I joined Toastmasters a while ago and after accidentally forgetting about my last couple meetings it looks like I'll be giving my first speech tomorrow morning at 9am.  The basic premise of the organization is that it's very cheap to join ($, is volunteer-run, and is all about stepping you through a series of 10 public speeches, each with a different focus, and receiving immediate peer feedback.  After your ten speeches, you become a CTM (Certified Toastmaster), and can move on to more ambitious advanced toastmaster stations such as bronze, silver, and gold toastmaster.

I found the group I'm going to by searching on this page for clubs in my area.  After trying a couple out, I settled on one that seemed regular enough, and had enough advanced members, to invest in for however long it takes to do 10 speeches (I'm guessing about a year perhaps, though I'm going to try to do them as quickly as possible, signing up for the next one as soon as I complete the previous one).

My first speech is called the "Ice breaker" and is a 5-7 minute speech that's pretty open other than that the speech has to be about myself somehow. I think I'm going to do it on the topic of how my answers to the question of "what I want to be" have changed over the course of my life.  There are a couple reasons why I want to do my speech this way:

  1. It's easy.  I'm much more able to talk about what I want to be than I am about who I actually am.  The first is accessible to my consciousness, the latter is not.  Who I actually am is easier determined by friends, family, and people other than myself… so rather than address this topic directly, I can talk about who I want to be, and let the evaluaters come to their own conclusions about who I actually am.
  2. It's a story.  Who I want to be creates a very colorful, yet simple, narrative of my life.  It's easy to explain what kind of drama and self-realizations had to take place for me to move from bug collector to video game tester, and from video game tester to genetic biologist, and from genetic biologist to painter, etc.  They are easy, but core stories in my personal narrative.
  3. It's informative.  I think about it a lot.  Few things take up more mental energy and time than the daydreams of our ambitions.  Few things have roots so deep that they can inform us on our own personal prejudices, biases, pet peeves, opinions, and ethical behavior than explaining who we want to be and why.

Well, I can say all of this because I haven't actually written out the story yet.  And my last weekend was a complete whilrwind of amazement that has my personal ambitions inflated to the size of giant parade balloons.  I'm going to record the speech and podcast it hopefully.  But first, I have to write it.

This is the tendency to not see your own cognitive biases.  A bit of a cheat, I think this one is, since a bias that you saw would probably not really be a bias anymore.  So we'll pass over this one lightly, and move on.

Since thinking about Daniel Gilbert’s talk about how we tend to make errors of odds and errors of future value about things, I thought it would be sort of fun to walk through many of the known cognitive biases and logical fallacies that our brains are susceptible to. Why not? Here we go.

We all know the bandwagon of popular opinion and its magical allure. Literally, bandwagons are wagons that carry the band in a parade. Being on the bandwagon was a very convenient way to experience the parade since you got to listen to the music and didn’t have to walk. Since William Jennings Bryan used the phrase “hop on the bandwagon” during his 1900 presidential campaign, it has itself become a trendy term to express the naive adoption of popular trends simply because they are popular.

Why is the bandwagon so alluring?

It has to do with certainty, and the odds of your own judgment being challenged. If you don't have a strong preference for a particular thing, it is easier to agree with the majority than it is to disagree. Disagreement usually requires a solid stance to support your side. The more people on the bandwagon, the more solid your argument about why you're not on it has to be. Try arguing for the war in a liberal city and you will need to have much more information to back up your opinion than you would if you were against the war. And vice versa, if you try arguing against the war in a conservative city the same burden of proof will lie on you.

The bandwagon, literally and figuratively, is for resting your feet. Letting the trend carry you forward, while being able to listen to the music and enjoy the company of friends at the same time.  It's not a bad thing, but the feet and preferences do need to be stretched once in a while.

The opposite of the bandwagon effect

The opposite of the bandwagon effect is just as silly as the bandwagon effect itself.  While some of us pride ourselves on avoiding bandwagons, it's as much folly to avoid bandwagons simply because they are popular.  

