Unification by “alien” invasion

In 2014, when he was a guest at Jimmy Kimmel Live, former president Bill Clinton talked about the possible existence of alien species out there in the ever-expanding universe. He finished the interview with a curious sentiment. “It may be the only way to unite this increasingly divided world of ours,” he said. And by “it” he meant an alien invasion from outer space.

This was not the first time this notion was put forward by a major political leader. Thirty years earlier, in his address to the United Nations General Assembly in 1987, President Ronald Reagan said: “I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside of this world.”

In an 2011 interview with Fareed Zakaria, New York Times columnist and Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman argued that an alien threat would help us set our priorities straight and fix the economy in a short period of time. He referenced a Twilight Zone episode as the source of this perspective (but is was actually an episode of The Outer Limits). In that episode, some scientists conjure up such a threat to get people to work together against a global foe.

These sentiments all stem from the fact that countries, societies, and communities are getting increasingly polarized. And the future looks bleak too. Those who govern us, often find it effective to break us up strategically to conquer our attention, loyalty, and votes. Social media and online networks seem to be using our own psychological tendencies to exacerbate and calcify the divides to gain more users, views and profits.

It seems that we are not able to naturally reverse this tide. So, before we further turn on each other, could a strictly external, common adversary do the trick?

The fantastical unifying effect of an alien invasion

Science fiction has, in fact, recurrently played with the notion of uniting humans against a common, alien enemy. Like The Outer Limits, Watchmen, the famous comic-book series and the film based on them, also imagined a main character make up the threat of a hostile alien invasion to prevent a nearing world war. Independence Day, the 1996 movie, envisioned a scenario where that invasion actually happens. And lo and behold, citizens of the world work out all their differences and unite against the common enemy to ultimately defeat it.

How realistic is this notion? Not much, unfortunately. Two top scientists on the topic, Dr. Michio Kaku and Dr. Stephen Hawking recently crashed these dreams of collective heroism against invaders from out of this world. Both agreed that, unlike our perfect track record in Hollywood movies, such an encounter would be disastrous for us, as the invasion would be likely led by aliens that are so advanced that we would be obliterated before we could even think about anything.

Hence, for now, a proper alien invasion as a precursor for a unified and harmonious world is off the table. Yet, a society that respects each other’s views and rights, and refrains from violent conflicts is far from fiction. Humans have time and time again faced the disastrous consequences of social and economic divides, which lead them to establish alliances that align their incentives and help them act in unison.

Could there be other threats out there against which all humanity can unite and actually stand a good chance? Here’s a non-exhaustive list…

“Alien” invasions we could defeat

Speaking of outer space, could an impending asteroid impact do the trick? You may once again recall this scenario from films, such as Armageddon and Deep Impact. While this catastrophe seems possible, it is distant both in space and time. Hence, if it will ever bring peace and balance to society, it won’t happen for some time. Not a very good candidate to help us quickly find common ground.

Does the common enemy always have to come from outer space? Not really. There’s ongoing famine in the world, for instance. One in ten people in the world are currently fighting malnourishment and millions are dying every year due to poor nutrition. The same people are also killed by a wide variety of curable diseases. Their existence is in danger. Unfortunately, however, these are problems that don’t seem to concern those who don’t have them. Thus a unifying common enemy needs to be affecting, at least potentially, everyone.

So, what about incurable diseases? Ebola? Zika? These are problems that for the most part we managed to contain so far, but could become a serious candidate. Can a virus wipe us out? Can we unite against it? Our track record in this domain, unfortunately, is discouraging. For example, quite recently we failed to unite against AIDS. Instead, it even gave rise to severe societal stereotypes and discriminations. Not a great candidate.

