What’s Wrong With Virtue Signalling?

What’s Wrong With Virtue Signalling? 1
Photo by Chinh Le Duc on Unsplash

With the Black Lives Matter movement expanding across the world, its opponents have found a convincing and clever-sounding way to discredit them, by drawing our attention to the real reason for their activism: virtue signalling.

Virtue signalling is the suggestion that someone is doing or saying something to elevate themselves, ascending to a delightful moral pedestal, where they’re better than the foul creatures below. But when opponents of political movements tarnish their targets with the “virtue signalling” brush, it can be cynical and misguided, because as social animals, the perceptions of others will always influence human behaviour.

While the phrase is new, there is nothing new about virtue signalling itself. It may have been amplified in the age of social media, but it’s an ancient instinct, born from evolution. In the early 70s, evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers created the idea of reciprocal altruism,1 which states that selfless behaviour can improve the evolutionary success of an animal, if the animal who benefits from the behaviour returns the favour. In game theory, the idea is known as “tit-for-tat,” and is an optimal strategy until one of the parties refuses to reciprocate. But where would the trust come from in the first place, if not from virtue signalling? Why would we cooperate with somebody who doesn’t reliably signal their virtues, and risk being cheated?

This is not to say that people should pedantically tally up the good and bad deeds of everyone they meet, and ostracise any poor sod who puts a foot wrong. Instead, it’s keeping a rough mental idea of what every person is like, to better understand whether they can be trusted. When people signal their virtues to others, they’re saying “I’m a good person who won’t swindle you.” What’s wrong with that? Reciprocity has been a fundamental motivation for animal behaviour, and it’s even helped to develop our sense of morality. It can be found in courtship, where people advertise traits such as agreeableness, fidelity, and commitment to potential mates,2 through to friendship, where people exhibit kindness and trustworthiness to win friends.

Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre proposed that certain virtues are social in nature. Imagine you’re the only survivor of an apocalypse, hunkering in a soggy bunker all by yourself. How can you be a kind person? Is it possible to be a kind person with no-one else around? Sartre doesn’t think so, because kindness is a virtue that is other-directed. Fellow French philosophers Albert Camus and François de La Rochefoucauld had similar musings about the social motivation behind our behaviour. Society is a voyeur to our action; even when we do something in secret, we may unconsciously feel shame because we compare our actions with society’s morals. The woman of the 1960s who strives for a career at the expense of her “duties” in the home may feel shame even though she’s acting in her own interests. She feels shame because she judges her acts to the standard of her society, whether right or wrong. Virtue-signalling is a natural behaviour born from our species sociability.

A modern Aristotle, sporting flare jeans and a man bun, would agree. One of his virtues includes “righteous indignation in the face of injury,”3 which matches some of the sentiment we’ve seen during the Black Lives Matter protests. His model of ethical behaviour (virtue ethics) also includes the idea of phronesis, which is using practical wisdom and prudence to act well. Phronesis is built on experience—a person can understand virtues intimately, but without having experienced situations that require their use, won’t know the appropriate time to use them. This was demonstrated by some supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement, who in a show of solidarity on social media, added the hashtag #blacklivesmatter or #BLM to their Blackout Tuesday squares, not realising that the hashtags were created to provide vital information about missing people, helplines, donation sites, and protest movements. The good intention was there, but they ended up muddying the purpose of the hashtags, and weakening their value. They wanted to support the movement, but were missing the experience needed for phronesis.

What about when good intention is absent? Aristotle would deride virtue-signalling if it lacked the intention to back up the virtue. The problem isn’t virtue signalling, it’s acting like a virtuous person merely for the sake of appearances—being high and mighty and then vanishing when real work needs to be done. These are the people who posted their black squares on social media, and then refused to hire someone because of their ethnicity. These are the women who publicly support sexual assault victims, and then privately slut shame them for their choice of clothing. These virtue signallers are moral charlatans, and they damage the reputation of admirable people who say they’re virtuous and then back it up.

Virtue signalling is an important prosocial adaptation—a tool that we use to gauge each other’s trust, friendship, and love. But we must be cautious of airing our morality if we don’t intend to follow through, and if we don’t have the experience to make a difference. Such a moral pedestal has shaky foundations, and when somebody gives it an inevitable bump, everything will come crashing down.

Article written by Lizzie Bestow and Rory Clark

References

  1. Robert L. Trivers, The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism, The University of Chicago Press
  2. Geoffrey F. Miller, 2007, Sexual Selection for Moral Virtues, The University of Chicago Press
  3. https://www.loebclassics.com/view/aristotle-eudemian_ethics/1935/pb_LCL285.193.xml

The Rotten Habit of Black and White Thinking

The Rotten Habit of Black and White Thinking 2
Black and white thinking makes asses of us. Image by 1691628 from Pixabay

When people ask me why 52% of the UK voted to leave the EU¹, I usually come up with the same answer: immigration. Brexiteers see immigration as an evil that is ruining the country, bombarded by childish memes that their thickheaded friends share on social media, and electrified by a shocking reel of Sun headlines that cattle-prodded them to the polls. They’re unable to comprehend the complexities of EU membership (few can), and cast their vote based on their racism, like frightened dogs yapping to protect themselves from the terror of the non-white hoards trying to find a better life.

Entertaining as it might be, this profile of a typical Brexiteer is untrue, falling victim to the same simplistic danger as it criticises. To make sense of something as chaotic and important as the vote of a Brexiteer, it’s much easier to discard subtlety and reduce it down to a single argument. When people ask me why 52% of the UK voted to leave the EU, I don’t consider a Brexiteer’s other potential reasons like economic regulation, trade, and sovereignty, I just choose the easiest and most common way to define them: immigration. To make sense of the carnage of Brexit, I pigeonhole 52% of the British population.

This is a common response when we’re faced with something important and complex. We feel an obligation to pick a side, but don’t want to do the research needed to better understand the situation, or people’s motives. So we simplify it down to something that resonates with us; something that we do understand, which doesn’t wobble us with cognitive dissonance, and protects our delicate egos. We engage in black and white thinking, forgoing our intelligence and becoming the very people we’re criticising.

