Question Authority

Thanks in part to Steve Bannon and my fondness for double entendres, the slogan of my youth has become my new job title: Jay Gordon Cone, Question Authority. For the purpose of my job title, “question” is a noun.

I had been resisting business cards for my new venture, Unstuck Minds. I never know what to do with the business cards I receive. The whole idea of business cards seems outdated to me. After all, Unstuck Minds is a company devoted to helping people recognize and avoid thinking traps by asking better questions. Traditional business cards represent a kind of conformity to standard organizational structures that can sometimes be a source of thinking traps.

However, I recently had an opportunity to team up with colleagues to facilitate a practicum session on Unstuck Minds at the 2018 Conscious Capitalism Conference in Dallas. People I respect urged me to have business cards printed so I could hand them out to conference attendees. I relented and got in touch with Jonathan, my talented graphic designer. We quickly agreed on a very simple design for the front of the card. We decided that each card should feature a different question on the back taken from the Unstuck Minds conversation card deck, a minor twist that satisfied my need to be unconventional. Now that we had the design of the card, Jonathan wanted to know what title I wanted under my name. The question touched a nerve and I told him that I would get back to him with an answer. Given the printing deadline, I settled for, “Founder.” I’ve had the cards for almost a month and I’m still not happy with the title, “Founder.”

Last night I watched Fareed Zakaria interview Steve Bannon on CNN. Apart from the substance of the discussion, I was intrigued by the mismatch in communication styles between Zakaria and Bannon. Zakaria wanted to understand and explore. Bannon wanted to confront and persuade. When one person in a conversation seeks the truth and one person in a conversation feels they know the truth, you get a one-sided conversation. Whatever you may think of Steve Bannon or the opinions he holds, he speaks with authority.

Lately, I’ve been paying attention to the role of authority in today’s political discourse. Arguments about the appropriate role of authority have been with us since the time humans formed societies. The philosophical tension between faith in evidence and faith in authority came to a head in the Age of Enlightenment. More recently, the topic of “authority” has been studied from the perspectives of cognitive and social psychology. After watching the CNN interview with Bannon, two research programs that shed light on our relationship to authority came to mind.

George Lakoff, the former Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, writes extensively about the central metaphors that distinguish conservative and liberal thought. Lakoff refers to the origins of conservative thought as, “Strict Father Morality.” In strict father morality, the world is a dangerous place; obedience to strict rules is required and the exercise of authority is not just prudent, it’s moral. From the perspective of “Strict Father Morality,” we can begin to understand the rationale for disregarding facts. If the world is threatening, we’re better off putting our faith in those who speak with comforting authority than putting our faith in a world that keeps changing the rules on us.

Arie W. Kruglanski, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland touches on the role of authority through his extensive research on the psychology of closed mindedness. Kruglanski and his colleagues have repeatedly demonstrated that specific traits and specific conditions can heighten our need for closure. Kruglanski defines our need for closure (on topics that don’t have a specific resolution) as a “desire for a definite answer to a question, any firm answer, rather than uncertainty, confusion, or ambiguity” (Kruglanski, 1989). Conditions that create stress or psychological traits that dispose people to feel threatened by too much confusion or ambiguity increase the desire for an answer; again, under certain conditions or for some people authority is comforting.

I’m not interested in passing judgment on people’s relationship to authority. I am interested in how our relationship to authority influences the way we recognize and avoid thinking traps in service of getting unstuck. The next time someone is simplifying a complex problem by framing the situation as a binary choice between opposing views, ask them, “What if we did both, or neither?” The next time someone appeals to authority or states an opinion as the truth, ask them “How did you reach that conclusion?”

How do I know I’m right about this? You can trust me, I’m a question authority.

 

Kruglanski, A. W. (1989). Lay epistemics and human knowledge: Cognitive and motivational bases. New York: Plenum
Lakoff, G. (1996). Moral politics: How liberals and conservatives think. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

We Don’t Need Artificial Intelligence to Protect Ourselves from Disinformation, We Need Actual Intelligence

In case you missed it, the 2015 Jade Helm military exercises were back in the news this week. While promoting his new book, The Assault on Intelligence: American national security in the age of lies, Retired General and former head of the National Security Agency Michael Hayden suggested that Russia had fomented paranoia in Texas through internet bots, which spread rumors that the Obama administration was using the exercises to impose martial law in Texas. Hayden further speculated that Russia’s experience with Texan’s vulnerability to disinformation emboldened them to employ a similar strategy to interfere with the 2016 Presidential campaign.

