Psychology

The Stockdale Paradox

Admiral Jim Stockdale, tortured in Vietnam for 8 years, on what got him through the hardest times:

I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.

And who didn’t make it through:

The optimists. They were the ones who said ‘we’re going to be out by Christmas’. And, Christmas would come and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. Then they died of a broken heart.

The paradox:

You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

Several parallels to our current global fight against COVID-19…the perils of over-optimism and arbitrary deadlines, and the value of faith in ultimate victory.

Why we don’t believe

Because we don’t want to change our behavior:

In general, people use experts all the time, and most of us don’t spend a lot of time second-guessing experts on most issues…The big exception [is when] we reject scientific findings because we don’t like their implications.

Why it’s hard for us to change

Things are too good for us to change it all, yet too bad for us to leave anything as it is. This is the great paradox of modern times. – Rob Wijnberg

How to read hard books

A thoughtful framework for reading and understanding deeply from Brad DeLong.

First, get prepared:

  • Figure out beforehand what the author is trying to accomplish in the book.
  • Orient yourself by becoming the kind of reader the book is directed at—the kind of person with whom the arguments would resonate.
  • During and after reading, try to rephrase and improve on the argument:

  • Read through the book actively, taking notes.
  • “Steelman” the argument, reworking it so that you find it as convincing and clear as you can possibly make it.
  • Find someone else—usually a roommate—and bore them to death by making them listen to you set out your “steelmanned” version of the argument.
  • Finally, try to disprove the arguments, and decide how you feel about them:

  • Go back over the book again, giving it a sympathetic but not credulous reading
  • Then you will be in a good position to figure out what the weak points of this strongest-possible argument version might be.
  • Test the major assertions and interpretations against reality: do they actually make sense of and in the context of the world as it truly is?
  • Decide what you think of the whole.
  • Then comes the task of cementing your interpretation, your reading, into your mind so that it becomes part of your intellectual panoply for the future.
  • The limiting factor of our education is no longer access to information–it’s making the most of the information we access.

    Related: The purpose of reading is to write

    Pretending to know

    I thought further and said: “Why do men lie over problems of such great importance, even to the point of destroying themselves?” And they seemed to do so because although they pretend to know all, they know nothing. Convinced they know all, they do not attempt to investigate the truth.

    And this:

    One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.

    Happiness and satisfaction

    What we talk about as “happiness” is actually a set of biochemical reactions that happen inside our brains. About half of those are determined by our genetics, but the other half can be trained and improved.

    There are many ways to train your happiness, but I find two especially important:

    • Noticing good things around you
    • Being content without them

    Noticing good things

    Much of “happiness” comes from noticing (consciously or unconsciously) the good things around you. Practicing happiness means focusing your attention on things you find beautiful, pleasing, delicious, fulfilling. Many people find gratitude journaling a good way to do this. Mindfulness meditation builds the ability to do this throughout your life.

    Noticing good things can be easier when circumstances are good; however Victor Frankl highlights in Man’s Search for Meaning a moment when joy came from noticing a beautiful sunset even while headed to a prison camp:

    If someone had seen our faces on the journey from Auschwitz to a Bavarian camp as we beheld the mountains of Salzburg with their summits glowing in the sunset, through the little barred windows of the prison carriage, he would never have believed that those were the faces of men who had given up all hope of life and liberty. Despite that factor–or maybe because of it–we were carried away from nature’s beauty, which we had missed for so long.”

    Even those moments of noticing required a brief respite from pain, so a precursor to noticing good things is managing painful emotions. Fortunately the same practices of mindfulness and gratitude can help with processing and dealing with pain.

    Being content

    The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his own room – Blaise Pascal

    In the modern world, we’re surrounded by physical and mental stimuli at all times. When those are removed, the emotional reaction can be so intense that people would rather give themselves electric shocks than experience the boredom of silence.

    This dependence on external stimuli means our happiness is subject to our circumstances. If we can learn to be without those influences, our happiness will be more resilient. Taken to an extreme, if we were able to fully entertain ourselves with just the act of breathing, we wouldn’t need anything external to be perfectly happy.

    Again, mindfulness meditation can train this ability, as can fasting–from food, entertainment or social media–and practices like keeping the Sabbath. Intentionally restricting what we consume builds our ability to be content without those things.

    I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. – Paul, Philippians 4:11-13

    Working less, deliberately

    Interesting research on how we might be more productive working 4 days a week, and/or 4 hours a day.

    The basic premise is that humans are severely limited in our cognitive capacity, and working more than that amount of time actually causes us to do worse:

    The [productivity] curve rose steeply at first and peaked at between 10 to 20 hours per week. The curve then turned downward. Scientists who spent 25 hours in the workplace were no more productive than those who spent five. Scientists working 35 hours a week were half as productive as their 20-hours-a-week colleagues.

    I recently finished Why We Sleep, which makes a persuasive argument that while studying and exercising are important, we only learn and grow when we sleep. Perhaps our cognitive capacity is capped not by the amount we work or study, but by how much we can then solidify through rest?

    The 4-hours-a-day article closes with a similar thought:

    This is how we’ve come to believe that world-class performance comes after 10,000 hours of practice. But that’s wrong. It comes after 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, 12,500 hours of deliberate rest, and 30,000 hours of sleep.