Black and white thinking is bad for a number of reasons.

We make bad choices

We need an accurate understanding of the world to make good choices for ourselves, and for the people around us. But it’s a complicated place, and we’re all so busy, so when important events come along like Brexit, an election, or a political movement, we often get a shallow overview rather diving deep, because we’re lazy and don’t care enough to put the time in.

Continuing with the example of Brexit, if I were to make an informed decision about which way to vote, I might need to do the following:

  • Find out Britain’s immigration policies, and their economic implications
  • Find out how EU membership benefits British trade
  • Understand the government’s proposed human rights policies
  • Find out how much sovereignty Britain has as an EU member

…and much more, preferably from sources with little bias. Even if I did just one of those things, I’d be better informed and able to cast a vote that made more sense for the British people. But most people can’t be bothered, instead choosing one of a million mindless entertainments that the Internet is suffocating us with.

When we surrender to our laziness, we shrink complex issues down to a single emotional factor, ignoring all shades of grey. Our point of view is visceral, rather than grounded in fact, resulting in a bad choice that doesn’t reflect reality. Some of these choices will be innocuous, while others will tarnish our lives and the lives of our countrymen.

It’s also possible to go the other way and be a perpetual fence-sitter, despite having delved into the details of an issue. The challenge is knowing when you’ve done enough research to form a confident opinion. And if you’ve haven’t researched at all, you don’t need to pick a side.

We become stupid

When we engage in black and white thinking, we’re making a conscious choice to ignore potentially important information, and so we make fools of ourselves. The shades of grey are waiting to be discovered by those who want a more accurate and nuanced point of view, which is more difficult and time-consuming to obtain, but has the potential to make you smarter and better informed.

As we simplify an issue over and over again, casting aside all other possibilities and refusing to look deeper, we strengthen the neurons in our brains for the idea, until we become stubborn buffoons who find it impossible to perceive it in any other way. We habituate ourselves to a single simplistic assumption, and squash all creativity for the issue. We ignore nuance, and so we become dimwits.

Shaky confidence

“Black and white thinking masks itself in the disguise of certainty, and certainty feels good in an uncertain world.”

Dr. Christine Bradstreet

Black and white thinking does wonders for our confidence. It’s easier to settle on a point of view when we’ve limited the possibilities, allowing us to say “I’m right about this” with confidence. But you’re not right, you’ve just narrowed your scope, and when someone comes along with contradictory facts, your easily-won confidence is shown to be delicate as a spring daisy. Some people change their point of view when this happens, but many remain stubborn to protect their confidence/ego, and cling even harder to their daft perspective, like an intractable Flat Earther.

Simplifying the chaos of the world may fill us with self-assured certainty, but it builds a feeble confidence that can be shattered by someone willing to look deeper. Forming an opinion without looking into the details isn’t the act of a decisive leader; it’s the deed of a prosaic bootlicker.

We become predictable and boring

Rupert Murdoch’s monstrous web of media companies are an exemplar of black and white thinking. If you get your news from Murdoch, you’re in danger of becoming narrow-minded, cynical, and tedious. The primary goal of these kinds of media is to generate as strong an emotional response as possible, preferably a negative one, so that you purchase their newspapers and engage with their shows. They may harbour journalistic values and attempt to report accurately, but it’s often spun into something emotional that’ll draw you in. When you’ve spent decades reading a newspaper with headlines like YOU PAY FOR ROMA GYPSY PALACES and ‘MUSLIM CONVERT’ BEHEADS WOMAN IN GARDEN, you’re going to have trouble realising that not all Romanian Gypsies or Muslims are evil.

To have any chance of being an interesting, well-informed person, you need to delve into the details, question the validity of what you’re consuming, and engage with a variety of sources. Otherwise you risk becoming a frightened, obnoxious Fox watcher, whose imbecilic ideas are defined by sensationalism and outrage—black and white thinking that is easy to fall into if we allow ourselves.

**

As a species, we have a strong tendency to simplify complexity, so that we can understand. It’s easier to call a Brexiteer a racist than to understand his full rationale, and in this act of black and white thinking, we diminish our humanity and intelligence. To be smart, confident, engaging, and a good decision-maker, the shades of grey are where we’ll spend our time, refusing to fall into the rotten habit of black and white thinking.

References

  1. EU Referendum Results,” BBC News

Idle Curiosity is Toxic, and Makes Junkies of Us

Idle Curiosity is Toxic, and Makes Junkies of Us 3
Photo by Noelle Otto from Pexels

Whenever I see a dark cloud outside, I check the Bureau of Meteorology’s weather radar for incoming rain. I love it, especially when it comes from those dense vertical clouds that flash and rumble and darken the landscape. I’m not concerned with suitable clothing or whether to sport an umbrella, I just really want to know whether it’ll rain, and check the radar with the frequency of an addict, such is my desire to know whether the clouds on the horizon will wet my local area.

There isn’t a person on earth who could tear me away from my beloved radar. It’s one of countless services that the Internet has bombarded me with, instantly accessible, and satisfying my craving for information. It strengthens and encourages my idle curiosity—the desire to know something that has no use; pointless information that I must consume, despite it having no real value or utility. Why are we such junkies for this kind of info?

Jumping back 2,000 million years in our evolutionary timeline, when we were mere bacteria, 5,000 times smaller than a pea¹, the first information we needed was about our environment, which allowed us to move away from danger, and towards food. As bacteria, we got this information by developing an ability to detect chemical changes—our ancestors’ first ever sense. The information we needed back then was a matter of life or death, and as our species evolved into weirder and more complex creatures—sponges, fruit flies, leafy sea dragons, salamanders, peacocks, shrews, howler monkeys², and more—our senses and brains developed too, allowing us to detect and control our environments with incredible precision, eventually placing us at the apex of our food chain.