Try catching yourself falling hopping on and avoiding bandwagons.  Try to stop seeing them altogether, and judging the band and parade on their own merit rather than on their popularity or unpopularity.  It's really difficult! 

Daniel Gilbert, who I just saw speak last night, also published a new article yesterday: The Science of Happiness.

I think he likes taking on controversial topics. Here are a few:

The study of happiness is a science

What does it take to study something scientifically? One word: Measurement. If you can measure something, you can study it scientifically. Can we measure a person's subjective emotional experience? You bet. People can tell you with both words and actions what they are experiencing — what they are seeing, hearing, smelling, thinking, and feeling—and these reports are the essential data on which the science of experience is built. If you don't think such reports are reliable or valid, then you should feel free to discard my research papers.

But just to be consistent, you should also discard your glasses or contact lenses, because optometry is another one of those sciences that is built entirely on people's reports of subjective experience. The one and only way for an optometrist to know what your visual experience is like is to ask you, "Does it look clearer like this or (click click) like this?"

On the basis of your answers, the optometrist is able to create a lens that corrects your vision quite precisely. Indeed, without your report of your subjective visual experience, optometry would be impossible. No "objective test" — no eye test, no blood test, and no brain test — can provide this information. In short, people can reliably report on their subjective experiences and those reports can be objectively collected and analyzed. As long as people can say how happy they are at the moment you ask them, you can build a science of happiness. In fact, there is no other way to build such a science.

People don't care about anything other than being happy

First, people clearly value many things — from the base to the sublime, from Belgian chocolate to marital fidelity — but I believe they value these things entirely because of their hedonic consequences. Plato was very clear about this when he asked us to think about what it is that makes anything good. "Are these things good for any other reason except that they end in pleasure, and get rid of and avert pain? Are you looking to any other standard but pleasure and pain when you call them good?" I'm with the guy in the toga on this score. To my mind, "positive hedonic experience" is what valuing means. We can't say what's good without saying what it is good for, and if you look at all the many things people think are good, you will notice they are all good for making people happy.

There is only one kind of happiness that spans selfish happiness and selfless happiness

Yes, the experience of saving money is not the same as the experience of saving orphans. But both experiences can be described as a set of locations on multiple dimensions, and one of those dimensions is happiness. The two experiences give rise to different amounts of happiness, but not different kinds. The reason the experiences feel so different is that they entail different amounts of happiness as well as different amounts of everything else.

This sounds like a semantic abstraction, and it isn't. It is a deeply important point. Science is an attempt to replace qualitative distinctions with quantitative distinctions. Once upon a time there were two kinds — hot and cold — and it was a huge breakthrough when scientists realized that these two kinds were simply manifestations of different amounts of molecular motion. The same was true when scientists realized that oxygen and iron were not different kinds of stuff, but rather, were different amounts of stuff, namely, protons, neutrons, and electrons. Similarly, different subjective experiences contain different amounts of happiness, which is a basic dimension or basic ingredient of experience. Experiences that have different amounts of happiness can feel as different as air and iron, as different as hot and cold. But if orphan-saving and money-saving feel different, that fact does not invalidate my claim any more than the different rigidities of iron and air invalidates atomic theory.

I admire his willingness to take on controversial topics. The main reason they bristle with our instincts is that they are not initially aesthetic statements. They don't provoke a "ah, that's a warm happy truth" response from most people, except maybe lost souls like us. Some of us take a strange glee in statements that seem cold and brutal, and attack the sacred cows of our own sense of self, and our own desire to live a pleasing and engaging life amongst equals. It's the opposite of soft, happy, marketing, and perhaps we've been trained like Pavlov's dog to respond to information that feels like the opposite of a lie or a trick or an advertisement.

Daniel Gilbert related reading:

This is the formula that Daniel Gilbert (Harvard professor and author of Stumbling on Happiness) told us was the centuries old formula for doing precisely the right thing at precisely the right time. I guess people had more noble ambitions back then.  Every gamble, risk, action, goal, or even thought has an expected chance of happening and an expected value if that thing actually happens. The premise of his talk yesterday was that though the formula seems simple, the brain is unfortunately pretty awful at doing these calculations in real life.