War is raging in different parts of the world. Civilians are killed and wounded by tens of thousands due to military conflicts. Yet, these tragedies often remain local. And now that attacks can be carried out by drones, the risks, the losses, and the skins in the game are further reduced for those who use them. Thus, a real common enemy needs to be more global. What about a nuclear war, then? This manmade sudden apocalypse would potentially obliterate millions in a manner of minutes. Yet it is still a war between us. In fact, nuclear proliferation historically expanded and strengthened divides rather than reducing them. So, unlikely to do the trick.

Climate change. Now, here’s a global problem with potential. Our planet may be changing in ways that will make all our lives miserable. Yet unlike a spaceship traveling at the speed of light through a wormhole, it is too slow, at least at this point of its progression. Its fuzzy nature also makes sure that a considerable number of people deny it even exists. World leaders met at the end of 2015 to see if they could find consensus on the issue. The outcome was “meh.” And since that accord, things have not progressed towards more unity, quite the opposite.

What about bacterial resistance? It is approaching faster than anticipated, it will affect everyone, it can take us back in time in terms of medical technology and effectiveness, and it will be a global threat. It can thus shake us to our core and credibly threaten our prosperity and survival.

WHO issued a statement in 2014 that the problem is no longer a future one. More bacteria will soon become antibiotic resistant. These are also called superbugs, microscopic super villains that can dodge all our available medicinal bullets. Until we will be able to devise remedies for them, our advanced treatment methods to treat diseases like cancer, may be rendered less useful, as our immune systems weakened by these treatments will now become vulnerable to this new threat. This is a real possibility, right at our doorsteps.

Finally, artificial intelligence could eventually become a global threat. Currently it is useful because it does what humans program. But who will be in control when these programs learn by themselves how to program others and we no longer know their goals? In time, they could easily question why humans even exist. One could make a long list of versions of such a dystopia, starting with the premise of the film Matrix. Who knows… we may be growing a population of aliens in our very midst.


Originally published at www.psychologytoday.com.

Future harassers beware!

How can some of those who harass others, stay under the radar for such a long time? What is the appropriate response to these cases? What could prevent them in the first place?

It is astonishing to see lately the variety and speed at which sexual harassment allegations and scandals are erupting from every corner of society. No harasser is safe: politicians, entertainers, athletes, broadcasters, businesspeople, trusted experts, public officials, leaders…Yet multiple mechanisms seem to have systematically kept such events from our experience:

  • Nobody wants to be a victim or be labeled as one. Hence, speaking up can be daunting.
  • Culprits can wield their power and influence to constrain victims’ ability to report and manage to dismiss evidence as rumor.
  • As spectators, we can give public figures a benefit of the doubt well beyond reasonable levels.
  • Those of us who are not personally subjected to abuse tend to underestimate its scars.
  • Auto-control mechanisms for ethical behavior, such as the sleep test (act so you can sleep soundly at night) or the golden rule (treat others the way you want to be treated) have not proven as effective as one would hope.

But the game seems to have changed recently. We are now finding out about lewd actions, regardless of when and where they took place. Silenced individual voices have started to bundle into convincing stories. Also, the ongoing scrutiny of previous cases seems to encourage many victims to dive into their repressed and painful experiences and share them more freely with the rest of us.

Absence of visible and immediate experience

Learning would be much easier if life was like tennis. Any decision on a tennis court has immediate, observable consequences. When you hit a 100 mph serve, you’ll receive the response in a matter of seconds. No exceptions. If you abuse the rules, throw your racket around, harass your opponent or attempt to cheat, others in and around the court will see that behavior. In an official game or even in a semi-serious practice, you know you’ll be warned or sanctioned on the spot. Your reputation as a player and as a human being will be in ruins too.

Life is not like tennis, however. Decisions may or may not have certain visible consequences. Harmful behavior toward others can go unnoticed. Even in cases where offenders are eventually found out, there tends to be a time-gap between decisions and outcomes: what one does now can surface many years later. These complications make it hard to learn the correct lessons from experience. It also does not help that we are usually oblivious to our limitations: we tend to think that experience is a great teacher. What’s out of sight thus remains out of mind, sometimes for an unduly long time.

