Information Quality Checks | How To Spot Information Pollution

Identify fake news with information quality checks
Image from Dogtown Media

The internet has allowed anyone with a computer to publish their ideas online, many lacking the expertise, research skills, or objectivity to produce quality information. The result is a deluge of blogs, “news,” social posts, videos, and podcasts, impeccably designed and posted on authoritative-looking websites, tricking us into believing that the ideas are credible.

Information quality has never been so important. The rise of dangerous ideas such as climate change denial, anti-vaxxing, and the authenticity of COVID-19 are a result of people believing misinformation, and as it becomes harder to separate the wheat from the chaff, it also becomes harder to make decisions that save lives. As an anti-vaxxer tries to protect her son against autism, he dies of measles. As people gather to protest against the conspiracy of COVID-19, they indirectly kill. As narcissistic world leaders dismantle fossil fuel regulation,1 the temperature moves closer to the tipping point that drastically alters the earth’s climate,2 putting millions of people at risk.

Good information gives us a more accurate understanding of reality, allowing us to navigate the world effectively. We can make decisions that allow us, the people around us, and the rest of our species to flourish. Quality of information is critical for the wellbeing of humanity, and being able to identify whether a news article, blog, or video is credible can help you to make good decisions. 

We can’t see through the fog of information pollution unless we know how to identify it, and in this article, we’ll explain how.

Why is there so much misinformation?

The web isn’t regulated

Content posted on the web isn’t regulated. This gives people the freedom to post whatever they want, but lacks the principles and rules to ensure that the content is accurate.

While the web itself isn’t regulated, some reputable media companies have validation processes to ensure their information is as accurate as possible, for example The New York Times, the BBC, or the Wall Street Journal.

Greed

The more people who view a piece of content, the more money the creator will be able to make from advertising, paid reviews, paid subscriptions, public speaking, and other business opportunities. It’s in a content creator’s best interests to generate popular content, which isn’t necessarily the most accurate content. When faced with a choice between accuracy and profitability, it can be difficult to do the right thing.

Insufficient research, and no expert review

The world is a complex place, and many ideas are determined and affected by a large number of factors. For a piece of content to be credible, it must be rigorously researched, and if necessary, reviewed by experts. Many content creators don’t know this, and regardless of their good intentions, they end up publishing misinformation that can warp a person’s understanding of reality, leading them to harmful beliefs, and bad decisions.

Disclaimer: this article has been rigorously researched, but hasn’t been reviewed by experts.

Narrow scope

With so much content and such little time, we’ve become skimming experts. We want the specific information that we’re seeking, and we want it ASAP. So when we’re faced with a 5,000 word monster of an article that provides an excellent overview of a topic, we’ll probably close it down and find something shorter, even though the shorter article lacks the depth needed for deep understanding.

Content creators understand this, and the length of their work is shortened to suit. This can narrow the subject’s scope at the expense of explaining it effectively.

To use an example from boxing, a video editor can put together a 10-minute compilation of David Tua’s most powerful left hooks, under the title “David Tua—the best left hook in boxing.” Unless you’ve seen every one of that boxer’s fights, and watched enough boxing to get an understanding of the frequency and power of a typical left hook, you’ll be inclined to believe that David Tua has the best left hook in the sport. This is a trivial example, and it won’t affect your ability to make good decisions, but it’s something that content creators do constantly to grab your attention and get you to click on their content. It doesn’t matter if the video is accurate. What matters is that you click.

Disinformation

The information that we consume shapes our beliefs and behaviours. We can be fed information from nefarious governments, companies, groups, and individuals, who bombard us with disinformation as a way to influence our beliefs and encourage action. One of the most damaging examples of this is Russia’s supposed interference in the 2016 US election, where they bombarded American citizens with emotive social media memes, helping Trump to win the presidency.4

Pressure

Companies and individuals whose income is based on content are under pressure to create. In theory, the less content they create, the less money they make. This creates incentive to produce as much content as possible as quickly as possible, at the expense of thorough research and peer reviews.

Social acceptance

As social animals, being accepted by others is important for our mental health. An effective way to be accepted and respected by others is to create content that seems smart, well-informed, and useful. To the content creator seeking social approval, it doesn’t matter that their information is dumb, shallow, and harmful. They still get the kudos.

Information quality attributes | How to spot information pollution

Information quality is a term usually associated with the quality of information in a system (typically a computer), but we can use some of its metrics to determine if a piece of content is credible. We can also use elements from academia’s CRAAP test5 (currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, purpose). The guidelines below are a mix of these methods, with some additional checks thrown in.

Authority

When a content creator has the expertise and experience to explain a subject accurately, they’re an authority. This is one of the most important indicators for information quality.

Authority can be assessed for a piece of content in two ways: the individual who created it, and the organisation who published it.

Authority of the person

A person’s authority can be determined by their credentials and experience, usually outlined in their profile. Do they match the topic they have covered? An electrical engineer shouldn’t be telling people how to manage their diabetes.

