“Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”
- Dr. Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow
I n the previous entries in this series on the MasterSelf blog, Garrett, John, Chance, and Deep Thrill (yes, that’s the name on his birth certificate) cover different dimensions of how the world attempts to impose its influence on us.
With my entry into this anthology of awesome, I wanted to internalize that blame a bit. I’m a “radical individualism” guy — somewhere between suspicious and openly antagonistic to any ideology, philosophy, praxeology, collectivism, or any other word ending in “-y” or “-ism” that attempts to enforce a wholly-external lens on one’s mind.
But part of that philosophy of life is the correlated belief that we bear the majority of responsibility for defending our own minds. Reward and risk are positively-correlated. That is to say, as the upside increases, so does the risk and effort required to retain that individual freedom. A free man immediately post-American Revolution was keenly aware of the cost to earn liberty from the Crown. Less so the modern American man or woman, for whom the most difficult obligation in a civil sense is to choose which professional liar they will or won’t vote for.
Defending one’s own mind in this modern world is a difficult task, to be sure. Per a Nielsen survey in 2018, the average American now consumes more than eleven hours per day of external media in some form — apps, internet on their computer, television, radio, video games, etc. Most companies have marketing professionals whose sole job is to find new ways to cut through the noise and reach your awareness. More advanced companies and political organizations are leveraging behavioral economics and psychological tactics to influence the layman.
Some example of these tactics are presented by Sunstein and Thaler in Nudge as being beneficent forms of manipulation. This might be a lawn-care company nudging consumers to think in terms of their neighbors’s best interest, and so mow their yard more often to maintain the look of the neighboorhood. Another example offered is changing the default option of organ donation to “Yes” instead of “No”. However, such subtle shifts can be used in more nefarious ways by companies or cultural institutions that pursue less-ethical interests. Influence is indeed a tool of great power, with great potential to help or harm.
As one can see, the human experience is vastly complex. We are bombarded every moment with stimuli that influence our needs, wants, and perceptions. Influence operations, propaganda, narrative control, and manipulations assault us constantly. It’s overwhelming on our best days.
Filtering and defending against that chaotic input is the thankless task of your senses and brain.
Here’s the problem — they also limit, or lie to, you constantly.
We develop “Autoimmune Influence Diseases”.
T o understand how, and why, our senses limit us, we must understand first how they work.
There is a six-step model of cognition, or the mechanism of thought:
1. All relevant data that exists
2. All data detectable by our senses (and technological sensors)
3. All data downloaded to local thinking machine (computer, network, brain, etc)
4. Data perceived by decision maker
5. Data comprehended by decision maker
6. Data filtered and categorized by decision maker in preparation for action
At every subsequent step of this process, we lose context and potentially-relevant data that might enable us to make a better decision. Garrett, the owner of the MasterSelf blog, calls this “lossy transmission”. I call it “cognitive funneling”.
At step one, we have potentially-perfect decision making capabilities. Every piece of data and context that might be useful is somewhere “out there”, and is available if we can just grab it in some way. However, somewhere along the path to step two, the limits of our “sensors” (both human senses and technological resources) begin to apply and the odds of perfect cognition shrink. We now inevitably miss critical data that could help us make a better decision than the one we end up making. Here, it becomes essential to deliberately seek out information that others usually overlook, such as an opponent’s source material, provocative works that might offend us, or esoteric knowledge.
As the data we sense in some way imprints onto our organic and digital machinery for later use, we move into step three, and again experience cognitive funneling. Just as ones and zeroes can become corrupted or improperly filed on a computer, sensory data can be “misfiled” in our brains and can’t be retrieved later. To help combat this, you can develop a system of organizing or categorizing the data that you download (mentally or digitally) so that no one piece of data can nudge you towards an incorrect or misinformed decision.
Transitioning from step three to step four is where our individualized weaknesses begin to assert themselves — here, we have a “lens” of sorts. This lens is the sum of our most basic biases, primal urge, limbic-brain chemistry, and first principles. What was once raw, incidentally-filtered external data stored in our neurons begins to be processed by the software of our mind. We have already unconsciously influenced our own ability to make good decisions before our higher-order cognition is able to form rational thought.
If logic is water, we unknowingly pre-form the shape of its container at step four. This could manifest as something as simple as seeing a shadowed figure standing in a dark alley as we pass by, and assuming menacing intent; because we have pre-formed our perception (through irrational fear and the resulting rush of chemicals issued by our limbic system), we might overlook that it’s actually Batman.