As a human in the 21st century, I don’t have to worry about being swooped and carried away by a bald eagle, or mauled by a flash of black and orange. My need for critical information has lessened, but the survival needs of my evolutionary ancestors is entrenched in my brain, and so regardless of being a modern human with a respectable job and a taste for Japanese whiskey, I still crave information because for 2,000 million years, information has been a way to predict and control my environment. When your species has evolved in a world of razor sharp teeth and claws, you want as much certainty as you can get.

Enter the World Wide Web—an unfathomable amount of information, made effortlessly accessible by Google. Our ancestors never had access to such a treasure of novel curiosities, and when it was thrust into our world in the early 90’s, we could hardly believe how incredible it was; how useful and endlessly stimulating it was. But information is only good if it improves our lives in some way, and the dopaminergic reward system in our brain doesn’t account for this distinction. It identifies the possibility of new information, and because information enhances prediction and decreases uncertainty (helping us become better survivors and procreators), it releases a squirt of dopamine that propels us towards the “reward,” regardless of whether the information is valuable.

Now, defining whether a piece of information is valuable is stepping into murky philosophical territory, where subjectivity reigns as king. In the wake of god’s timely death, assigning meaning and value has fallen to the individual. We harbour a consciousness that allows us to reflect on our decisions, and write our own commandments. What you value now falls within your responsibility, and that includes deciding whether a piece of online information is helping to improve your life, or whether you’re being lured in by the boundless novelty of the Web in order to feel “safer.”

It isn’t difficult to do. I look up a lot of useless information to satisfy my idle curiosity. For example:

  • Checking IMDB to find out where I know an actor from.
  • Checking the social media account of an old colleague to see how well he’s doing compared to me.
  • Obsessively checking my Medium stats.

The list goes on for miles. None of this information helps me. All it does is satisfy my idle curiosity; my burning desire to just know, so that my environment feels a little more predictable and certain. It’s nonsense, of course—the modern equivalent of a Neanderthal constantly peeking out of his cave to check for a tiger, except today, there’s a hell of a lot more for us to check. The reward system in our brain doesn’t know the difference between death and triviality; between tiger and actor. It just seeks, seeks, seeks, to reduce uncertainty. With so much to keep an eye on, and such easy access to it, we risk becoming insatiable automatons who spend large portions of their time pursuing pointless information. Our idle curiosity makes robot slaves of us, whose existence is defined by an appetite for the shallow and thoughtless.

There’s no value in knowing for the sake of knowing. It fragments our attention, scatters our brain, and steals away our time, while training us to be mere consumers—lab rats pushing levers for so-called rewards. As we slip into a constant state of foraging, satisfying our idle curiosity over and over, we strengthen the neurons for the behaviour in our brains, making them ever easier and favourable, and replacing neurons once used for challenging and worthwhile tasks such as reading books. Books seem laughable in the age of the Web—why read a book, when I can read a snippet? There’s no longer any inclination for the long-winded or difficult. We’ve plummeted to the abysmal reality of the information junkie, stalking the hollow pages of social media for our next hit of mindless stimulation.

Curiosity is a wonderful thing, helping our species invent technologies that extend and improve our lives. Idle curiosity is a peril that steals our attention and damages our collective intelligence. Our digital addiction has us drowning in a sea of worthless information, still desperate to satisfy our craving even as we gasp for breath.

For a lifejacket, we need only to log off.

References

  1. 2007, “Understanding the size of bacteria,” BBC Bitesize
  2. Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor’s Tale

Stoicism: a Masterclass in Emotion Regulation

Stoicism: a Masterclass in Emotion Regulation 4
Photo by Elijah Hiett on Unsplash

Consider the girl who, no matter how determined her efforts, or how much she tries to motivate herself to complete the urgent task in front of her, opens up Instagram instead. Such a dire lack of willpower is recognisable by all. I dread to think how much time I’ve wasted on insipid bullshit instead of doing something difficult and valuable. When a challenging task is before me, and I’m taut with anxious doubt, it isn’t a lack of willpower that makes me open Instagram, but my inability to deal with the anxiety. I’d do anything not to feel that emotion, and I have the most distracting and entertaining thing imaginable at my fingertips: the internet.

We don’t procrastinate because we lack self-control, but because we’re in the grip of an unpleasant emotion, and don’t know how to handle it. This is called emotion regulation—the ability to respond to negative emotion in a way that is mentally healthy, and socially acceptable. Instead of having the fortitude to wade through the unpleasant emotion, we reach for the nearest comfort instead—social media, television, drugs, or whatever is easiest. Without the ability to regulate our emotions, we can become depressed, anxious, develop eating disorders, and abuse substances1. We might also have fewer and shallower personal relationships.

The stoics were masters of emotion regulation, which is one of the reasons that their philosophy endured, and continues to grow in popularity. Though the concept of emotion regulation wasn’t clarified until the 20th century, the stoics appeared to practice a method that is now called reappraisal, which is interpreting an event in a way that will reduce its emotional impact. The following example might have been lifted from the journal of a Roman stoic:

“Somebody stole my sandals from outside my door. I needed those sandals to walk across the city for an important meeting at the Senate, which I now won’t be able to attend. At this point, the theft is already done, and there’s nothing I can do to change what has happened, so the only thing to do is carry on with my day.”

A well-practised stoic is able to reappraise the situation and lessen its power, suppressing any negative emotion that might compromise his virtue. Consider the moment that Seneca was ordered to commit suicide by the Roman emperor Nero, who suspected Seneca of being a conspirator in an assassination plot against him. This is the ultimate test of emotion regulation. Upon hearing the news, Seneca made out his will, asked his wife not to grieve, and then opened his veins without fuss. He was so well-practised in reappraisal, so at peace with his lack of control and the fate that had been written for him, that he was able to face his death with courageous equanimity.

Stoicism: a Masterclass in Emotion Regulation 5
The Death of Seneca, by Manuel Dominguez Sanchez 

How did he do it? The stoics have a few reappraisal theories and techniques that they use to regulate their emotions.

Dichotomy of control

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.”