If a content creator hasn’t listed their credentials, or if they’ve listed credentials from an unrecognised educational institution, they may not have the skills or experience needed to explain a topic accurately. People can still educate themselves and draw on their life experiences, and there’s plenty of subjects that the average Joe can elucidate, but if something complex is being explained—medicine, physics, economics, psychology, etc.—you’ll probably get more accurate information from somebody who has studied and practised it.

Of course, it’s easy for a content creator to lie about their credentials. Other information quality attributes should be checked before choosing to believe their content.

Authority of the organisation

Organisations create content for one reason: to attract an audience. Whether a newspaper, blogger, YouTube channel, or business, they’re all creating content as a way to attract or keep “customers,” and make money. Unfortunately, when money is the main reason for doing something, morals are often abandoned, and quality of information neglected. It no longer matters that content is accurate and well-researched; all that matters is that people view and share it.

The organisations with the best standards are established newspapers and media companies, whose purpose is to produce content. They usually adhere to the five principles of ethical journalism—truth and accuracy, independence, fairness and impartiality, humanity, and accountability6—which allow them to create accurate, relevant, and authoritative content. There are plenty of exceptions—most content produced by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp is trash, including Fox News, Sky News, The Sun, and The New York Post.7 Every media company is also politically biased to some degree,8 which must be recognised when viewing their content. Finally, there’s the troubling theory of every media company acting as a propaganda tool for their corporate overlords, as outlined by Edward S.Herman and Noam Chomksy in their meticulous book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. But this book doesn’t question the accuracy of the media’s reporting, just the political purpose of the stories they cover, and how they might influence you in ways that benefit the powerful. You can still get facts from a reputable paper like the New York Times, but you should ask yourself why they’re choosing to report those particular facts.

Reputation is the best indicator of an organisation’s authority. Some have built their businesses on accuracy—The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC, Al Jazeera—but others are more difficult to identify. There’s websites such as Media Bias Fact Check,9 but their analysis has been called unscientific,10 so should be viewed with skepticism. Some organisations such as Nestle, Amazon, Coca Cola, and Disney are infamous for their sins, and their lack of integrity often leads to a lack of standards, extending to any “informative” content they produce. If you’re unsure whether a company has a reputation for producing accurate information, try Googling their reputation and credibility, and reading what others have to say.

Another way to determine authority is by comparing the subject of the content with the organisation’s purpose. If you’re reading a climate change article from Scientific American, it’s clear that the topic matches their area of knowledge, and there’s a greater chance that the article will be accurate. Authority is boosted further if the organisation has been producing this kind of content for a long time (although there are exceptions to this rule).

Purpose

Content is usually created for a purpose, and identifying this purpose can help to determine whether the information is trustworthy. What is the content creator trying to achieve with their content? Are they trying to entertain you, educate you, influence you, or mislead you? Are they trying to sell you a product or service?

Fox News promotes itself as a serious news organisation, and has the trust of roughly one in four Americans.11 But the purpose of its stories are entertainment first, and information second—a more accurate name for the corporation would be  “Fox Infotainment.” There’s nothing wrong with watching Fox for amusement, but watching it for educational purposes is like asking a Nazi to teach you about Jewish history. You’ll end up with a warped sense of reality.

Content that is created primarily to educate is the most trustworthy, especially when created by somebody with authority. Discerning the purpose of a piece of content can help you to decide whether it should be believed.

Referenced evidence 

Data analysis and the scientific method allow us to understand the world more accurately than ever before. If somebody makes an unfamiliar assertion that cannot be known without data, scientific analysis, or another type of real-world evidence, they need to provide a credible reference to back up their claim. This includes climate change denial, proof of conspiracy theories, political scandals, character assassinations, or anything else requiring hard evidence to be correct. 

If a content creator can’t provide you with credible evidence for their claim (which is often the case), their content shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Scope, comprehensiveness, and completeness

“The world is too complex for simple answers, and we don’t want to be the ones giving them.”

Kurzgesagt, Can You Trust Kurzgesagt Videos? 3

Even the most seemingly simple of subjects are complex, with an intricate web of relationships. Few topics can be properly explored in a few thousand words, let alone a few hundred. To explore an idea, a content creator must understand the level of scope needed to portray it effectively. If important details are missed, the viewer may end up with biased or incomplete knowledge.

For example, to understand the dictatorial motives of Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it’s useful to know about his allegations of political corruption. Even if the scope of the article is small, it’s important to include further reading on the topic to offer the reader supporting background knowledge. The BBC are forerunners for this, providing supporting links throughout most of their news articles, allowing you to better understand the story by broadening your scope of knowledge.

Many content creators are unable to determine scope and comprehensiveness because they lack the knowledge and experience to write about a topic, which is why authority is such an important measure of quality.

Balance

As humans with values and opinions, we naturally introduce bias into content that we create. It can’t be eliminated, but it can be controlled by giving equal voice to different sides of an argument, encouraging the viewer to choose their preferred position. With people becoming more politically polarized over the last few years, content creators are moving further down the political spectrum, and as their ideas become more extreme, so does their content. This makes balance more important than ever. The more polarized we become, the harder it is to empathise with each other, and the less chance we have of cooperating. We become enemies, not friends.

