Do you guys have a favourite chapter?

I think questioning oneself–one’s perception of reality–doesn’t even factor for most people. It’s actually an achievement to realize that “the question” needs to be asked in the first place. And then, even once you intellectually understand that “the question” should be asked of yourself, actually asking it, repeatedly and even when it hurts, is STILL hard.

Yes. Absolutely. And my favorite chapters are ones where Thaddeus goes on about the topic.

This is a topic that I’ve spent thinking a lot about. Here are some of my thoughts.

Humans are primates. We are built to be social animals. Social animals depend on group identity. Our group, right or wrong. And are limited in size to the number of others you can track socially. Which is Dunbar’s number, and is estimated at 150 for our species.

But as the book Sapiens suggests, we’ve transferred our identity from groups to ideas. We can cooperate because we work for the same organization, share a religion, are fans of the same sports team, and so on. We attach our identity to family, ideas, social structures, etc. This took us from being social animals to supersocial animals. There is no evidence of any hominid other than homo sapiens being able to cooperate in groups above a band. But as soon as our race started showing up, we first saw long-distance trading networks, and later evidence of rapid technology transfer. Today, of course, we cooperate (if not always well) in groups of many millions. China, India and the Catholic Church are all roughly in the neighborhood of 1.4 billion.

But this ability comes with a giant downside. The fundamental group dynamic is, “My group, right or wrong.” And the idea of the group being wrong is exceptionally painful. The result is easy to see all around us - implicitly or explicitly criticize a group that someone identifies with, and that person gets angry. This is why religion, politics, and sports are often not discussed at the dinner table. Because they too easily lead to arguments.

And so, criticism of group ideas and identity causes cognitive dissonance. With a whole host of irrational behaviors following from this. Including bizarre things like groupthink. Leading to the otherwise perplexing behavior that a logical and reasonable person remains logical and reasonable as long as it isn’t about anything that they feel it is important. But as soon as it is important, logic and reason go out the window. The formerly reasonable person is entirely unaware that this happened, and will strongly deny all evidence that it happened.

I’ve known this intellectually for many years. But still it came as a shock to me in the last couple of years as I’ve been forced to face that I’m no exception to this pattern. As a result I’m deeply interested in the question of how we can actually do better. Here are the tools that I’ve found.

  1. Adopt an identity where being open to criticism is part of the identity. This is a standard prescription for avoiding groupthink. See Cargo Cult Science for a famous talk where Feynman encourages scientists to this attitude.
  2. Take as much out of your identity as possible. See Keep Your Identity Small for an essay by Paul Graham advocating this. People in professions that require good contact with reality often develop approaches to help. For example see The Ten Commandments of Egoless Programming. (The author of that cofounded the top question and answer site for programmers.)
  3. Targeted gratitude. Many traditions, both religious and philosophical, have zeroed in on gratitude as being important. Very specifically, it can help mitigate pain. In my experience, this can even help with the pain of challenges to our own identity. I was shocked at how much a little gratitude helped me become more rational about what counts for me. And it is easy for me to target gratitude with accepting feedback that helps me do better at what I most care about.
  4. Last, only because it is not under our control. Being on the spectrum. At least one friend with mild autism has told me that he’s able to separate himself entirely from his own criticism. Information on how he’s done poorly leaves him feeling pretty bad. But he’s really good at hearing it anyways. This completely fits my experiences with him.

OK, end of random brain dump. I’m happy to receive messages from anyone who has questions or thoughts of their own on this topic.

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