Epictetus, The Discourses

The dichotomy of control tells us that some things are in our control, and some things aren’t. This idea is key to a stoic’s ability to regulate his emotions. The vast majority of what happens to us is outside of our control, and when something “bad” happens—a car accident, your mother’s death, buying an all-yellow bag of Starburst—a stoic knows the futility of getting upset. He’s wise enough to make a good calculation of the matter, by understanding the difference between what is controllable, and what is not. For a stoic such as Seneca, this understanding was visceral. He knew that the will of the emperor was beyond his control, and running away wasn’t an option. In such a situation, getting upset is illogical, leaving acceptance as the only remaining answer. 

Genuine acceptance of your fate cannot produce emotional turmoil, even for something as drastic as your death. Stoics such as Seneca understood the dichotomy of control so viscerally that they were able to use it to regulate their emotions, by reappraising the situation from something awful, to something uncontrollable, and therefore to be accepted.

Our transitory nature

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

Heraclitus

Everything in our universe obeys an ironclad rule: things must change. The stoics recognised that everything preferable in their lives (what they referred to as “preferred indifferents”) could be taken away from them in an instant, whether it was their children, their home, or their own lives. In the tender moments that you’re kissing your wife, Epictetus advises you to tell yourself that you’re kissing a mortal, as a reminder of their impermanence. By constantly reminding yourself of the transience of people you adore, even going so far as to meditate on their death, you’re practicing for the possibility of their actual death, which you’ll be able to reappraise and remain calm if the moment occurs. This technique is called negative visualisation, and is a form of adversity training; a toughening against the harsh realities of the world. It also makes us more grateful for what we have—a powerful perspective that has proven to make us happier2.

Understanding the changing nature of the universe helps a stoic to remain emotionally stalwart in the face of adversity. Seneca knew that just like every other organic thing in the universe, his mind and body would eventually change into something else. Nero just happened to speed it up.

Impressions

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Stoics recognise that the harm of an insult isn’t from the words themselves, as though the breath of another person carries a debilitating poison, but from our impression of the words. Like everything else in the universe, words don’t have objective meaning. Our species has given them meaning as a way to survive and procreate. If somebody tells you that your nose looks like a pickle that’s been rejected by the local supermarket, you can judge the words to have value, or you can identify them as the bleatings of a man without virtue.

We’re bombarded with impressions and judgments every day, and while we can’t control an initial impression, we can use reason to evaluate its benefit, and change it if necessary. A stoic has the capacity to reappraise her initial impressions of the world, changing the detrimental into the beneficial—a more fitting impression for a judicious philosopher.

Courage

“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”

Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius

Courage is a chief virtue for the stoics, defined as the ability to face misfortune with bravery; in recognising the mental turmoil that an event such as your death can create, and facing it with equanimity because you know it’s outside your control. The courageous man experiences just as much fear as everyone else, but acts in spite of it.

The stoics realised a fundamental truth: life is suffering, and if we want to be happy, we must be courageous enough to face our problems head on. An obstacle isn’t something to be feared, but an opportunity to practice reappraisal; a moment that demands our courage, followed by the use of reason to reappraise the situation into something favourable.

**

Being able to regulate our emotions is critical for our well-being1. The reappraisal technique reduces physiological, subjective, and neural emotional responses. That sentence remains true when swapping the words “reappraisal technique” for “stoic philosophy.” The wonderful philosophy of Stoicism can make us masters of emotion regulation, allowing us to reappraise negative impressions, and transform them into emotions that contribute to our happiness.

References

  1. Emotional self-regulation“, Wikipedia
  2. 2011, “In Praise of Gratitude“, Harvard Health Publishing

Why Boredom Can Be Profoundly Useful

Why Boredom Can Be Profoundly Useful 6
Photo by meredith hunter on Unsplash

Boredom is a state of mind that makes most people horribly uncomfortable. When all occupations temporarily leave us, and we’re left floundering alone with our thoughts, we might bear witness to a creeping sense of lethargy that seems to enclose our very souls, spawning an instinctive desire to liberate ourselves from the grievous tedium of nothingness, away from the intense feelings of apathy, depression, weariness and languor. Escape seems the logical solution to such apparent ghastliness.

Some writers would even have us believe that boredom is the consequence of a flawed character, claiming listlessness to be wholly unacceptable in such a fascinating world as ours:

“There are no uninteresting things, only uninterested people.”

G.K. Chesterton

I’m assuming that Mr. Chesterton was never forced to attend Sunday church as a child, or to spend the day watching Test cricket. Despite existing in a universe comprised of a magnitude of wonder, the shine of its splendour is still easily dulled by the bored human mind, and to classify this as a flaw seems a grave injustice.

For German philosopher Martin Heidegger, to face raw, unadulterated boredom is to stare deep into the foggy abyss, all sense of meaning obliterated, with nothing left but dreaded existential anxiety:

“Profound boredom, drifting here and there in the abysses of our existence like a muffling fog, removes all things and men and oneself along with it into a remarkable indifference”

Martin Heidegger

Boredom has a terrible rap, it seems. But despite being universally maligned, boredom has a multitude of latent benefits, like precious jewels waiting to be unearthed. As with every other emotion that we experience, boredom was developed for an evolutionary benefit: to discover what interests us, and then to motivate us towards it. It serves as a mechanism for seeking new, beneficial experiences. As one sits in a bored funk, mind devoid of focus, appealing ideas may start to emerge from the darkness, and given that doing something seems better than doing nothing, we find ourselves on the receiving end of little zaps of energy, lighting us up with intention. Many significant human advancements may have been the result of bored geniuses.

“Something’s got to happen—that’s the explanation for most human undertakings.”

Jean-Claude Baptiste (Albert Camus—The Fall)

The self-reflection and daydreaming that occurs during periods of boredom are teachers of our own desires, educating us on what we want, and then motivating us to get them. Our instinctive and immediate desire to escape from boredom—whether with social media, television, video games, or whatever else in your escapism arsenal—drowns out these valuable, insightful teachings, in favour of something entertaining, but bereft of meaning. Boredom can force us to start on the difficult and valuable thing that we’ve been putting off for years. It’s an opportunity to tend to our own requirements; to be temporarily introspective, rather than mindless content consumers.