If a piece of content requires both sides to be heard—for example political issues, social commentary, education—and the creator provides a one-sided argument, you may want to find something more balanced. Otherwise, you could come away with a biased opinion.

Objectivity

For content to be objective, the creator must provide you with the facts, and let you interpret them on your own. Much of the web’s content is based on opinion, which is fine when the topic is trivial, but when it’s something important that requires hard facts, the creator should try to be as objective as possible, and allow you to make up your own mind. Objectivity is a core principle for journalists.

Timeliness (also known as currency or relevancy)

Research that was considered credible in its heyday can still be found, despite it being long disproven. Francis Galton’s eugenics, aspects of B.F. Skinner’s radical behaviourism, and many of Sigmund Freud’s ideas gained a great deal of academic support at the time, but have since been obliterated or replaced by better ideas. 

Progress is fast in the modern world, so keeping an eye on the publication date for a piece of content is important, to avoid consuming out of date information. Many older ideas still hold their ground, but it’s usually worth checking for something fresher.

Composition and organisation

As a content creator, presenting an idea in a coherent, logical way is one of the hardest things to do, but it’s critical to getting the message across. It often requires diligent editing and re-editing, ensuring that each sentence, scene, or section follows logically from its predecessor, providing the viewer with the best chance of understanding the argument.

If a piece of content seems scattered and fuzzy, and you’re struggling to follow the argument, the creator may not have the skill to explain it effectively.

Who is the target audience?

Some content creators are trying to achieve a specific goal for a specific audience. Conservative tabloids such as the New York Post write stories with an anti immigration sentiment, which increases sales, and helps to push their conversative agenda. At the opposite end of the political scale, CNN is extremely liberal, and never has a good word to say about Trump (something that is difficult, admittedly).

Identifying the target audience for a piece of content allows you to uncover potential motives, and better understand why certain facts are being reported, and certain language is being used.

Uniqueness

Few ideas are original. The ideas that run through most of the web’s content come from another source, and are being expressed in a new way. Even journalists rely on news agencies for much of their information (Agence France-Presse, Associated Press, Reuters, and Agencia EFE), which they expand on and add their perspective to.

A piece of content doesn’t have to be unique for it to be valuable, but if the idea comes from another source, it can be worthwhile checking out what was originally said.

Reproducibility

In scientific studies, if a method is reproducible, it produces the same result when applied to different data of the same type. The scientific community recently went through a reproducibility crisis (or replication crisis),12 when they found that many scientific studies were difficult or impossible to reproduce, making their claims much less convincing.

If you’re reading a scientific study that hasn’t been reproduced, you can’t be sure that the conclusions of the study are accurate.

Spelling and grammar

If a piece of content is filled with spelling and grammar errors, as harsh as it sounds, the creator may not have the knowledge, skill, or intelligence to explain the topic effectively.

References

  1. Lisa Friedman, 2020, Who Controls Trump’s Environmental Policy?, The New York Times
  2. Timothy M. Lenton, 2019, Climate tipping points — too risky to bet against, Nature
  3. 2019, Can You Trust Kurzgesagt Videos?, Kurzgesagt
  4. Jane Mayer, 2018, How Russia Helped Swing the Election for Trump, The New Yorker
  5. The CRAAP Test: Critically evaluating information sources – transcript, QUT
  6. Five Principles of Ethical Journalism, Ethical Journalism Network
  7. List of assets owned by News Corp, Wikipedia
  8. AllSides Media Bias Chart, All Sides
  9. Media Bias/Fact Check – Search and Learn the Bias of News Media
  10. Media Bias/Fact Check, Wikipedia
  11. John Gramlich, 2020, 5 facts about Fox News, Pew Research
  12. Replication crisis, Wikipedia

How to Scrutinise Your Habits, and Be Happier

Black art
Photo by Viktor Nikolaienko on Unsplash

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

William Durant

Our lives consist of tiny moments, and the habitual actions that we fill them with. When we resolve to improve our lives, what we’re really doing is resolving to improve our habits, to vanquish the bad habits that build to a poisonous swarm, sowing dissatisfaction and scuppering our long-term happiness, and replacing them with good habits that fill us with blissful contentment.

Any attempt to improve our lives must start with an examination of our habits. This isn’t an easy task. We aren’t usually motivated to do something for just one reason, but are instead compelled to act because of a range of reasons that can be difficult to determine. Examining our habits therefore requires a meticulous, structured scrutiny—a deep examination of your behaviour, with the opportunity to expel the habits that sabotage your happiness. 

Here’s how it’s done. If you want to get some practical value out of this article, open up a text editor and try it yourself.

1. Decide which habit you want to examine

Any single habit will do. Maybe you want to better understand why you use Instagram, or go the gym five times a week.

2. Write down your reasons for completing the habit

Take your time, be honest, and try to list as many reasons as you can for completing your habit.

If I were to examine my habit for writing, I might list the following reasons:

  • I want people to think that I’m smart and capable, because I’m insecure about my intelligence.
  • I think I’m a naturally good writer, so writing makes me feel competent and improves my self-esteem.
  • It brings order and structure to the chaos of my thoughts.
  • I enjoy the English language.
  • It earns me a little extra money.
  • I love stories and narrative-style writing.

