Bats, Balls, and Biases

Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly, rationally, and objectively and to understand the logical connection between ideas. It’s an active rather than a passive process. Because it requires System 2 (conscious) attention, it doesn’t come naturally to us and it isn’t easy.

In some instances, we equate difficult with boring. In fact, after reading the short paragraph above, you may already be bored. Critical thinking? Who cares and why bother?

Well, for one thing, it’s possible that improving your critical thinking skills might help you become a better person. But more importantly, it might help you get more of what you want and less of what you don’t want. That’s because good critical thinking skills are essential if you want to master the art and science of change. And unless you master the art and science of change, you’ll continue to be stuck with whatever the status quo happens to be—or to become.

On the BIAS

We all view what happens in the world and what happens to us through our own individual perspectives (our mental models). That means we are all biased.

Here’s an easy way to remember bias:

Beliefs and Values
Interpretations
Assumptions
Stereotypes

Beliefs are ideas or principles we have come to accept as true.
Values are our personal principles or standards.
Interpretations are explanations or understanding.
Assumptions are suppositions: what we take for granted or assume.
Stereotypes are generalizations and oversimplifications.

All of these elements operate in the background (System 1) so we aren’t usually consciously aware of them. Being biased is the normal state of affairs. We don’t have to make an effort to be biased. We have to make an effort to become aware of our biases so we have a fighting chance to act in our own best interest rather than automatically.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the human condition is that we think of the conscious part of the brain (System 2) as “I.” Yet it’s the biased unconscious part of the brain (System 1) that usually runs us. It takes no time or effort to come up with a System 1 reaction or response to a situation, question, or event because System 1 is fast, vast, and always on.

As Daniel Kahneman says in Thinking, Fast and Slow:

Everybody recognizes the difference between thoughts that come to mind automatically and thoughts that you need to produce. That is the distinction.

System 1 has an answer for everything. And its answers are correct often enough to lull us into accepting them unconditionally most of the time. But you’re not going to get change from System 1; you’re going to get same old/same old.

In addition to understanding our own biases, we also need to develop the capacity to know when it’s OK to go along with System 1’s response and when it isn’t. Well-developed critical thinking skills can help us make important decisions and solve significant problems by allowing us to effectively evaluate both the information at hand and the “intuitive” suggestions spontaneously arising from System 1.

Do I need an umbrella?

If you look outside and observe rain falling, you could safely jump to the conclusion that you need to take an umbrella with you when you go outside. You would not increase your chances of making the best decision by checking the weather report on your smartphone (getting more information) or analyzing your interpretation that rain falling means you’re likely to get wet if you go out in it.

How much does the ball cost?

On the other hand, you may not want to count on the first response that comes to mind as an answer to the following question:

A bat and a ball cost $1.10.
The bat costs one dollar more than the ball.
How much does the ball cost?

If you jump to the conclusion that the ball costs 10 cents, you would be wrong—no matter how confident you might feel about your conclusion.

That’s because if the bat costs one dollar more than the ball and the ball costs 10 cents, the bat would cost $1.10 for a total of $1.20. So the correct answer is that the ball costs 5 cents and the bat costs $1.05 for a total of $1.10.

Did you do the math, so to speak, or did you jump to the quick—and erroneous—conclusion? If you jumped to the wrong conclusion, how confident did you feel about your answer? And does it make you feel any better to know that between 50% and 80% of college students also come up with the wrong answer.

5 Reasons to Study the Enneagram

We move through this world under the impression—some would say the illusion—that we’re consciously choosing all of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. But most of the time we’re operating on autopilot, stuck on the hamster wheel, doing the same thing over and over again, in spite of our best intentions.

The Enneagram provides a window into our habits of thinking, feeling and behaving. The result is that the more we know, the less we’re at the effect of the programs that are usually running us.

As a system for describing our basic temperament or personality, the Enneagram is comprehensive, multifaceted, and accurate. It requires a bit of effort to fully grasp, so if you’re wondering why you should bother–what’s in it for you–here are five good reasons to learn more about the Enneagram:

1. You’ll Be Able to Let Yourself Off the Hook.

A surprising amount of what we perceive of as our own individual quirks, flaws, and shortcomings are not the result of our upbringing or personal experiences—or the fact that we’re stubborn, wrongheaded, or lack any semblance of willpower. It’s just the way we’re wired. That means we don’t need to continue expending time and energy trying to figure out why we’re that way or attempting to fix ourselves. The Enneagram offers a short-cut to self-awareness and self-acceptance, which is very powerful ground to stand on.