“Boredom makes people keen to engage in activities that they find more meaningful than those at hand.”

Wijnand van Tilburg

The more we employ the numbing tactics of escapism, the greater our alienation from our true selves; those soft whispers that echo in the chambers of our minds.

“Like the trap of quicksand, such thrashing only serves to strengthen the grip of boredom by further alienating us from our desire and passion, which provide compass points for satisfying engagement with life”

John Eastwood, boredom researcher

Few people like to be alone with their thoughts, particularly the difficult ones. But running away only exacerbates them; they grow in your mind like a rapacious virus, goading you into inevitable combat. The beasts that we bury deep within are but temporary prisoners. Every attempt at distraction swells their strength, until they burst forth with a violence that cannot be ignored. Embracing boredom can help you to identify the things that truly bother you, so that you can face them head on, and with a bit of luck, defeat them.

The busyness and distraction habits that we’ve built for ourselves can have a tendency to make our brains feel as though they’re brimming with worthless clutter, and travelling with such speed as to put Speedy Gonzalez to shame. Consuming hundreds of memes, photos and videos with frantic flicks of the thumb might leave you feeling even more stressed than before. By allowing yourself to be bored on occasion, you may find that you’re less tired at the end of the day. Submitting to the odd bout of boredom is like drinking a cup of coffee without the elevated heart-rate.

Having mustered the fortitude to withstand a little boredom, the valuable thing that you decide to do may be suffused with more creativity¹. Innovation often comes from daydreaming, when your mind is in a directionless, wandering state. Only by doing nothing is there room for something to emerge. When we’re in such a state, our brain’s Default Mode Network is activated, a core component of creativity. Incidentally, this network is also activated when taking psychedelics. The empty space of boredom makes room for wondrous creativity.

“So we might try to find that stimulation by our minds wandering and going to someplace in our heads. That is what can stimulate creativity, because once you start daydreaming and allow your mind to wander, you start thinking beyond the conscious and into the subconscious. This process allows different connections to take place. It’s really awesome.”

Sandi Mann

On the surface, being bored seems a waste of our precious time; a devilish rascal to be avoided at all cost. But digging a little deeper reveals the truth: it’s a driving force of creative thinking, allows golden moments of self-reflection, and compels us towards what we value. Escaping into the glow of a screen while sucking our thumbs for comfort isn’t necessarily the best option. By relenting to our boredom, we may just stumble onto something important.

“When hit by boredom, let yourself be crushed by it; submerge, hit bottom. In general, with things unpleasant, the rule is: The sooner you hit bottom, the faster you surface. The idea here is to exact a full look at the worst. The reason boredom deserves such scrutiny is that it represents pure, undiluted time in all its repetitive, redundant, monotonous splendour.

Boredom is your window on the properties of time that one tends to ignore to the likely peril of one’s mental equilibrium. It is your window on time’s infinity. Once this window opens, don’t try to shut it; on the contrary, throw it wide open.”

 Joseph Brodsky

References

  1. Peter Enticott, ‘What does boredom to do your brain‘, Deakin University

The Nocebo Effect—The Deadly Opposite of Placebo

The Nocebo Effect—The Deadly Opposite of Placebo 7
Photo by Christopher Burns on Unsplash

Humans are a suggestible bunch. We’re constantly influenced by external factors, be it advertising, social conformity, or anything else in our environment. There’s also internal factors that affect us, and one that is utterly terrifying, like a demon lurking in our minds, waiting for its chance to strike a malevolent blow. When we’re in a regular state of stress, it’s hard to defend against. This heinous phenomenon is known as the nocebo effect.

Some historical cases explain it best. In the 70’s, a man was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer and given just two months to live. The pronouncement appeared true, and he passed away. After slicing the unfortunate chap open, however, they discovered that his tumour had not grown, and concluded that it was not the cause of his death. They speculated that it may have been the expectation of his impending death that actually killed him.

In another example, a despondent gentleman decided that existence was no longer worth it, and downed a bottle of pills. Almost immediately afterwards he rediscovered a ton of reasons to live, and dashed to the nearest hospital, collapsing when arriving at reception due to hyperventilation and low blood pressure. It was quickly discovered that the morose man was currently in the midst of a drug trial, in which unknown to him, he’d been assigned placebos. Turns out that he’d consumed a whole bottle of sugar pills, and his mind had manifested his pearly-gate-approaching symptoms. After being told the good news, he promptly recovered.

If you’re a hayfever sufferer, you might consider artificial flowers to be a safe bet. But a hundred years ago, doctors found that hayfever symptoms can be brought on by exposure to fake roses. This only worked if the person didn’t know that they were made of plastic.

In the present, modern technology is causing similar problems for people. Sufferers of Electromagnetic hypersensitivity believe that the plethora of electronic devices surrounding them make them sick. As with the other examples, these people actually manifest symptoms when exposed to what they conclude to be areas with strong electromagnetic fields. They don’t do so well in double-blind experiments though, being completely unable to identify when an intense field is present. Wind Turbine Syndrome, common in Canada, is another example of a disease created purely from suggestion.

This hideous yet fascinating quirk of the mind is called the nocebo effect—the nefarious twin brother of the much more agreeable placebo effect. Both of these are proof that our beliefs and expectations can have a direct cause on our wellbeing. The American Cancer Society claims that the placebo effect is responsible for up to a third of symptom relief for sick people. That’s a staggering amount. With this in mind, how much suffering might we be causing ourselves as a result of its malevolent twin, the nocebo effect? If we expect to have a miserable day at work, are we authoring our own fate? Are we making ourselves unwell?

Chilling as the nocebo effect is, the power of its counterpart cannot be understated. The placebo effect has the capacity to cure cancer, heal ulcers, and even persuade assumed-to-be-dead hair follicles to sprout from the heads of bald men. It’s a small part of our incredible and unfathomable ability to self-repair, which if we play our cards right, can be used to our advantage.