Errors of Odds

We don't store odds in our brain very easily. Instead of storing something like "there's a .001% chance of being struck by lightning" the brain stores "I can remember 2 stories of people being struck by lightning within the last 2 years". Events or information that is easy to recall will have inflated odds (disasters, news stories, and other information that is easy to recall, like words rhyming with "at") while events and information that is difficult to recall will have deflated odds (death by boring events like asthma, drowning in a pool, etc, stories that aren't good news, and other information that is difficult to recall like words that have an "r" as the third letter).

Your ability to predict the possibility of something happening is going to be wrong almost all of the time due to the way our brain stores odds. We are designed to overaggressively seek or avoid memorable events and information while being blind-sided by unmemorable events and information.

Errors of Value

As bad as we are about storing odds, we are even less skillful at predicting how much something is worth. We think we will be happier when our goals are realized than we actually are, and we think we'll be sadder when fortune fails us than we actually are. This is because we make decisions of value through comparison rather than by trying to determine objective value. We go to the coffee shop that serves the cheapest or the best coffee and never consider if it is actually worth its price. What does "worth its price" even really mean? Much more powerful than the idea of how much $1.89 is worth is the idea that $1.89 is less than the $2.25 that coffee costs across the street, and much less than the $3.50 that it would cost to get a mocha. We are therefore getting a deal. This is easily manipulated by well known tricks of retailers who put "aspirational brands" near commodity brands in order to make people more comfortable with purchasing the high-end commodity brand.


I came away from this talk (actually, it was the second time I saw the talk… I also saw him speak in Austin at SXSW this year) with a couple questions, the most articulate of which is "So what?"  An error is an error only if it causes us some strife.  One obvious form of strife is that if we aren't consistent in our ability to make decisions, then people will exploit the inconsistencies of our decision making.  Which we know is pretty much the case with the current state of the media and advertising.  But, an error is also only useful to point out if there is some way to correct our behavior by rooting out the error and making better decisions.  Daniel Gilbert side steps this question and offers no simple keys to happiness and good decision making.  One leaves with a sense of urgency… we need to figure this out, and soon!  Before we reach the inevitable end of our collective poor judgement calls… a world of misleading advertisements, lotteries, casinos, disasters, and debt.  He warns us that we're the only ones with the ability to control our fate, by predicting the future and altering the present… and if we as a species fail to do so, it will be a result of this poor decision making.  He sure has a funny way of stumbling on happiness.

The title of this exercise is a bit misleading.  Watching what you eat usually refers to counting calories.  I mean it more in the literal sense… looking and noticing what you are eating.  Acting on that knowledge may or may not happen, but it's not important for the purposes of this exercise.

Watching what you eat will tell you a lot about your current mental and physical state.  Have you noticed that your appetite for food will be different depending on your mood and your state of current health?  When I exercise, I crave different foods than when I've just gotten into a fight with a friend.  Also, my appetite will be different when I haven't eaten in a long time than it is when I have just finished a meal.  There's a reason salads typically come first and ice cream comes last… the body's appetite when full is less for less healthy food than when your body is actually trying to get energy for vital functions.

You can pretty much take the types of foods you're currently craving as a literal expression of your mood and health.  A healthy mental state will crave healthy foods, and vice versa.  Take note of the things you are craving for a day.  In particular, notice:

  • How sensitive are you to hunger?  Do you eat at the first sign of hunger, or do you put up with hunger longer?
  • Do you eat more healthily when you satisfy hunger immediately, or when you wait it out?
  • When do you eat most the most junk food and what is your mental and physical states at those times?

How much can you tell about people around you if all you had to go on was the food that they eat?  How much of this serves as a personality test for others and for yourself?  Most people believe that you can become more healthy by eating more healthily… but is it possible that the reverse is true as well?  Healthy people eat healthily.  Chicken or egg?  Lest we confuse correllation with causation once again, let's start with merely watching the food we eat and watching our moods. 