Change and urgent need for further change

Social media as a deterrent. A major contributor to our learning about the extent of harassment is undoubtedly the social media. We are more connected than ever in the history of humanity. As a result, news can travel faster and wider than ever before. Reports on public figures grab immediate attention and get promptly shared with others. This mechanism will likely be an effective deterrent against harassment: those who think of acting in inappropriate ways will be forced to think about the potential intense public backlash they will receive through retweets, memes, and scores of online commentary.

In fact, those who came forward with their stories might already have saved many potential victims and prevented future scandals.

Missing stories. The sheer number and variety of accusations should give us a clue about the prevalence of harassment in general. Just because we don’t hear from certain professions or countries does not mean that there are no similar cases. Differences in rules and culture can ensure that much remains hidden. In the UK, for example, the system of reporting misconduct is different from the U.S.: the burden of proof is heavily tilted towards the accusers. Hence, cases can remain in the dark indefinitely if court-admissible evidence is missing. In other countries, distrust in the judicial system or large power differentials can cause problems.

The question then becomes: what is still missing from our experience? Is the situation actually similar in other domains and areas of the world?

Adapting the law. Various types of previously hidden misbehavior are becoming widely available to our daily experience. The situation, as a result, is starting to resemble tennis more in terms of learning. Yet this is not enough. We still need to figure out as a society how to appropriately categorize and treat in a consistent way those who choose to continuously hurt other players. Our reactions should ideally vary from case to case, depending on the nature and severity of the situation. But more importantly, the law needs to catch up with technology. Currently, everything revolves around public reactions, which is susceptible to both unpunished crimes and false accusations. There should be a due process through which crimes are identified and punishments are delivered in a just way we can agree on.

We’ll need to be careful in the messages we give to future harassers, as they will learn from this experience, and act accordingly.

Originally published in psychologytoday.com

Lesson from Harry Potter

The world has just celebrated the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter. One can now spend hours going through thought-provoking analyses, insightful lists, and entertaining content created for the occasion. Yet, there is one aspect of this story that is essential for anybody who strives to create ideas, be it a writer, an artist, or an entrepreneur.

That part is soul-crushing, sleep-depriving, appetite-robbing rejection.

When it was first written, Harry Potter apparently got rejected by not one, not three, not five, but a dozen publishers. Even the person who eventually agreed to publish it reportedly did not jump on the idea and initially published only a thousand copies. Think about your experience with Harry Potter over the past two decades and ask yourself: how is that possible? This has got to be one of the most interesting aspects of this groundbreaking saga, and it is both upsetting and great news for the rest of us.

Was Harry Potter a bad idea right before it was great?

Given the size of Harry Potter’s eventual success, one would expect that publishers, filmmakers and agents from all over the world would be racing to sign Rowling the minute she finished writing the first book and started to show it around. One would imagine that the experts in the business, who stood to make millions in terms of money and prestige during decades to come, would have seen Harry Potter light up as a bright blip in their radars long before it became a smash hit.

But the opposite occurred. When Rowling approached publishers, they weren’t impressed. All the incentives, experience and expertise in the world did not help them identify Harry Potter as an opportunity. So, right before Harry Potter became an extraordinary success story, it was an ordinary failure.

It’s easy to write glorifying stories of why something became successful after the fact. When I ask my students — some of whom are executives — why Harry Potter is so successful, they always offer some concrete reasons:

“It’s about an underprivileged boy who becomes the unlikely hero.”

“It’s beautifully written, easy to read.”

“It takes place in an amazing world.”

All true, yet they were also true while the book was being rejected. And these features are also presumably true for other books that were rejected and never heard of again. Luckily, Rowling persevered until someone finally gave it a shot. Yet this is upsetting news for those of us who are creating new things, be it a book, a film or an enterprise. Would most of us be that patient? How many times would you get rejected before giving up?