3. Order them by strength

Order your reasons by whatever produces the strongest motivation for you; by whichever rings the most true. If you’re using bullets, make them a numbered list.

Here’s my list:

  1. I think I’m a naturally good writer, so writing makes me feel competent and improves my self-esteem.
  2. I want people to think that I’m smart and capable, because I’m a little insecure about my intelligence.
  3. It brings order and structure to the chaos of my thoughts.
  4. I love stories and narrative-style writing.
  5. I enjoy the English language.
  6. It earns me a little extra money.

4. Try to understand whether each reason is worth it

Go through each reason, one-by-one, and consider whether it’s genuinely helping to improve your life. Do you think it’s giving you long-term happiness or contentment, or just a quick thrill that disappears faster than a Machiavellian con man? It’s difficult to identify whether something makes us happy, or will lead to a happy outcome, so this step requires much patience and reflection.

To continue with my writing examples:

I think I’m a naturally good writer, so writing makes me feel competent and improves my self-esteem

When I produce a good piece of writing that resonates with my audience, I feel a wonderful sense of confidence and achievement, and it encourages me to write again. It improves my self-esteem and makes me feel good about myself. I still find writing to be tough, and it requires perserverance to get through. But I always finish with a deep sense of satisfaction, making this reason a worthy one.

I want people to think that I’m smart and capable, because I’m a little insecure about my intelligence

This reason is similar to the above—a desire to improve my self-esteem, but considered from a difficult angle. I enjoy writing because it can make me appear smart and insightful to others, which I crave. The issue with this is that I’m placing my confidence in the hands of other people, who can’t always be relied on. Maybe they’ll like my article, or maybe they’ll hate it, and their votes have the power to make me gratified or disappointed.

As social animals who crave approval, this reason is difficult to avoid. So much of what we do is for the sake of other people (this is the foundation of social media), but it’s a whimisical, precarious form of happiness. I don’t believe that this reason is helping to improve my life.

Writing brings order and structure to the chaos of my thoughts

“Sentences are only an approximation, a net one flings over some sea pearl which may vanish.”

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf was one of the first authors to convey the chaos of our conscious minds, which rather than running as an ordered process, with one logical thought after another, is more like a bombardment of randomness without narrative or construct. I seem to have a million thoughts a day, most of which I don’t know what to do with. Writing allows me to channel the chaos into a single focused stream, producing words that attempt to clarify a particular idea or a problem, which once developed, create a long-lasting narrative that my anarchic mind can refer back to. A tiny slice of chaos has been simplified, and I feel that I better understand myself and the world, even if a little. This gives me a refreshing sense of peace and contentment: I’m not just a confused and overwhelmed ape, thrown into the world without his permission, but a temporary master of my own thoughts and destiny.

I believe that this reason helps me to improve my life.

I love stories and narrative-style writing

Life is fundamentally meaningless. The universe is a place where stuff just happens without rhyme or reason, and stories are a way for us to give meaning to these happenings. For me, writing about a particular experience is making sense of it by deciding why it must have been that way, which reduces its uncertainty, randomness, and meaninglessness. In the absence of an omnipotent god to tell me what my life means, I choose the words that come out of my head, instead.

This reason seems a worthy one.

I enjoy the English language

The English language is a fascinating mishmash of weirdness. I love the fact that I can draw from a dictionary of over a million words to make sense of the world. I can describe a toilet-roll brouhaha at the local supermarket—the kerfuffle of the  virus-fearing citizens, who need to calm down unless they want to spend a night in the local hoosegow. Or I can tell you about the disconcerting collywobbles that rubble my abdomen after last night’s hot wing challenge. Such words entertain me to the core, and I love this aspect of writing.

Writing earns me a little extra money

As much as I need and sometimes crave more money, studies show that once you have your basic needs met, more money doesn’t tend to increase your long-term happiness. I’ve never been particularly ambitious for this reason. When I write a popular article, it’s nice to get a paycheck bump from Medium. But would I miss it? Not really.

As long as a I have a full-time, steady job, this reason doesn’t seem worth it.

5. Decide whether to give up the habit

Once you’ve been through each reason, spending a good deal of time reflecting on whether they help to improve your life, you should be able to tell whether the habit is good or bad for you on balance. I believe writing to be a positive force in my life, and I wouldn’t give it up for the world, but if I completed this exercise for my social media use, I know what my conclusion would be.

**

Our actions are motivated by a range of reasons that can be difficult to determine. By breaking each of them down into their underlying reasons, we can examine them more closely, and better understand whether they’re helping to improve our lives. Putting our habits under the microscope can help us to appreciate the good a little more, and give us the motivation needed to quit the bad.

It Sucks Being Average in a Meritocracy

Dunce cat
Image from Kidkanevil

In 2012, a skinny boy joined the software company that I was working for, ten years my junior, but twenty years smarter. Within a few hours he was suggesting fixes for my lousy code. I felt immediately threatened, resentful but too proud to show it. He probably noticed anyway.