This extraordinary self-restoration skill only works when you’re relaxed; the moments when your parasympathetic nervous system is in play. Stressed people don’t self-heal, they self-harm. You need a healthy mind to mend your ills, and there’s a number of ways that it can be achieved.

Most importantly: meditate. It’s probably the most essential habit that you can develop for yourself, besides regular exercise. It’ll drastically reduce your stress levels; you’ll learn to distance yourself from your emotions, instead of being swept away by them; it enhances your self-esteem and acceptance, improves your memory, your focus, your energy. The list goes on.

Strong relationships are often developed and maintained by calmer people; the lonely among us suffer much more stress. Spending time with your treasured friends is essential to keep the relationship alive, and usually, a hell of a lot of fun.

Self-compassion is a powerful psychological habit for the healthy-minded among us. Just as caring, nurturing doctors and nurses have shown to accelerate the recovery of their patients, we too can cultivate a similar attitude towards ourselves, and reduce our stress levels.

Finally, do anything and everything that feels honest and enjoyable to you. Slowly make your life into something that you want, not the life that society attempts to coerce you into. Over time, the modest improvements that you make will bring your self-repair mechanisms into play more often, reducing the odious nocebo effect, and increasing the regenerating placebo effect.

The Badass Power of the Psychological Immune System

The Badass Power of the Psychological Immune System 8
The psychological immune system gives us hope in desperate situations. Photo by Kristopher Roller on Unsplash

Last week, the CEO of my company came to my desk and asked for a chat. I’ve been working at the organisation for over seven years, almost since its inception — part of the furniture, you might say. I’ve always had a good relationship with the man who was leading me silently into a meeting room, each step more ominous than the last.

“It’s not good news I’m afraid” he said, after closing the door.

“Redundancy?”

“Yes.”

My heart sped up a little, then slowed to its normal pace. As he explained the reasoning behind the loss of my job, I felt the oddest sense of serenity, like a wizened old Buddhist atop a rugged Tibetan mountain. I quietly marvelled at my sense of calm — why wasn’t I climbing the walls in anxiety? Chewing my nails down to tender pink nubs? I’m relatively calm by nature, but redundancy is a big deal, especially for a job that you’ve held for almost a decade, and I didn’t feel concerned in the slightest. I still don’t.

Daniel Gilbert is an American social psychologist, and his work on affective forecasting — our ability to predict our future emotional state — can offer some insight into my odd sense of serenity. For many, the loss of a job might be viewed as catastrophic, loaded with mental anguish and stinging embarrassment, followed by hours of consolation amid the duvet. But Gilbert and his colleagues uncovered an important truth about our ability to predict our future emotional state: we’re terrible at it¹. We constantly misjudge. Events that we think are life changing end up being brushed off with ease. Gilbert dubbed this wonderful resilience of ours a “psychological immune system,”which protects us from major negative events, so that we can continue to function without descending into unbounded, gloomy dismay.

The psychological immune system works as a kind of salesman, who convinces you to buy into your new, altered reality. The negative aspects of your previous situation become highlighted: the tedious day-to-day tasks; the absent sense of making a difference; the insufferable penis in charge of accounts. Such afflictions are brought into sharp focus, and your freedom from them is sweeter than a packet of jelly babies. Similarly, positive aspects of your new situation begin to emerge in your mind: the excitement of fresh challenges; the prospect of a better wage; the opportunity to make new friends. The psychological immune system transforms the situation from a depressing failure into a glorious opportunity, and it does this by making us believe that our new situation is better, and our old situation worse, creating a silver lining so thick as to be impenetrable.

The part of our brain responsible for decision making is the pre-frontal cortex, which works as an experience simulator¹, running through various scenarios and determining whether they’re agreeable or disagreeable. When it simulates an extreme experience such as the death of your spouse, the cyclonic destruction of your house, or the loss of your job, it usually concludes that you’re going to suffer miserably, for a long time — a term known as “impact bias.” But if these undesirable outcomes hit, your psychological immune system kicks into gear, and rather than going with your pre-frontal cortex’s woeful simulation, it narrates an entirely different story infused with confidence and hope, which you’re happy to accept because it relinquishes the anguish. Why choose to believe the grim story from your pre-frontal cortex, when you can believe the comforting story of your psychological immune system?

In our scientific age, the idea of choosing which story to believe might seem fanciful and wishy-washy, as though we’d rather exist in a cotton-candy fairytale land filled with joy, than live in the hard-edged, gritty real world. It’s like choosing the blue pill, instead of the red pill. Objective truth, however, is a tricky thing to pin down, especially regarding subjective emotion.

Let’s say I have a suspicion that my girlfriend no longer loves me, which makes me sad. While the thought itself can be objectively scrutinized for its truth (maybe she does love me), the emotion that came from the thought cannot be denied — the sadness has been experienced, therefore it exists, and is true. So why not believe the emotionally-positive, hopeful story of your psychological immune system, instead of the woeful prediction of your pre-frontal cortex? The emotions from both stories are still subjectively experienced, making them true. Rejecting your psychological immune system’s story just seems like unnecessary suffering. What are our emotional lives, after all, than the stories that we tell ourselves? Acceptance Commitment Therapy — a relatively new treatment effective at reducing anxiety² — even has a concept called “cognitive fusion” to explain the harm that we do ourselves by buying into our negative stories, counteracted with what they call “defusion” techniques.

“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”

Seneca

In my case, the psychological immune system seems only partly responsible for my blasé attitude towards the loss of my job. I’ve wanted a career change for a while, making a switch of company inevitable. This knowledge, combined with the anticipation of a redundancy payout, might have been enough to explain my calm demeanour. But the comfort and confidence that I feel going into the future is undoubtedly a result of my psychological immune system, convincing me that everything is going to be alright, like a best friend, nestled inside my own head. It’s telling me that a chapter of my life is over, and is about to be replaced with something more exciting and fulfilling.