How many times have you been rejected recently?

In the complex, connected and chaotic world we live in, even Harry Potter can get summarily rejected by those minding the gates. This means that nobody — including the experts or even the creators themselves — know much about the true potential of new ideas. Harry Potter is one of many recent (positive) Black Swans: a highly improbable event with an unprecedented and wide-ranging impact.

In domains where predictability is low and the number of creators is high, expertise and rejections don’t really matter. Anyone who works hard and tries relentlessly has the capacity to create value that eventually grows beyond their wildest dreams. While the probability of success of one trial or one particular project is undoubtedly minuscule, with enough ideas and perseverance, the impact a creative person can make is demonstrably huge.

How many times have you been rejected during the past three months? If it’s not at least a dozen, you are not “alive.”

Wishing you (occasional) bad luck

In a commencement speech he gave during his son’s graduation ceremony last month, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. wished his audience bad luck, betrayal, loneliness, failure, pain and unfair treatment, among other misfortunes. He explained that he would want the new graduates to personally experience these on occasion to ensure that they learn the value of good luck, loyalty, friendship, sportsmanship, fairness and compassion.

Here’s that part of his speech:

This is a wise perspective on how people should not take for granted the advantages and privileges they enjoy. The advice also makes sense from a point of view of human learning and decision making. Our research and that of other cognitive psychologists suggest that we are masters at learning from personal experience. The downside, however, is that we often fail to truly understand things that lie beyond it. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman calls this syndrome “what you see is all there is.”

The curse of personal experience

Society venerates experience. We want leaders with outstanding track records, government officials who have worked in relevant departments, and veteran football coaches. Experience is deemed a sine qua non for an accurate understanding of the world. The process of learning through experience comes so naturally to us that we often feel confident and at ease with experience-based decisions that require little explicit thought.

Yet this innate ability comes at a cost. Experience can be filtered or distorted in a wide variety of ways. We may be missing crucial evidence or be exposed to irrelevant information, which inevitably cloud our judgment. Stereotypes and misperceptions subsequently can get reinforced and calcify. Biased experience leads to biased intuition about reality.

There’s really nothing to match the experience gathered by having personally observed or lived through a certain situation. We immediately get attuned to a problem if we suffer from it ourselves. For instance, many influential people found or fund organizations that help solve a pertinent issue, often because they or people close to them are personally affected by it.

Learning from non-occurrences

Unfortunately, personal experience is limited. Things that we don’t experience personally are bound to be discounted or ignored to a certain degree. For example, not being disabled and not being able to encounter many people with a disability during one’s daily life leads to an underestimation of their prevalence, concerns and issues.

Can we then learn from others’ experience to avoid the difficulties of learning by doing? Internet is full of helpful advice on how we should take advantage of others’ misfortunes and knowledge to save time and effort. While research suggests that this is indeed possible, there may be a caveat. If we perceive ourselves to be better than others, we may be tempted to believe that we won’t fail as others would. Hence, others’ misfortunes can actually lead us to become overconfident about our own chances of success.

We thus need to find a way to correctly take into account the wide variety of unwanted experiences that are thankfully beyond our own. In a previous post, we wrote about the late cognitive psychologist Hillel Einhorn, who called these events “non-occurrences:” things that we don’t have that we would not want to have. Bad luck, betrayal, loneliness, loss, pain and unfair treatment often enter into this category. Until we develop this ability, however, we can only hope that our loved ones, next generations and future leaders personally experience them on rare occasions and in a way that drives them to prevent these from happening to others.

Originally published at Psychology Today on July 13, 2017

Einhorn’s 2×2

How to improve the way we think about happiness?

There are many theories out there. I’m currently reading about a counterintuitive one: The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman. It offers a much-needed counterbalance to the endless advice for positive thinking. Ironically, chasing frantically after happiness can make someone miserable.