He’s a close friend today. And thank god, such natural forces are better as allies. But I can’t be chums with every clever bastard, and in a meritocracy, where people are rewarded on their intelligence and achievements, the rest of them are my enemies. The office is a carpeted battleground where my disadvantage is apparent. I lose limbs from the skillful feats of my opponents, and my own dismal failures. I’m chopped away bit by bit, reduced to a disabled and bloody stump, little worse than before.

A meritocracy takes the brutal competitiveness of nature and turns the dial up. Perform, or be outperformed. Be smart, or be outsmarted. Was it created by some clever demon who wanted to torment those of average intelligence? I seem destined to struggle in a system that illuminates my mediocrity; abandoned at the foot of a ladder too slippery to climb.

“They are tested again and again … If they have been labelled ‘dunce’ repeatedly they cannot any longer pretend; their image of themselves is more nearly a true, unflattering reflection.”

Michael Young, The Rise of the Meritocracy

I’ve worked with some blockheads over the years, their actions a sharp reminder of my own shortcomings. Once, a guy from our sales team received the contact info for a lead, and dialled 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9, believing it to be their real phone number. I can still feel my cheeks burning on his behalf. He’d learned to gloss over his repeated stupidity with roars of laughter, but his eyes brimmed with sorrow. Floundering was his default mode, like he’d been born into an ill-fitting world, where confidence is as durable as a fart in a hurricane.

In a meritocracy, self-esteem is a precious reserve controlled by our leaders, who like gods, release it at their leisure. It might be granted as a smile, a touch on the shoulder, or an awkward thumbs up, at which point we’re thrust skyward, breaching the altitude of the high-achievers, who are visibly aggrieved, but satisfied as we plummet back to inadequacy—our rightful place. Inadequacy is the destiny of the unexceptional. Gold stars aplenty, just not for us. And as we witness the effortless confidence of our glorious colleagues, every accolade received, every favourable look, every round of applause intensifies our jealousy.

Meritocracy is meant to eliminate the luck of feudalism—success purely on merit. But luck wasn’t removed, just altered. With feudalism, luck is status at birth—kings, nobles, nights, and peasants. In a meritocracy, luck is intelligence at birth. Today’s kings are determined by their brain power, not their castle-shuffling parents. Also, the luck of status remains in a meritocracy: being born into a wealthy family leads to better education, and greater intelligence. Though a meritocracy teaches us that we’re entirely responsible for our own success, it’s still highly influenced by luck.

The system makes my head spin. Every fibre of me protests. I want to clothe myself in black and storm Parliament; seize the scheming pollies by the scruff and demand something better. How can the average Joe be confident in a society that rewards intelligence, and scorns the ordinary? We’re commanded to be exceptional, yet unequipped for the job. Like American Beauty’s Angela Hayes, we realise that there’s nothing worse than being ordinary. It’s failure. Ordinary is the rule, not the exception. Most of us have to live with that.

Social media makes things worse, with its curated streams of colourful perfection, stark against the humdrum grey of our own lives. Every post reinforces our pathetic, flawed existence, until our eyes are flooded green, and heads horned. Here’s a video of a Japanese man with eight perfectly obedient Welsh Corgis, and all I have is a wily cockroach with an appetite for bin scraps. The washboard abs plastered across my news feed are cutting reminders of my own burgeoning paunch. Everyone is exceptional except me.

The solution? Break the rules. A meritocracy is just a game invented by a society that values intelligence, with victory counted in cash. There’s other values to live by: kindness, courage, humour, wisdom, fortitude, temperance, compassion, loyalty, and a ton more. Some degree of intelligence is required to earn a living, but it doesn’t have to be priority number one. If the rat race is exhausting, and you’re too fat and slow to win, there’s other races.

Our worth isn’t defined by our IQ, economic rank, or position in a company. It’s defined by whatever we merit. The beauty of Western freedom is that we don’t have to play by society’s rules. We can write our own, creating a place where status anxiety is quieted to a murmur; where the average Joes and Janes of the world can flourish in a game of their choosing, and realise that there’s nothing shameful in having an unexceptional brain.

Why Boredom Can Be Profoundly Useful

Bulldog
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

Why Honesty is the Best Policy

Marriage fingers crossed
Image from Spotnphoto

In a few short weeks, I’m about to re-enter the world of unemployment, with the intention of moving to a writing-based career. At this point, what bothers me most isn’t the sudden lack of income, or the fear of measuring up in an unfamiliar endeavour, but the fakery that tends to accompany job interviews. These rare and awkward encounters seem to me like a game of poker, in which I’m trying to convince my opponents that I have a full house, when in honesty I have little more than a pair of two’s. The deception required to bluff through a job interview, persuading your potential employers that you have all of the necessary tools to bring value to their company, is something that I’ve always loathed. What I’d really like to do is put all of my cards on the table and say “this is what I have, and I’m a nice guy who gets along with most people. Can I have a job please?” Nothing contrived or rehearsed—just pure, unadulterated honesty.