2. Other People Will Make You Less Crazy.

Even when you don’t know what someone else’s type is, just being aware of the fundamentally different perspectives and attitudes of each type can be eye-opening. That awareness makes it a lot easier to cut the other people in your life some slack and stop expecting them to be who they’re not. It also makes it less likely they’ll be able to push your buttons as often and as easily. Our differences don’t always have to be frustrating or divisive. They can be a source of humor and even a way to connect.

3. You Can Stop Banging Your Head Against the Wall.

Do you ever feel like your life is the one Narcotics Anonymous was referring to when they defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results? If so, take heart. The Enneagram explains how we get into our particular ruts of behaving, thinking, and feeling—and then offers a range of alternatives to try out from among the other types. Knowing your type is also extremely helpful—maybe even essential—if you are in the process of attempting to change your behavior.

4. It’ll Make You Smarter, Improve Your Memory and Mood, and Keep Your Brain Healthy.

Learning about the Enneagram may not add measurable points to your I.Q., but brains crave challenge and stimulation in order to maintain their plasticity. Learning something new actually changes your brain physically by not only increasing synaptic connections, but also growing new neurons—no matter how old you are. That’s one of the main ways to keep your mind sharp and flexible and your memory intact. These neuronal interconnections in our brains affect our behavior, thoughts, and feelings on a daily basis. You can definitely nurture your neurons by learning about the Enneagram.

5. It Has What You’re Looking For.

On the psychological level, the Enneagram is a great tool for anyone who’s on a journey of personal exploration or wants to change old, outmoded patterns of behavior. On the interpersonal level, it can help you deepen your relationship with your partner or develop clearer communication with friends and family members. At work, it can help you get along better with your co-workers, understand your boss, and become more effective. What you take from it depends on how you come at it and what it is you’re looking for.

I learned about the Enneagram 20 years ago when I was working as a substance abuse counselor and trained to become a Certified Enneagram Instructor. Not only did the Enneagram help me get a handle on some of my own automatic (System 1) behavior, it was the single most effective tool I ever found for working with my clients.

The work I do now is based on the most recent understanding of the mind and brain that neuroscience and psychology can provide. And once again I have found the Enneagram to be an invaluable tool, in this case for identifying my clients’ automatic behavior and tendencies.

Many of us want to increase our self-awareness, but we can’t pay attention to everything. The Enneagram points us in a direction that allows us to see how we tend to operate, in both positive and constructive ways and in negative and sometimes destructive ways. It’s one way to find out some of what’s in our particular mental model. Since the contents of our mental model are not directly accessible, I see the Enneagram as a short-cut to self-awareness.

E Is for Enneagram

enneagram_small

The Enneagram is a straightforward, yet rich and complex system that describes our individual strengths and weaknesses, deeper-level motivations, and most importantly, the compulsions that often rule our lives. Although we’re wired to operate under the impression that we’re consciously choosing what we do, most of the time we’re at the effect of unconscious impulses. We’re living our lives on autopilot; asleep at the wheel, doing the same things over and over again, expecting different outcomes.

As I wrote in A Is for Autopilot:

Estimates are that close to 80% or more of what we do every day we do on autopilot, which means without conscious intention or volition. It’s not just what we do, either. The majority of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are the result of automatic brain processes.

As neuroscientist David Eagleman says:

Our brains run mostly on autopilot, and the conscious mind has little access to the giant and mysterious factory that runs below it.

When you look outward at the world—or even inward at yourself—you see things not as they are but as you are. You view the world through your own set of filters, biases, opinions, judgments, personal experiences, and temperament. You act and react as you do—and not as someone else might—because you’re looking out from within your own model of the world. Your model of the world influences what you pay attention to, how you interpret and react to events, the meaning you assign to them, and most of what you think, feel, do, and say. When it comes to trying to change the status quo, your preexisting model of the world is your most formidable obstacle.

In order to create and sustain positive change, you have to change your model of the world. But how can you change something you can’t see—the very lens you see through?

That’s where the Enneagram comes in. It offers each of us a window into our particular model of the world so we can develop the self-awareness that’s essential for creating change.

