It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.
“All models are wrong, but some are useful.” – George Box
One of my favorite models explaining how we make decisions, evaluate things, and process information is the scale. When we have no opinion about something, the scale is empty, like so:
Learning about something is a process of collecting evidence. Each piece of information we get about something is like a marble: negative information goes on one side, and positive information goes on the other side. If we see a pile of free money, it’d be all positive information:
If we saw a quarter on the floor, that would be a piece of positive information, but not quite as positive, so you’d get a slight tilt:
“You’re collecting evidence for one option or another,” says Brown University’s Amitai Shenhav. “Marbles are collecting, more marbles are collecting, the more marbles come to mind, and the size of those marbles scales with the value of those attributes.”
When the scale is clearly leaning to one side, and we’ve accumulated enough information to come to a decision about what to do, or whether or not we like something. We’ve crossed the threshold needed to come to a conclusion:
When do we spend more time collecting information?
When the scale is already leaning over in one direction, we’ve started accumulating information that favors that thing. A leaning scale means that we’ve already started building up an implicit association, an evaluation that’s so subtle, we may not even realize it.
When the scale starts leaning to one side, information supporting that side becomes easier to process. We begin selectively collecting certain marbles—and pieces of evidence—that back up the side that’s already leaning over. This information is simply easier for us to process. It’s more fluent. It confirms and is consistent with our beliefs.
When people already have an unconscious belief—even if they don’t realize it—they selectively expose themselves to information or news that confirms their beliefs—giving them more ammunition to present those hunches as fact.
The more we’re exposed to certain kinds of information, the more practice we get processing that information; information that we process faster “feels” right. It’s what we’re used to. How easily we can process or understand information makes it easy for us to mistake it for the truth.
Our implicit beliefs are the things that we believe deep in our core, even when we don’t realize it; the famous Implicit Association Test is merely a test of how quickly we connect ideas, like “white/black/our ingroup” and “good.”
Information that is inline with our pre-existing beliefs becomes easier to process, so we begin actively seeking it out, and ignoring contradictory information. In other words, certain marbles are always easier for us to pick up. If we actively dislike “the Army/feminists/vanilla,” the second we see anything that reminds us of this information, we disregard it.
One key to overcoming your decision-making biases is to have a scout mindset rather than a soldier mindset (explained in this video): seek to learn, not to defend.
For example, people who hear entire terms and roll their eyes are probably much less informed about that entire field than they realize. I used to roll my eyes at “women’s studies,” “gender studies,” and anything related to weightlifting. Immediate emotional reactions are merely signs of someone’s bias.
It appears that in one of the final round of edits, I deleted my favorite bullet point from the book, in the chapter on self-control. I’ll put it in the paperback version, but in the meantime:
Compared to people who stick with the salad, those who repeatedly eat the brownies severely undervalue their future self in the skinny jeans. Compared to people who keep hammering away studying an idea that they don’t understand, people who get distracted and start playing a game on their phone are underestimating how good it would feel to finally understand that concept.
Every smart decision you make adds value to your future self. Books are read and written one page at a time, all pounds are lost one healthy decision at a time, all relationships are strengthened one kind deed at a time, all savings accounts are padded one dollar at a time, and all marathons are finished one step at a time. Every extra minute of reading, writing, brownie-skipping, gym-hitting, hugging, thanking, saving, and stepping adds up over time.
In the interest of transparency, and because I think it’s important to be honest about these kinds of things:
Depression is a bitch. Life is hard. You never know what’s going on in other people’s lives.
You are not alone.
A huge theme in my book is how easy it is for people to give up prematurely. Not even trying something, or giving up, is probably the easiest thing in the world to do. When we get an idea of how much or what we have to accomplish to get to where we want to go, the things that stick out are what’s hard for us. The fact that bad information is stronger that good information makes sense from a survival standpoint – one mistake and we’re out of the gene pool – but focusing on this is a recipe for all kinds of mental health woes.
Years ago, when I wanted to be a science writer, I was insanely jealous of Jonah Lehrer. I figured things were easy for him because he went to an Ivy League school and had great mentors. His book was well-reviewed, he had these great assignments, and he blogged for The New Yorker and Wired. But I didn’t see the things that were hard for him. Other people don’t advertise or blog about the things that are hard for them.
It’s the classic idea that you’re comparing your insides to other people’s outsides, also called the Headwinds/Tailwinds Asymmetry.
What I got from your book, and this conversation, is that luck really doesn’t exist. It’s a made-up construct to explain people who are just trying harder and paying closer attention to how the lazy brains around them are making decisions.
In a way, sure. It’s really tempting to think everything that happens is out of my control. Because that absolves us of the hard work. And it’s easy to think that because we don’t see it.
Just thinking “this thing I want to accomplish is easier for other people!” and that’s enough to decrease your motivation—and in the end, it’s all about motivation: how motivated you are to keep going, try that thing, get better, reach out to people, maintain social connections, and focus on actions that will yield larger rewards in the more distant future.
Thinking that things are easier for other people can make our desired future feel impossibly far away, decreasing our motivation. Are things easier for other people? Yes, they are. But focusing on how you think life is unfair will merely drive you crazy.
But the flipside is that plenty of things in life are easier for you, too — you just don’t see them. People don’t see their own good luck because they simply don’t have to spend time or energy overcoming certain barriers. Is it a privilege to be a white male? You don’t think it is when you’re fixated on the hardships in your own life.
Do I feel privileged? Not on a daily basis. But the more people I speak with who have different backgrounds and daily experiences, and the more research I read about how different other people’s daily experiences are, the more I understand what things are easier for me. Unless I exercised intellectual humility and a genuine interest in other people’s perspectives, I’d mistakenly think that other people’s experiences are just like mine—only with minor tweaks. The fact that some things never even occur to it never occurs to us that some things are even obstacles is what makes them easy.
It’s easy to dismiss other people’s concerns as being “in their head” because we lack their perspective and can’t appreciate how much other factors really are obstacles to other people.
tl;dr Yes, other things are easier for some people. But fixating on that will drive you crazy and decrease your motivation to do awesome things.
What a great week! My book was featured in this roundup of new books in Bustle.
Fast Company published an excerpt of my book, explaining why your first impression of other people is often wrong.
Business Insider published this piece about how Kanye West proves why luck and success aren’t always random.