Given our species’ penchant for putting on appearances, such a situation seems foolishly utopian. Certain scenarios require us to dance the dance that has been chosen for us, or withdraw from society completely to live on our own terms, like Viggo Mortensen’s character in the wonderful Captain Fantastic. But in my experience, the varied situations that I’ve undergone during my time as a regular, city-dwelling homosapien have proven to be best tackled by being honest, as often as possible. People just seem to like you more when you’re straight with them, and those who mutter offended scoffs can go and boil their heads. This isn’t giving yourself license to act like an arse—politeness and social niceties are essential for emotional creatures such as ourselves, with the capacity for horrific violence. It’d be impossible to make friends or get along with anyone if you’re staring them down with a chimpish grin.

“Masks beneath masks until suddenly the bare bloodless skull.” 

Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses

With honesty, all manner of playacting is made redundant, and with it, all of the exhausting responsibilities required to convince the world of your brilliance. It’s the relief a theatre actor might feel when stepping away from their persona for the evening, unshackled from the obligation of remembering lines, striking poses, and fabricating emotions. Instead, every emotion is allowed to rise naturally from the depths of their soul, rather than their intraparietal sulcus—a part of the brain used when acting a role¹. New-found legitimacy engenders a wonderful lightness, as though we’ve been wearing heavy work boots for most of our lives, and have just swapped them for obscenely fluffy, Merino-wool slippers. Given the stress required to live a life of pretense, the buoyancy of honesty might even extend beyond the metaphorical, as stress makes you gain weight. As every little morsel of chicanery dissipates into the ether, our relaxation increases, until we feel able to navigate the world as unapologetically ourselves, in full defective glory. As if by magic, the words that we were previously too frightened to mutter come bursting forth, with little worry about whether it splits our audience in two, or whether we’ll upset the sourpuss in the accounts department. Honesty can have the same effect on our inhibitions as a glass of the Hunter Valley’s finest Shiraz, and feels comparably soothing. In fact, as I’ve gotten older and become gradually more honest, I find that alcohol has much less of an effect on my inhibitions, because they no longer have such a ferocious hold to begin with.

I can’t begin to imagine how much energy I’ve wasted in my life trying to paint the “perfect” picture of myself. 300 hash browns worth, at least. The kicker is, regardless of how perfect you assume your behaviour to be, there’s always a select group of people who’ll continue to dislike you. With honesty, those people are lit up like the Star of Bethlehem, which you can quickly turn your back on in pursuit of something a little more your style. Most people seem well-equipped to detect pretentious behaviour anyway—trying to hide your faults can have the unfortunate effect of bringing them into the limelight. Why not just cut the bullshit and be yourself? No longer will there be any requirement to paint yourself cool, admirable, smart, capable, attractive, or anything else that society deems important. Think of the brainpower that you’ll save for something that’s actually worthwhile, like watching season three of Stranger Things.

“To conceal anything from those to whom I am attached, is not in my nature. I can never close my lips where I have opened my heart.” 

Charles Dickens

The universe can be a pretty cruel place to exist, especially during those uncomfortable moments when we reflect on our own mortality, and what the hell it all means. Slipping into a role for which society would give a boring and predictable thumbs-up is dangerously easy, putting us on a cookie-cutter path that might destroy our uniqueness. The more honest that we are with ourselves, the likelier we are to discover off-roads that could lead us places that feel wholly authentic. We’re born into a greyscale world, devoid of any intrinsic meaning. Honesty is a paintbrush that allows us to colour the world with meaningful vibrancy—we know which colours make us wide-eyed, and we can use that knowledge to paint our masterpiece, with no instruction needed from a higher authority. Only when we muster the courage to be honest can we carve out a meaningful path for ourselves.

“Remember that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure.” 

Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

At times, reality can be a tough cookie to crack. Our existence as unique, separate beings makes us prisoners of our own subjectivity; we understand reality in terms of our senses, and from what others say about it. If everyone went about their day lying through their teeth, it’d be a lot harder for us to determine what reality actually is. Our brain’s interpretation of our senses would become king—a mediocre choice for a mass of tissue that has a ton of biases, uses mental shortcuts to make decisions, and can hallucinate the most fabulous nonsense imaginable. The level of honesty within our species plays a large role in determining our understanding of the world. If Google decided one day that its maps should only be 50% honest, you might find yourself in the middle of the desert, wondering where all of this sand came from. We owe it to our fellow humans to give them an accurate reflection of the world, whether it’s an external, shared truth such as the weather, or an internal emotional truth, like the grouchiness you’re feeling after last night’s tequila competition with a rustic hidalgo from Guadalajara. With truth comes clarity of vision for all.

“Freethinkers are those who are willing to use their minds without prejudice and without fearing to understand things that clash with their own customs, privileges, or beliefs. This state of mind is not common, but it is essential for right thinking…”

Leo Tolstoy

Bending the truth only seems necessary in times of peril, when the stakes are extremely high. You probably wouldn’t want to tell a suicide-risk friend that their new haircut makes them look like a deranged poodle, lest they make a beeline for the nearest precipice. The loveable robot TARS from Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is programmed with a 90% honesty setting, claiming absolute honesty to be an unwise approach for dealing with emotional human beings. I’d argue that 99% is the preferred setting, with the 1% reserved for those rare moments that dishonesty seems to be the correct moral choice. Anything greater seems to be unnecessary, exhausting pretense—strapping on a straitjacket and a plastered smile. In an era infected with all manner of falsity—Donald Trump; tampered elections; fake news; climate change denial; the efficacy of Capitalism; Flat Earth theory; anti-vaxxers, and much more—honesty isn’t just chicken soup for our souls, but a moral necessity, to give us the strength to claw our way out of this filthy bog of crock into which we’ve fallen.