    Be careful little eyes what you see

    The past few years have taught the human race a few surprising things about itself, and they’re not very flattering.

    First, we are not the rational creatures we think we are; our decisions are largely driven by emotions, biases, and even unrelated activities. For instance, simply using hand sanitizer can temporarily change your political beliefs.

    Second, the new way to exert power in the world is not physical but digital. Online social networks have immense mindshare and impact on our lives.

    And third, dangerous, powerful professionals are using these digital tools to manipulate us.

    Renee DiResta has written an in-depth article looking at how state-sponsored professional attackers use misinformation to divide and influence society. Increasingly, their strategy is to directly target individual citizens, through the media and social networks, feeding them misinformation to steer their minds in specific directions.

    In a warm information war, the human mind is the territory. If you aren’t a combatant, you are the territory. And once a combatant wins over a sufficient number of minds, they have the power to influence culture and society, policy and politics…
    Combatants are now focusing on infiltration rather than automation: leveraging real, ideologically-aligned people to inadvertently spread real, ideologically-aligned content instead.

    What’s especially dangerous about this kind of polarization is that it’s often good business. Digital influence is cheap, as online advertising platforms love to remind us, and angry or scared viewers are especially profitable.

    Combatants evolve with remarkable speed, because digital munitions are very close to free. In fact, because of the digital advertising ecosystem, information warfare may even turn a profit.

    If you’ve ever felt that a news show, reshared Facebook post, or blog post was designed to rile you up and make you angry…well, it probably was. And this misinformation will only get more extreme and convincing over time, as technologies like deepfaked videos move into politics.

    So what can we do against such attacks? DiResta’s analogy of the Maginot Line suggests that our current understanding of how to fight this war is outdated, and she lists several alternative defenses that will require the world to work together against the attackers. Much responsibility lies with the tech platforms to develop and enforce stronger policies and filters, but DiResta also argues:

    The government has the ability to create meaningful deterrence, to make it an unquestionably bad idea to interfere in American democracy and manipulate American citizens.

    As individuals, meanwhile, we can be far more critical in what we read and believe. Understanding that malevolent forces are constantly trying to manipulate us is a good first step.

    We can also be more careful in what we repeat and share with others, checking multiple trusted sources and fact-checkers (like PolitiFact and Snopes) before resharing an article with friends or online. The best way to influence Americans, after all, is to get another American they trust to do it for you.

    World War III is a guerrilla information war with no division between military and civilian participation. – [Marshall McLuhan, 1970](https://www.ribbonfarm.com/2018/11/28/the-digital-maginot-line/?fbclid=IwAR3t_52VLqXcaO8oy7Ve8y0I7NnlZuDg-i9dguTLW0l_p6OHKwlZgVC8XpQ)

    And there’s never been a better time to support a professional, free, and independent press. One good way to tell if a news outlet is worth trusting and supporting is, of course, how they cover the news about digital manipulation and misinformation. People and sources that deny manipulation is happening are likely not worth trusting about other things either.

    Be careful, little eyes, what you see.

    Maybe the most important fact about living in the 21st century is that we are now hackable animals.

    Suffering for joy

    I’ve long subscribed to Russell Davies’ assertion that “to be interesting, be interested“. It only follows that to be more than interesting, you need to be more than “interested”; you need to be truly passionate. The most interesting people I know are those who are completely sold out for their beliefs, their work, or their hobbies.

    Today I discovered that the root word of “passion” is the Latin passio, which means “suffering”. So it’s perhaps not entirely surprising that following your true passion often involves a fair bit of suffering. The areas in my life I’ve been most passionate about–activities, relationships, work–have all contained huge amounts of effort and “suffering”–though working hard to climb a mountain on my bike, or working late on a project I believe in, rarely feels like a bad thing.

    Of course, the other kick I’ve been on recently is mindfulness, which aims to keep you in the moment, not off on cognitive flights of fancy. And the main benefit I’ve found there is avoiding negative thoughts, which lead to suffering (as Master Yoda teaches). The very excitement and responsibility I feel in the activities I’m passionate about could be considered “attachment” that opens me up to disappointment and pain.

    So is there a unification between these approaches? Can you be truly passionate, and yet not suffer from the pain of (inevitable) disappointment?

    I think so. To me, the practice of mindfulness is about freeing myself from negative thoughts and attachments. There are certainly people who take this far enough to achieve some kind of “nirvana”, but I’m far from that. Simply reducing the pain of worldly attachment is plenty. That frees me up to pursue things that bring me joy.

    On the other side, pursuing passions is about enjoying the activities that keep me in a flow state. Again, it’s not a complicated intellectual achievement–I’m merely doing things that come naturally. The “attachment” that can cause suffering with other things I love, doesn’t seem as present when I’m working on things I’m passionate about. As a small example, when I get stopped by a red light in my car I’m often frustrated; when it happens on a bike ride I’m hardly bothered, even though it will take more effort for me to start up again. And the “suffering” required by true passions rarely feels as bad as that caused by external factors.

    In both my passions and my mindfulness I find a reduction in conscious thoughts; an increased reliance on my senses and instincts; and feelings of satisfaction, lightness, and freedom. So despite the seemingly large difference between following passions and living mindfully in the moment, I think both practices can coexist nicely, and even reinforce each other.