The Enneagram is the most practical and accurate tool I’ve found for describing our basic temperament or personality, and therefore our habits of thinking, feeling, and behaving. (Other typing systems include the MBTI, OCEAN [a/k/a Big Five], DISC, and Social Styles.) The Enneagram is comprehensive and multifaceted, so it requires some effort to fully grasp. But it’s worth it. When you identify your type, you may find that the Enneagram knows you better than you knew yourself. It isn’t the personality equivalent of a Theory of Everything, but it gives you a place to look, a way to pay attention to what you’re doing, thinking, and feeling.

In a Nutshell

Enneagram is a Greek word that means nine points. The Enneagram symbol is composed of a triangle and a hexad within a circle. The triangle connects points 3, 6, and 9. The hexad connects points 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, and 8.

The 9 points represent 9 basic, or core, personality types, each of which has a unique perspective and approach to life. We tend to polarize near one of those points, as a result we overdevelop some areas and underdevelop others. That polarization strongly affects how and what we perceive of the world around us—and how we respond to what we perceive. Our perceptions and responses become so much a part of us that they occur automatically, without any conscious thought.

alphabet-changeOne way to think about the Enneagram is that each point represents a particular kind of imbalance. (It’s easier to spot imbalances in others than it is to recognize them in ourselves. So it can be tempting to “helpfully” point out those imbalances to friends, family members, and co-workers. It is also tempting to stereotype people because categorizing is an automatic process of the brain.)

The Enneagram can make you more aware of your particular autopilot behavior. It can show you how you tend to operate, in both positive and constructive ways, as well as in negative and sometimes destructive ways. Your core personality type doesn’t change over the course of a lifetime, but as you become aware of your tendencies and imbalances, you gain the ability to moderate them. You’re no longer run by them.

Some people believe that being typed diminishes them somehow, that typing puts them into a box. But typing doesn’t put people into boxes; it identifies aspects of the boxes we’re already in. It points out what’s inside the box and what’s outside, both of which are equally important.

The Nine Types

Very briefly, these are the nine types:

Type 1: The Good Person, the Achiever, the Reformer, the Perfectionist. Principled and responsible, but can also be rule-bound and critical.

Type 2: The Helper, the Giver, the People Pleaser, the Partner. Compassionate and altruistic, but can also be co-dependent and manipulative.

Type 3: The Performer, the Succeeder, the Motivator, and the Status Seeker. Self-assured and accomplished, but can also be competitive and performance-driven.

Type 4: The Individualist, the Tragic Romantic, the Artist, the Sensitive Person. Creative and inspiring, but can also be overly dramatic and fault-finding.

Type 5: The Observer, the Investigator, the Knowledge-Seeker, the Thinker. Perceptive and curious, but can also be cold and detached.

Type 6: The Loyalist, the Questioner, the Guardian, the Devil’s Advocate. Organized and hard-working, but can also be indecisive and overly-vigilant.

Type 7: The Adventurer, the Epicure, the Generalist, the Enthusiast. Cheerful and multi-talented, but can also be acquisitive and thrill-seeking.

Type 8: The Challenger, the Confronter, the Leader, the Asserter. Courageous and magnanimous, but can also be combative and domineering.

Type 9: The Peacemaker, the Preservationist, the Mediator, the Universalist. Deeply receptive and serene, but can also be disengaged and inattentive.

When it comes to creating change, the greatest benefit of learning about your Enneagram type is discovering how you repeatedly get in your own way. Without that knowledge, your efforts are likely to lead to frustration more often than to success.

For more information about the Enneagram, visit ninepaths.com.


Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

Z Is for Zombie Systems

What could zombie systems (also known as alien subroutines) and blindfolded cup-stacking possibly have to do with behavior change? Quite a bit, as it turns out. But first, what exactly are these zombie systems and alien subroutines? According to David Eagleman in Incognito:

We harbor mechanical, “alien” subroutines to which we have no access and of which we have no acquaintance. Almost all of our actions—from producing speech to picking up a mug of coffee—are run by alien subroutines, also known as zombie systems.

Eagleman uses the terms interchangeably. He says the term zombie emphasizes the lack of conscious access, while alien emphasizes the foreignness of the programs.

Some alien subroutines are instinctual, while some are learned; all highly automated algorithms become inaccessible zombie programs when they are burned down into the circuitry.

Cup-Stacking Smack-Down

Cup-stacking, at least as performed by Austin Nabor, is an example of a highly automated algorithm—and thus a zombie system.