I’m choosing to believe it.

References

  1. Daniel Gilbert, The Surprising Science of Happiness
  2. Mostafa Heydari, Saideh Masafi, Mehdi Jafari, Seyed Hassan Saadat, and Shima Shahyad, Effectiveness of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy on Anxiety and Depression of Razi Psychiatric Center Staff

Why Our Willpower Sucks

Why Our Willpower Sucks 9
Photo by Charles Deluvio 🇵🇭🇨🇦 on Unsplash

When it comes to non-habitual behaviours, most of us are terrible at sticking to our guns. Science has revealed routines that are proven to make us happier (exercise, meditation, a healthy diet, etc.), and yet we repeatedly fail to put these into practice, despite fully comprehending the long-term benefits. Why do we screw up so much?

There’s a few reasons, and most of them aren’t our fault.

As with every other living thing on Earth, we’re the products of evolution. Over the course of 4 billion years, our two main concerns were surviving, and procreating. These have been of vital importance for billions of years, and our brains have evolved to respond fiercely to them. Nowadays, when we see a pretty girl with a muffin, it’s a wonder we don’t trample her to death.

The pre-frontal cortex is the part of our brain that regulates behaviour, developing during the later stages of our evolution. Our brains are less a single, coherent unit, and more a collection of tacked on improvements, which explains why we often feel so conflicted. The ancient, primal parts of our brains want to eat and fuck everything in sight, and the modern parts attempt to remind us that those things aren’t always our best options. We have two minds, pitted against each other in battle, with psychological distress as the consequence. Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt created a fitting metaphor for this, in his book The Happiness Hypothesis:

“The image I came up with for myself, as I marvelled at my weakness, was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.” 

Jonathan Haidt

The elephant is very much in control. We shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves after failing to resist a glistening cream-filled doughnut.

In addition to battling against a burly, be-trunked mammal, we’re also up against the brain’s tendency to form habits. Repeating an action and having it ingrained into your mind as a habit is a wonderfully useful technique, until it happens for an undesirable action, such as consuming a fistful of Lindt balls. Every time our willpower fails and we do something harmful to our long-term health, that destructive habit becomes a little stronger. This is probably the biggest cause of failure for us. Even when we do have a moment of strength and hold fast against our habituated primal desires, we’re using a precious reserve of willpower which depletes over the course of the day. The cookie that we defy in the morning takes on an especially delicious glow by afternoon.

The internet and social media are also to blame. We live in an age of instant gratification — social media apps are designed to hack our reward system, turning us into twitching addicts who crave our quick-fix daily memes. We want a million delightful things at once, and we don’t want to put any effort into them. As a result, resisting what’s harmful is becoming much more difficult.

It’s not all doom and gloom, we just need to learn how to build better habits. This is one of the most important skills you can develop; Leo Babauta offers immensely helpful advice on in his blog Zen Habits. He suggests starting extremely small, and working your way up. You won’t develop a running habit if you tell yourself you’re going to run 10km every day. Neither will you be able to completely stop eating sugary treats. This is setting yourself up to fail. You need to give yourself a lot of leeway to begin with, and make slow, incremental improvements. Remember that the elephant is in control most of the time.

Another suggestion is to only focus on a single habit at a time. Figure out what it is that bothers you the most — the one thing that you’d love to start doing — and put all of your effort into that sole habit. You won’t be able to change ten things at a time; you’ll flounder and then feel terrible afterwards because you’ve failed again. Once your new habit is embedded, move onto the next. This is a process that might take years—prepare yourself for a lot of hard work. Realise that you’ll still mess up from time to time, and all that is required is to pick up where you left off.

Lastly, celebrating your success is key. Instead of focusing on what you’ve failed at, look to what you’ve achieved. Illuminate your accomplishments; remind yourself that you’re triumphing over something that you’ve flopped at for years. This will give you the motivation you need to continue.

By slowly building good habits, we can all gain a little more mastery over our elephants.

The One Reason to Complain

The One Reason to Complain 10
Image from Pixabay

Complaining is mostly a toxic behaviour. Many of us can bear witness to the gloominess that washes over us when we’re in the company of a serial whiner—we’d tear down walls to escape the situation. Every self-righteous word seems to vanquish a little bit of your soul. Suggesting a fix for the thing being complained about is futile, because that isn’t the desired outcome. Incessant whiners just want to whine, making the mustering of our own empathy nigh on impossible. People of this kind are often infected with deep-seated bitterness—their lives don’t match their expectations, and instead of having the courage to fix what’s bothering them, they relinquish the responsibility and complain instead. It’s much easier, after all.Th

There’s lots of reasons that people complain, with most them being counterproductive to our mental health. For many of us, the hardest one to resist is physical pain. Hurting is horrible, and it comes with a tendency to vocalise the experience, whether it be groaning, grunting, or divulging to our partner in monotonous detail about every unpleasant sensation. Emotional pain is just as extreme, and carries similar effects. Others may grumble for its bonding power—many a friendship has been forged in the fires of Mount Gloom; our judging and whining is met with nodding heads, and we become a little bit closer. We simply can’t believe that so and so would do such an awful thing, and by stating this fact, we’re elevating ourselves above them, dismissing the possibility that we’d ever act in such an animalistic way. Nothing is more self-congratulatory than a high horse. We’re recruiting an army of like-minded whiners—together we can set this crooked world straight!

Being spoiled is another major factor. A hungover barista forgot to put chocolate sprinkles on our cappuccino, and we can’t find the words to express how much of an idiot he is. He has one job to do. Later on our flight is delayed by an hour, and it’s literally the worst thing to happen to anyone, ever. Never mind the fact that air travel is one of the greatest of human inventions, and we’re incredibly fortunate to have it. This type of spoiled demeanour is often paired with a lack of control, fuelled by our desire to direct everything so that it works out exactly as we want it to. The instant our expectations aren’t met, a complaint flies from our lips.

