that in my life I have ignored certain viewpoints. Not out of ill will, but out of total ignorance.

The seed for this slow awareness had already been sown at the end of last year. As I told you all in my last blog, I am now trying to follow the course ‘Religion, conflict and peace‘ at Harvard online. I say try, because the material is incredibly heavy. I do this really slowly in small chunks. The course looks at the connecting and devastating power of religion. In one of the first weeks Galtung’s theory about institutional violence was discussed. In short, this theory says that a part of our violence is in our structures and institutions: we marginalize certain groups in our society, with the result that these groups have no or reduced access to the benefits of our society. Even without ‘visible violence’ against certain groups, a society can be violent in this way.

The marginalization of certain groups is of course a hot topic in society today. The yellow jackets (A European movement) and their demonstrations give sound to the unheard: their anger comes from the feeling of not participating in society.

The marginalisation of groups is also very striking in this video by Joris Luyendijk (It is difficult to watch in English, sorry).

In the video we see a woman who votes for the PVV (our right wing party) and hopes that party can do something against immigrants. Because her foster son is unemployed, and those immigrants will be given jobs within 4 months. As the interviewer asked her how she knew this, she answered: I read it on Facebook. This clip is being shown to an audience in a theater, who are there to listen to Joris Luyendijk, an intelligent, kind of left wing, journalist. The whole audience laughs at the Facebook remark. Then, Joris claims: If you want to see what is wrong with society today, you can see it right here: the laughter in the audience.

As Joris puts it aptly: we laugh it away, but we who laugh, we are the problem. We marginalise a whole group of people, put them away as stupid. And – as he rightly says – we don’t deliberately laugh out of meanness! He says it himself, he would also have laughed if he hadn’t accidentally studied the story of PVV voters for a long time. We do it out of ignorance. We are part of a society that – to put it in Galtung’s terms – commits institutional violence against PVV voters.

Hard to realise, even heavier to write down. Yet this is the realization that slowly comes to me in recent weeks: the realization that we structurally do not allow certain groups to speak. At the moment, I’m studying homeless youngsters, and what strikes me is that I can find and read a lot of research, but that I can hardly find research based on conversations with these youngsters themselves. Studies are based on figures and facts or on interviews with social workers. Why did I never notice this before? I have worked for years in the youth domain. Why has it never occurred to me before that in all these studies into the effectiveness of youth policy, the experiences and opinions of young people and their families are seldom put central?

Take this TED talk. In it J. Marschall Shepherd, a meteorologist, describes how difficult it is for him that people do not believe in human influence on climate change. His TED talk is basically exactly as I could have told it, a few weeks ago in my research. He blames three major biasses:

In short, these biases come down to the following: you see facts that correspond with your conviction much easier (confirmation bias), you think you know more than you actually know (Dunning-Kruger effect) and you feel stress when you are confronted with experiences that affect your convictions/world view (cognitive dissonance). I have written about this in my blogs before.

According to Shepherd, these biases, combined with ignorance and misinformation (compare also with the women who got misinformation from a Facebook in the example from Joris Luyendijk) keep us trapped in our conviction.

How do we get out of this prison, according to Shepherd? We need to become aware of our biasses, we need to investigate more carefully where we get our information from and finally: we need to talk about our experiences. He confirms that with a beautiful short film (at about 10:30 in Shepherd’s TED talk, link below the photo goes to the right moment) in which another Meteorologist tells us how he found out he was holding himself in this prison: how he only looked for (and found) scientific evidence that people had no influence on the climate. And what it did to him once he realised this.

Still from the clip in which Greg tells Fishel about his discovery.

I thought it was a beautiful video, and was impressed by the idea that Shepherd posed that we should talk about our experiences. Hearing a real change of insight, actually getting to see his own biasses, by someone who told me about himself, I find this very powerful. Story telling helps to pass on learning experiences.

But, and this is a big one but, what I really regretted about the TED talk, was the superiority the talk radiated. How much stronger would the story have been if Shepherd had illustrated his argument with examples in which he himself was caught in these biasses? Why set up the argument in such a way that it seemed as if only climate deniers were stuck in the prison of ignorance and prejudice? Was this again the laughter at the PVV-voter in the audience we witnessed before?

All in all, I will start 2019 with a moment of reflection. Reflection on my own blinders. Reflection on the reality of my research, which has the goal to change ‘the other’. This XKCD is quite a striking representation of how I started this research:

I slowly let the awareness grow. Small steps, because this is quite scary. I want to do two more important things this month:

  1. I want to tell you the ‘Deep Story’ that is in the book Strangers in their own country, the story of the tea party voters from the deep south of America. This story was my first encounter with the story of the marginalized.
  2. I want to write a blog about how I think this awareness of marginalization and institutional violence is not just misery, but also a key insight into how we will be able to make our world a better place together. Namely by telling stories. The power of honest, personal, stories, has become increasingly clear to me. But more about that in a next blog.