Nabor has been practicing all the moves involved in cup-stacking regularly for several years. As a result, physical changes have taken place in his brain to hard-wire cup-stacking. He can now perform it automatically without thinking about it, which is why he can do just as well when he’s blindfolded as he can when he can see what he’s doing.

In the video (link above), 10-year-old Nabor faces off against David Eagleman mano-a-mano, as it were, and hands him a resounding defeat. Eagleman said of the contest that he wasn’t even an eighth of the way through his routine when Nabor finished. During the competition, both were fitted with skull caps to monitor electrical activity in their brains. Instead of burning more energy to complete his complex cup-stacking routine speedily and flawlessly, Nabor’s brain used considerably less energy than Eagleman’s brain used to perform the routine much more slowly. In fact, Eagleman described Nabor’s brain as serene.

Eagleman’s brain burned more energy because he had to think about what he was doing and conscious thought burns more energy than zombie systems and alien subroutines burn.

When a professional baseball player connects his bat with a pitch that is traveling too fast for his conscious mind to track, he is leveraging a well-honed alien subroutine.

Your brain rewrites itself based on the things you repeatedly practice, such has hitting a ball with a bat, driving, or swimming. Some of those things could be classified as skills while others might better be classified as habits. Whether they are skills or habits, once they become “etched into the circuitry of the brain,” you lose conscious control over them. Your brain doesn’t particularly care what skills or habits (good or bad) are turned into zombie systems. The purpose of the process, as Eagleman says, is to free up resources, allowing the conscious you to attend to and absorb other tasks.

Because you lose conscious control of zombie systems and they run automatically, it’s quite difficult to change them—to put it mildly.

Learning to Ride the Backwards Bicycle

Engineer Destin Sandlin, creator of the website Smarter Every Day, was challenged to ride a bicycle that had been modified so that when you turn the handlebars to the right, the wheel turns left, and when you turn the handlebars to the left, the wheel turns right. Watch him try—and fail—to ride the bike, and then offer to pay other people if they are able to ride the bike 10 feet.

“Once you have a rigid way of thinking,” Sandlin says, “you cannot change that, even if you want to.” Riding a bicycle, for most of us, is a hard-wired zombie system. Since we don’t have conscious control over the bicycle-riding algorithm, knowing that the bicycle has been altered has no effect on our ability to modify the algorithm—at least not right away.

It took Sandlin eight months of regular practice to learn how to ride the backwards bicycle. However, he noticed that the old pathway was still there and minor distractions, such as a cell phone ringing, could cause his brain to “jump back on the old road it was more familiar with.”

Sandlin’s young son, on the other hand, who had been riding a bicycle for three years, required only two weeks to get the hang of the modified bicycle.

When Sandlin attempted to ride a normal bicycle again after having more or less mastered the backwards bicycle, he couldn’t do it at first. But after about 20 minutes, his brain slipped back into gear, and he was able to remain upright. Think about that when you’re struggling with changing a habit you’ve had for years or maybe even decades. It takes a great deal of repetition and persistence to master a replacement behavior but very little provocation to revert back to the old path.

Consciousness on the Sidelines

Having the knowledge, information, or even will to change your behavior are all System 2 (conscious) processes. They’re certainly useful and even desirable. But a habit is a System 1 (unconscious) zombie system that is not immediately responsive to your conscious intentions or attentions.

In fact, those System 2 processes can sometimes get in the way. Eagleman says:

Not only do we run alien subroutines; we also justify them. We have ways of retrospectively telling stories about our actions as though the actions were always our idea. As an example…I mentioned that thoughts come to us and we take credit for them (“I just had a great idea!), even though our brains have been chewing on a given problem for a long time and eventually served up the final product. We are constantly fabricating and telling stories about the alien processes running under the hood.

Essentially we come up with conscious explanations for unconscious systems we have no access to. When we think we understand something, but we don’t, we’re likely to also think we know what to do about it. But we don’t.

If your brain is running an alien subroutine or a zombie system you don’t want it to run, you have to make like Destin Sandlin and practice the new routine over and over and over again. And you have to be prepared to have your brain “correct” you back to your old behavior at the least provocation.

When that happens, it’s far more productive to get back up on the horse—or bicycle—than it is to create a story about it.


Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

X Is for eXpectations

Life is an ongoing series of experiences, one after another after another. When you’re in the midst of one of them, you experience it. After it’s over, you explain it, meaning you remember it and tell a story about it, incorporating it into your ongoing narration.