The purpose of this exercise is to learn more about why you like some things and don't like others. Preference is a very powerful force in our personalities, and by taking it apart a little and looking to see which mechanisms are at work when creating your preferences, you can learn to fiddle with the algorithm a little to make sure you like things that you actually want to like, and that you don't like things that you don't want to like.

Sounds complicated, but a very important aspect of preference (and desire in general) is that there are two levels to it:

  1. What you want
  2. What you want to want

You might want chocolate, but want to want salad. You might want television, but want to want exercise. When thinking about this exercise, try to figure out if the thing you are retrying is something you want, or something you want to want. The happiest life is one where you both want, and want to want, the same things while also not liking the things you don't want to like.

The sources of like:

What causes us to like something and what causes us not to like something? Are things inherently likable and dislikable, or is there something that happens between the thing and yourself (a relationship, or an aesthetic) that creates a likable or dislikable quality to emerge? I argue the latter. Here are a few things that might influence your judgement of a new thing:

  1. Do you already like or dislike this thing? If you know that you dislike brocolli, you will most likely continue to dislike it each time you come across it, even if you do not taste it each time.
  2. Do you already have a preference for the general class of thing? If you come across a new green vegetable, and you have an existing dislike of green vegetables, it's likely that you will apply the general rule to the specific new vegetable.
  3. Does the environment or group your in have a preference? If you are in a group that strongly prefers sipping expensive wines, and you are relatively new to the field of wine-tasting and have no overwhelming preference for cheap or expensive wines, you may be influenced to adopt the group's preference for expensive wines. Likewise, if you live in a liberal city, you will most likely adopt liberal views. This happens because the environment will influence the evidence and data you receive for making a preference… you will only get good evidence and data about expensive wines when you're around people that love expensive wines, and you will only hear bad data about conservative viewpoints when you're around liberals. It's not that you necessarily adopt the views of those around you, it's just that the environment filters the information you receive about the thing being judged to favor the decisions that the group made.
  4. Is there pressure to form a quick opinion? In some social situations, making a decision is difficult because none of the choices stand out as distinctly better than the others. For example, when choosing which new blockbuster movie to watch on a Sunday afternoon. In these situations, people with preferences are rewarded by being decision makers and leaders. It doesn't really matter which option is taken, as long as it provokes action in the group. After a decision is made, it's then much easier to confabulate reasons that it is the best option, strengthening the power of the preference that was originally weak.

In this way, preferences can be created by cascading down a series of decision making systems. The interesting thing is that because preferences are reinforced each time they are invoked, what quickly began as a weak preference will strengthen over time into a much more powerful preference. The possibility then exists that there are very strong preferences in our own personalities that may or may not justify the strength of their preference.

Identify a few strong preferences of your own

I used to strongly dislike zoos. It all went back to one childhood experience where I felt bad about an animal at a zoo. Over the years, disliking zoos became "a thing", if you know what I mean. A thing that felt as much a part of me as my sense of self. I was a zoo-disliker. I was a also a Halloween-disliker. I was an avocado-disliker. However, once I started retrying these things, I often found that the only reason I continued to dislike them was because I had disliked them at some point in the past.

By letting go of that past preference, and the opinion that blossoms from it, I get to let the object cascade once again down the waterfall of experience to see if there was any continuing evidence supporting the preference. In the case of zoos I discovered that my dislike of them was a little lopsided and that while I may object to some of the principles behind the caging of beautiful natural animals, that I could enjoy learning about animals and engaging them in person. My preference, it turned out, had been more positively reinforced by the personal satisfaction I got from stating the opinion and being the kind of person that cared for animals than it had by the actual zoo itself. There's a strange kind of pride in preference. Which isn't necessarily bad in itself, but it might be worth investigating which things you store your pride in… are they all things you want to take pride in? And are you consistently interested in the object of pride? In the case of zoos, why did I take self-righteous pride in not supporting the enslavement of animals when I took opposite pride in eating meat? It's important to notice inconsistency in yourself and acknowledge it, not necessarily to reconcile it right away, but simply so that you can learn to not take yourself and your preferences so seriously.

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