My own research on experience took me to another related notion. Hillel Einhorn, the late psychologist from University of Chicago, argued that when we think about happiness we mainly consider three categories:

Things that

  • we want that we have (make us happy)
  • we don’t want that we have (make us unhappy)
  • we want that we don’t have (make us unhappy)

Yet we rarely take into account a fourth category: things that we don’t want that we don’t have (make us happy).

And he says, because this last category is huge, “we are actually a lot happier than we think we are.”

We recently wrote more on this on Psychology Today. And here’s Einhorn, explaining the idea:

Simulated experience #1

In a random group of 25 people, what would be the probability that there are 2 people with the same birthday?

This is the famous birthday problem.

We have difficulty in understanding the probabilistic structure of this problem. When I asked this question to 100 university students, the average response I got was “less than 1%.”

The correct answer is actually around 54%!

The analytic solution of the problem is not straightforward. One has to think in terms of combinations. One has to make several complex calculations.

And these don’t come naturally to us.

So what to do?

If you think about it, experiencing frequencies of outcomes would be actually much easier. This would mean going out there and meeting many many groups of 25 people and observing if there are matching birthdays in each group.

Sounds like a hard task to accomplish though.

But wait; we could use simulations.

Check THIS site for instance.

What you do here is to generate 25 birth dates and see if there are two that are the same.

Then reset and meet a new group of 25. Then again. Then again. Then again…

Once you meet a dozen groups like this, you’ll notice that in around half of them, in fact, there is a match.

Consider now the power of simulations and the possibilities of experiencing the outcomes of complex and relevant probabilistic scenarios, such as investment decisions, pension schemes, insurance regimes, with the help of simulations. You would gather much more insight on the problem and possibly make better decisions.

Well… Try with a number larger than 25 this time.

You’ll be surprised.

Wicked experience

According to Robin M. Hogarth’s book Educating Intuition, there are two types of experience: Kind and wicked.

The kind version, as the name suggests, is nice. The feedback on your actions is unbiased. A tennis player is endowed with kind experience. She receives immediate and accurate news on what happens when she hits the ball in a certain way.

The wicked version is cunning. It shows you only part of the story and gives feedback on some of the outcomes. An emergency room doctor mostly lives in a wicked environment. He does not receive immediate and accurate feedback on his patients.

Consider another example.

You are walking. You drop a coin on the ground. You stop and look back to locate it. Think about how that coin traveled as it fell. Did it move forward or backward? Or maybe it just fell straight down?

Most people say it traveled straight or backward, although it actually moved forward along a curve. It just fell behind due to gravity pulling it down at the same time.

Because people always locate the coin behind, they tend to assume that its movement could not have been forward. Their experience and subsequent observation confuses their logic. It is wicked.

Consider other wicked environments, such as massively populated online social networks.

Everybody in these virtual spaces is good-looking and socially responsible. Through many connections, one is exposed to a constant stream of interesting news, cool photographs, fun anecdotes. I suspect this kind of biased experience would push someone to be depressed about her/his own life.

Here is an article that suggests this might be the case.

Indirect control

How much control do you have on your life?

That is a question asked by many behavioral scientists and psychologists. It is not easy to answer.

At a superficial level, the control could seem substantial. Once it is determined where and when one is born, who is one’s family etc., it feels that one has free will and lives consciously.

Or does he?

At a deeper level, one theory is pretty discomforting. What if we are mostly guided by an emotional system that we develop over the years, by experience. What if this template that we form by continuously interacting with our environment becomes who we are and dictates what we do at all times.

This would mean that if we had lived in a different environment, we would behave differently. We would become a completely different person, even perhaps a different society. Hence, it is possibly the environment that defines who we are, not ourselves.

The upside is that humans have some control over the environment. By giving it a desirable shape, we can indirectly form ourselves.

In fact, that is what we have been doing for thousands of years.

Here is an excerpt of a speech by Prof. Antonio Damasio on the power of emotions.

The whole interview can be found here.