But before anything even occurs, you have an expectation about what will or won’t happen, what should or shouldn’t happen, or how events will unfold and the consequences that are likely to ensue.

Expectation is

  • A belief about what should happen or the way things should be.
  • An estimate or forecast of a future situation based on present or past experiences.
  • Anticipation: looking forward to something, whether hopefully or fearfully.

Experience is:

  • The apprehension of an object, thought, or emotion through the senses or mind.
  • An event or a series of events participated in or lived through.
  • Direct personal participation or observation.

Explanation is:

  • A story about how or why something happened or turned out the way it did.
  • Rationalization, justification, and/or judgment about the experience.
  • The cognitive process of making something seem consistent with or based on reason.

There’s some degree of conscious (System 2) involvement in all three phases of an experience. But there’s even more unconscious (System 1) involvement in them.

The Way Things Should Be

According to Andy Clark, philosopher and cognitive scientist at the University of Edinburgh:

Our primary contact with the world…is via our expectations about what we are about to see or experience. 

Your expectations are constrained not only by what has already happened (your past experiences), but also—and even more significantly—by the stories (and explanations) you’ve constructed about them. Your expectations, arising from your mental model of the world, determine much of what you make of your experiences.

It’s worth remembering that your experience of what’s going on in your mind and in the world is not the same as what is actually going on in either your mind or in the world.

In addition to helping you navigate the terrain you inhabit, your mental model gives rise to your sense of the way things should be. It generates expectations that are either confirmed or denied, as well as assumptions, biases, etc., that determine what you pay attention to, what you perceive (even what you are able to perceive), how you interpret and respond to what you perceive, and the meaning you assign to it.

Who I am is the habit of what I always was and who I’ll be is the result. —Louise Erdrich

Although it doesn’t have to be, the cycle of expectation/experience/
explanation can be a vicious one that narrows your perspective—and your world.

Generating expectations isn’t something you are doing; it’s something your brain is doing. You may have come across advice to do away with expectations because they are either “self-defeating” or nothing but a prelude to disappointment. (Alexander Pope, Shakespeare, and Sylvia Plath are just a few who have linked expectations with disappointment.) The advice to eliminate them is based on a belief that expectations are consciously created, which gives us control over them.

Your Brain is Predictive, not Reactive.

Your felt experience may be that something happens and you react to it, but the reality is that your brain is not reactive but predictive. It is always doing its best to anticipate what’s going to happen next, as if it were playing a never-ending game of chess, continuously anticipating and preparing you for your next move.

Your brain generates multiple possible representations of what to expect in the environment. The representation with the smallest prediction error is selected. However the generation of representations is constrained by what is stored in memory and by the sampling of the environmentDirk De RidderJan Verplaetse, and Sven Vanneste, Frontiers in Psychology

You’re only aware of what your brain thinks you need to know, when you need to know it. Although your reactions and responses feel spontaneous and freely chosen, most of the time they are neither.

The unconscious is always several steps ahead of the conscious part of your brain. As neuroscientists have pointed out, this is what makes activities such as sports possible. If the brain was merely reactive, it wouldn’t operate fast enough to enable you to hit a baseball or block a goal. A reactive brain wouldn’t have helped Michael Phelps win his 10th gold medal while swimming blind after his goggles filled with water. All of his previous practice, experience, and knowledge gave his brain a solid basis for predicting what to expect and what he needed to do in order to win.

Because your brain is predictive:

  • You are not constantly surprised.
  • You don’t always have a choice.
  • You are able to engage in activities that require quick and accurate responses.
  • You are capable of learning from your experiences.
  • You don’t have to think about every little thing you do in the course of a day.
  • You find it difficult to change undesirable habits.
  • You may be tricked by various types of illusions.
  • You are unaware of your visual blind spot.

Your predictive brain—and the expectations it creates—can be a major obstacle when it comes to behavior change if you don’t take it into account. The neurons in your brain are constantly firing, interacting, and stimulating each other at various rates. If you stick to the belief that you always have a choice and try to use willpower to override your brain’s wiring, you will make things much harder for yourself than they need to be.

Not only can you not stop your brain from generating expectations, but doing so would be self-defeating. What you can do is become more aware of what those expectations are, check how closely they match reality, and evaluate how well they work for you in creating a satisfying and meaningful life.


Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.