Uncomfortable silences can also act as complaint enticers. If you’re with friends and an extended spell of silence falls over the group, it’s common for someone to whine or gossip about something in order to extinguish the awkwardness, particularly for older people, who tend to mop up complaints like leftover gravy. Whining feels good—it’s infinitely preferable to the tension of silence. Every complaint strengthens the neural pathways dedicated to complaining, making the road more likely to be travelled. Before you know it, you could be a serial whiner.

So should complaining be avoided at all costs? Not entirely. We all experience strong negative feelings from time to time, and bottling them up isn’t a good strategy. You may be depressed about your tedious career, and need to talk about it with your partner. If we’re to retain our sanity, we absolutely must talk about such things. Our position the most important consideration— are we playing the role of the victim? The poor helpless individual who can’t get ahead in life no matter what we do? Or are we venting our frustrations in order to make things clearer to ourselves, and our partners? Are we having a conversation which leads us down the path to a solution? If you’re complaining about something and you have no desire to improve it (or it’s outside of your control), your whining will probably make you feel worse in the long run. The next time it pops into your head, you’ll be more likely to complain about it again, because you’ve trained yourself to do so. 

The next time you catch yourself opening your mouth to complain about something, you might want to consider your position. Do you actually want to fix what you’re whining about? Or are you just assuming the role of a whimpering victim? The difference is crucial.

“See if you can catch yourself complaining, in either speech or thought, about a situation you find yourself in, what other people do or say, your surroundings, your life situation, even the weather. To complain is always nonacceptance of what is. It invariably carries an unconscious negative charge. When you complain, you make yourself into a victim. When you speak out, you are in your power. So change the situation by taking action or by speaking out if necessary or possible; leave the situation or accept it. All else is madness.” 

Eckhart Tolle

The Evolutionary Phenomenon That Makes Sport so Thrilling

“Zoom in, and then tell me ‘it’s just a game’”

@CAFC_SF88

The above picture is the moment that Charlton Athletic—a English football team based in South-East London—scored the last-minute winning goal that would promote them to the higher Championship division, the culmination of a season’s efforts to climb the ranks of the country’s football leagues.

Observe the faces of each and every supporter in the photo, and you can understand the immense impact that sports can have on people’s lives—the sheer, unalloyed joy that comes bursting forth as their team secures a victory that will enhance their position. There’s nothing contrived about this photo, just a plethora of faces—fresh-faced, wrinkled, spectacled, moustached, male, and female—brought together by a team whose actions have rocketed them into the heights of a collective ecstasy. Non-sports fans might be surprised by the emotional intensity—how can something so seemingly trivial as sport create such unbridled fervor? Isn’t it just a game?

Tribalism is the phenomenon responsible for a sport fan’s extraordinary emotional reactions—the flawless rapture that they feel as their team smashes the clincher into the back of the net. In our evolutionary past, tribalism improved our chances of survival by consolidating us into groups, who we trusted, favoured, and depended on. Our tribe became an extension of ourselves, every loss and victory. When a fellow tribesman returned from a successful hunt with a delicious deer tied to the back of his horse, his achievement was our achievement, and was celebrated as such. Similarly, when Charlton’s Patrick Bauer poked the ball past the goal line in the last minute of the play-off final, even though he was the only person responsible for the act, every single Charlton fan in the stadium claimed the victory as their own, with a roar that echoed throughout the country. When we support a football team, we’re no longer a lonely, vulnerable person desperately trying to survive, but a soldier in a formidable army, protecting each other with fierce loyalty, and marching as one. When the club makes a questionable decision—the hiring of an unproven manager; the precarious signing of an expensive player, or a new unethical owner who cares little for the team’s future—the supporters sense the danger as if it were their own; a direct threat to themselves that must be staved off. The fact that the supporters have absolutely no sway over the club’s major decisions makes no difference. It’s our tribe, we’re fully invested, and it must be protected at all costs. The sense of belonging that comes with following a football club is felt in the very marrow of our bones, and we’ll never turn our back on them. After being a supporter of a team for a prolonged period, to change teams is tantamount to treason; the offender an untrustworthy turncoat. We love our tribe and we’ll support them through thick and thin, no matter how embarrassing the performances.

The intense devotion that tribalism can create has obvious downsides, evidenced by the rise of British football hooliganism, when unquestionable loyalty leads to extreme violence. Football fans are taught that it’s good and proper to hate a rival team, just because they’re a rival team—an idiotic obligation in which all sense of logic is thrown out the window. Rival supporters are transformed into dark and deadly enemies, their basic humanity forgotten, and their pummelling justified. Our tribe is the epitome of everything good and true, theirs all that is wrong and false. Clear parallels can be drawn with nationalism and religion, where unbridled tribalism has the potential to create profound hatred. Though tribalism makes sports endlessly thrilling, evoking fervent emotion in its most dramatic moments, diligent caution is required to prevent us from slipping into illogical idiocy, in which other people can become objects of hate, guilty of nothing more than belonging to a different tribe than ours. The competitive nature of sports can warp games into mock battles, and though this is part of what makes them so exciting, the boundary between friendly competition and violent battle can become difficult to distinguish, especially when being swept along by an impassioned, five-hundred strong mob that screams for the blood of the opposition. Conformism for the sake of conformism is foolishly irrational, and in the realm of football, can quickly lead to hateful violence.

At their core, sports are just games, but our tribalistic nature imbues them with extraordinary passion, with the power to create joyful angels, or odious demons of us. A single kick can dispatch us into giddying euphoria, illustrated in each and every face in the photo above, or heart-wrenching despondency, dreams crushed into oblivion, until next season. It’s a rollercoaster ride of intense emotion, the highs non-existent without the lows; the sky-punching jubilance of victory nothing without the sharp sting of defeat. Tribalism is what makes sports so thrilling to experience, and as your club’s defender lurches forward and pokes the ball in the back of the net in the final minute of a game, sending your team soaring into the higher division, a temporary insanity takes over each and every supporter, flooded with fanatical, turbulent emotion. 

The team’s victory is your victory, and it feels indescribably fantastic.