References

  1. Stuart Jeffries, Inside the mind of an actor (literally)

Admiration is a Poisonous Crack-Sprinkled Doughnut

Doughnuts
Are you a sucker for admiration? Photo by Anna Sullivan on Unsplash

My local Aldi, despite being a regular old budget supermarket nestled amongst the modern apartment blocks of West End, Brisbane, is a hotbed of exhibitionism. It isn’t uncommon to witness a female wrapped so tightly in clothing, with flesh spilling over so generously, that it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect the bananas to start peeling themselves. Hoards of beady-eyed men are tracking her, their attempts to be surreptitious hopelessly botched, with every look repeatedly captured, collected, and deposited as self-esteem — a reserve most precious, and frequently in danger of being exhausted. One of the primary oglers is a perfectly-clipped gentleman in a Hugo Boss suit, who appears embarrassed to be shopping at such an establishment, but compensates for it by twirling his BMW keys around his fingers as he steals longing glances at the girl’s shapely buttocks. His perversion is disrupted by repeated doubts about his own intelligence, which assault him like the thundering cannons of an 18th-century French revolutionary force, day-in and day-out, never in danger of being defeated by an expensive German sports car. In the freezer department, a chap with an alarming fake tan and arms like over-inflated balloons is reaching for some hash browns, after apparently having spent the last two hours taking a nap nestled among the satsumas. As he locks eyes with the girl and reveals his gleaming veneers, she returns the compliment with a coy smile, and they slowing gravitate towards each other — two like-minded souls, finding lust in unexpected places.

Within this collection of marginally-altered apes that we call humanity, the need to impress appears loud, mighty, and determined, like Hulk Hogan in the 80s. For those whose self-esteem is teetering on empty, admiration can taste like a doughnut sprinkled with crack, containing nothing nutritious, and forming a nasty, skin-scratching addiction. Repeated consumption may result in years of punishing gym time, body ravaged in the quest for the perfect physique; endless twilight hours at the office, striving frantically for a brag-worthy job; or decades worth of social media posts, cooking up grams of claps on a rusty spoon, sucking them into a syringe, and spiking a collapsing vein. Admiration is a rotten, subpar source of confidence, yet one that we reach for time and time again, with desperate hope of being permanently raised from the depths.

My own fierce desire to measure up comes in the form of being intelligent, something I’ve never been fully convinced of. As a kid my dad would matter-of-factly tell me that I was smart, but without any common sense, pointing to my academic success and embarrassing ineptitude at anything practical. Having grown into the maturity of adulthood, and having had the time and wisdom to understand him more thoroughly, I suspect that much of this can be attributed to psychological projection: pointing out other people’s insufficiencies in order to suppress his own. While on holiday with the old rascal a couple of months back, as we were checking into a hotel, he somehow managed to walk completely the wrong way, and when he finally found us, the embarrassment from his foolish moment created a spew of self-righteous rage at having been left behind, directed primarily at my darling mother, who has more patience than all the saints in Heaven. Though he probably knew it was his fault rather than ours, he’d rather appear smart and angry, than stupid and humble. Such is the power of insecurity to warp our behaviours into something toxic. Every nagging doubt can create a collection of pretentious behaviours which, rather than alleviating the concern, pump it full of protein until it’s a bloated, gesticulating mess, impossible to ignore, and glaringly obvious to the rest of the world. All the lipstick in the world can’t hide the fact that there’s a pig underneath.

Nurture can’t be blamed entirely for our insecurities. Doubt may be born from a selection of naive comments, but its basis in reality gives it strength to endure. Sometimes I marvel at the retarded things that I do — for example, earlier in the week I missed my appointment to become an Australian citizen, because I misjudged the dates. I was able to easily reschedule, but the stinging embarrassment that I felt as I relayed the mistake to my friends and colleagues could only be numbed with bouts of humour, and pretending not to care about the fact that I’d been hopelessly inept — a languid smokescreen that disappears all-too-quickly. Attempting to quash our insecurities with approval is like trying to fight a Balrog with a rusty coat hanger.