We might finally consciously recognize the cognitive funneling effect at step five. This is where we achieve rational awareness of the now-limited pool of data from which to construct a decision and take action. We feel like we’re missing something, some critical data that we’re sure exists or have even heard before, but is not readily available to help us take logical, directed action at step six.
The process is akin to scattering a twenty-thousand piece puzzle all over a football field, then attempting to reconstruct a coherent portion of it on the fly. Depending on where and how you look for the pieces, what tools are available to expand and refine the search, and what you think the puzzle should like, you might get very different outcomes when facing the same situation a second time. Cognitive funneling is unavoidable, and is difficult to achieve mastery over, because so much of it happens below our conscious awareness.
This is what I mean by using the term “Autoimmune Influence Diseases” (also, because it justifies using a clickbaity title). Just as with a physical autoimmune disease where the body attacks itself because it does not recognize that something normal or beneficial should be left alone, the interdependent feedback loop between body and mind often causes a person’s entire worldview to be skewed or limited before they ever have a chance to make the “right” or “wrong” decision.
Treating Autoimmune Influence Diseases
Weakness against external influences, caused by cognitive funneling is not easily remedied. If it was curable or temporary, I’d have been able to name this article “Influenca” or something cutesy like that. But this (universal) form of mental dis-ease isn’t curable, nor temporary, and so it must be consciously managed, every moment of every day.
Part of it is inborn. We are, to some greater or lesser extent, each prone to varying degrees of comfort with risk, addiction to our own chemicals (thrill seekers come to mind), and ability to control our primal urges. The limbic system is the engine of primordial man, and without careful mastery, can cause us to act in ways that are detrimental to our social or physical well-being in a modern world.
The other part of the equation is environment, upbringing, and availability of resources — our culture. If a child grows up in a home (or system) that allows or encourages the use of violence to resolve conflict, he or she will process a given situation completely differently than an adult who was taught to favor diplomacy when he or she was a child. The combination of biology and culture is unique to each of us — and is invisible to the average person.
The first step in managing the symptoms is admitting that you are unavoidably biased and self-influenced. You must be able to see the nose on your face. Awareness of your limitations puts a leash on the worst of your self-limiting tendencies. Instead of making a decision and assuming it as 100% correct, you reframe that decision as the “best possible” in that particular moment, with that specific context and data available to your conscious mind.
The second step is to build up your available sensors as much as possible. While a blind man is limited in a certain way (in this case, his eyesight), he can train himself to maximize the tools still available to him. For example, one famous case is that of a blind man named Daniel Kish, who taught himself how to “echolocate” (using sound to navigate, as a bat does) to such an extraordinary degree that he can ride a bike, shoot a basketball, and hike in a forest without getting lost.
The third step is to build a familiarity with multiple mental models. Fluency in different ways of thinking allows you to challenge your own biases as early in the process as possible. I employ Boyd’s OODA Loop as a primary framework for positive action in an environment with multiple available choices, but will switch to the F3EAD model when I’m drilling down on a specific lane of inquiry/action (especially in business matters). I’ve also found great utility in Jamie Combs’ “4Games” framework, recognition-primed (or naturalistic) decision making, and the dynamic model of situated cognition (from which the cognitive funnel is derived). Point being, I use them all regularly and interchangeably as a way to challenge my own assumptions, lens, and decisions. I become more self-regulating, before bad decisions enforce discipline on my thinking.
Fourth, and finally, is having a deliberate process that promotes multilateral cognition. For me, this is the “PACE” planning model: Primary, Alternate, Contingency, Emergency. When I have to build a plan of action in which failure or success has consequences, I take the time to grab, assess, and sort as much as data possible. In Kahneman’s model from the exceptional Thinking, Fast and Slow, this is “slow” thinking. By building these plans and then categorizing them by risk and likelihood of success, I am forcing myself to eliminate emotional responses that would otherwise have influenced me subconsciously.
We cannot prevent the world at large from trying to influence us. Likewise, every interaction we have outside of ourselves is an attempt to act upon others without being acted upon. Such is the nature of sociability, economics, and survival itself. And while it is important to be aware of the various ways in which we can maximize this exchange of influence, it is arguably even more important to understand and mitigate the ways in which your mind influences itself.
Dum spiro spero,
Follow me on Twitter.