Long-lasting confidence and self-esteem can be gained not from the admiration of the whimsical crowd, but from standing upright to the bounteous personal challenges that appear, lion-hearted. As a frightened, skinny 20 year-old kid I went to Ibiza to try my hand at DJ’ing, returning with a head full of confidence after spending a debauched summer spinning vinyl in the Balearic sunshine. Every drunken cheer from the swarming crowd, every hand grasping at the neon green lasers, and every smile from my cocaine-ravaged Spanish boss was proof of my capability — a challenge initially terrifying, but triumphed over spectacularly, with a burning sensation in the groin area to prove it. 15 years later, mustering the courage to hit the publish button on Medium yielded similar results. Who knows what challenges lay in the future, and the treasured confidence they’ll bestow? The social approval that tends to accompany an action is nowhere near as valuable as the personal achievement one feels when trying something difficult, and succeeding. Self-esteem obtained from the masses seems precarious, liable to dissipate at any moment. Hard-won achievement, on the other hand, is often entirely within our control, proving to be a reliable, tenacious source of confidence. The exhibitionists of Aldi are putting their money on a three-legged horse, when they could be entering the race themselves. They might crash spectacularly, faces in the dirt and moonish buttocks akimbo, or they might go for broke, straining every muscle in their bodies, and coming away with the win of their lives.

The Nocebo Effect—The Deadly Opposite of Placebo

Freckles man
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.

Why Slowing Down Can Make You Feel More Alive

Snail closeup
Photo by Krzysztof Niewolny on Unsplash

If a friend asks you to describe them using a single word, responding with “slow” might be suggesting that they’ve been cursed with an extra chromosome, and could result in a darkened eye and inflated lip. The word is synonymous with idiocy and dimwittedness—slow people might be considered unproductive; a waste of space. Slowing down seems like madness. Crooners such as Lionel Richie, who claim to spend their Sunday mornings at an easy and slow pace, would be laughed at by high-flying stock brokers who live at heart-straining supersonic speeds. The latter are getting things done, outracing the competition and positioning themselves at the top of every conceivable hierarchy. Their capitalist world is there for the taking—to win you have to be swift and ruthless. It’s a frenzied, ceaseless arms race — you’d better keep up, otherwise you’ll be savagely gunned down by the competition.

Millions of people are rushing through their lives in this way, charging relentlessly, blind to all detail aside from their chosen goal, which must be achieved at all costs. The irony is, if the objective is reached and all targets are hit, the odyssey that they’ve undertaken is mostly a hazy, nondescript blur. Their eyes have been so hopelessly blinkered that they’ve missed every detail of the journey, the part that actually counts. We can’t escape the present moment; the future is just a useful planning concept, it doesn’t technically exist. Permanently scanning the horizon ensures that we miss every gorgeous, proximate detail.

“Tomorrow and plans for tomorrow can have no significance at all unless you are in full contact with the reality of the present, since it is in the present and only in the present that you live. There is no other reality than present reality, so that, even if one were to live for endless ages, to live for the future would be to miss the point everlastingly.” 

Alan Watts

Time is finite, and there’s moments when we’re forced to get shit done quickly. But consistent hysteric dashing seems to crush time into something even smaller. We’re like headless chickens, rushing back and forth with feathers flying, and effectively shortening our lives in the process. “More haste less speed” is an overtaxed cliche, but it’s fabulously succinct. Paradoxical and counterintuitive as it may seem, we’re more happy and productive if we slow down.

“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” 

Lao Tzu

An entire crusade called the Slow Movement has developed as a consequence of fast-paced living, created as part of an Italian activist’s protests against the opening of a nutritionless McDonalds in central Rome, a city brimming with mouth-watering restaurants that wouldn’t be such if their talented chefs cut every conceivable culinary corner in the name of profit. Journalist Carl Honore, famed for his 2004 book In Praise of Slow, describes the movement as follows:

“It is a cultural revolution against the notion that faster is always better. The Slow philosophy is not about doing everything at a snail’s pace. It’s about seeking to do everything at the right speed. Savouring the hours and minutes rather than just counting them. Doing everything as well as possible, instead of as fast as possible. It’s about quality over quantity in everything from work to food to parenting.” 

Carl Honore

Savouring is the key word here—the ability to luxuriate in the moment, to actually experience it, instead of rushing past as though possessed by a speed demon. The Slow Movement advocates a more mellow pace to areas of life such as food, parenting, travel, and sex, its followers happy to expound the benefits of moving at a leisurely pace. Instead of watching TV while eating, they attend to the taste of what’s being chewed. Rather than whizzing around on their precious two-week holiday, attempting to cram in every possible thing to see, they adopt a more agreeable pace instead. With savouring comes joy.

Alain De Botton and his insightful School of Life believe that time can be experienced more slowly when seeking novelty, and that new encounters can be found all around us, in our everyday lives, not just within the cultural hotpots of far-flung, mysterious continents. The streets that you amble along every single day are filled with marvels, you just need to learn how to appreciate them. Time can be stretched further by simply slowing down, and opening your eyes to the dazzling and delicate detail all around you.

“These days even instant gratification takes too long” 

Carrie Fisher

Speed and frantic productivity can be an excuse to shield ourselves from internal psychological issues—there’s no time to battle with inner demons when we’re so damn busy. We gratuitously overload ourselves in order to avoid uncomfortable yet significant thoughts, which when attended to properly have the capacity to generate a great deal of long-awaited relief. Slowing down improves our mental health.

Heed the acolytes of the Slow Movement, pause from time to time, take a deep breath, and notice the world around you. There’s much joy to be had through slowness.

The Badass Power of the Psychological Immune System

Sparkler water
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

Pug looking at pie
Photo by Ameer Basheer 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.