While the heads of tech companies try to balance the promise of open exchanges of information with the need to filter out malicious propaganda, others have decided to come at the problem from the opposite direction. In much the same way that one can focus efforts to address a drug epidemic by reducing supply (tighter enforcement) or by reducing demand (just say, “no”), a few educators and activists are pushing for a greater emphasis on critical thinking skills for kids in hopes that they grow up to be more discerning consumers of information (just say, “show me your evidence”). For example, NPR recently featured a story about a French investigative journalist named Thomas Huchon. Huchon has been conducting school assemblies in France to teach kids how to recognize disinformation on the Internet.

We become less vulnerable to disinformation when we become more aware of who produced the information we’re consuming and how it was produced. It’s not really that different from being an educated consumer of food. If dairy products upset your stomach, you would probably check the ingredients before buying untested food at the grocery story or you would have your server ask the chef whether the menu item you’re interested in was made with milk. If discussions of gun laws upset you, you owe it to yourself to find out why stories about guns predominate your Facebook newsfeed.

One way to become a better consumer of information is ask yourself some provocative questions as you read, listen or watch people provide their judgments, assessments and conclusions.

Why am I having an emotional reaction? It’s easy to confuse whom you hate with what you hate (equally true for strong positive emotions like love and admiration). After all, it’s hard to truly hate someone you have no personal experience with. More likely, you are witnessing someone embody values that feel personally threatening. When we feel threatened, we are vulnerable to messages that make us feel safe. When we feel threatened, we seek safety in numbers.

How badly do I want it to be true? If you see or hear a report that is devoid of any evidence or sources, or is laden with tightly edited sound bites, notice whether or not you’ve learned something that you could defend. Did the information convince you, or did the information simply deepen a conviction you already held to be true?

Whose perspective is missing? Be suspicious of reporting that does not include a diversity of perspectives. Quality information should leave you thinking, “I guess I can understand how some people might see it that way.” If the only information being presented impugns the character of a person or group without providing any opportunity to hear directly from that person or group, then you’re not getting information, you’re getting gossip. I understand that we like gossip. Gossip is fun to share and builds relationship (albeit at the expense of others). However, like overindulging in sweets made with processed sugar, a steady intake of gossip can become addictive and diminish your appreciation for subtlety and variety.

Who benefits from my attention and my actions? Social media sites and news media channels make money when they keep you engaged. The more they know about your likes and dislikes, the easier it is for them to package information that appeals to you. We understand when watching commercials that advertisers have designed messages to influence our choices and behaviors on behalf of those who paid for the ad. The same level of scrutiny is warranted when taking in information from any source dependent on advertising for the bulk of its revenue. To learn more about the pernicious strategies employed by tech companies to hold our attention, check out this interview with Tristan Harris, Founder of the non-profit initiative, Time Well Spent.

Information ennobles us when we learn something new or feel more inspired or more connected to others. Be wary of information intended to narrow your view of the world. The more we allow someone to do our thinking for us, the more we abdicate our humanity.

We’re Asking James Comey the Wrong Question

The weather forecast called for a 50% chance of rain showers. A woman named Tracy decided to take her umbrella with her on her commute to the office. The rain never came. After work Tracy met friends at a bar for happy hour. When she left the bar to walk home, she forgot to take her umbrella with her. The next time she needed her umbrella, she couldn’t find it.

Was Tracy’s choice to bring her umbrella to work on the day the weather service predicted a 50% chance of showers a good decision or a bad decision?

Here’s an easier one. Late in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl 49, Pete Carroll the coach of the Seattle Seahawks called for a pass on 2nd and goal. The pass was intercepted and the Seahawks lost the championship.

Was the choice to throw a pass a good decision or a bad decision?

Asking whether a decision was “good” or “bad” (right or wrong, ethical or unethical) by working backwards in time from judgments about the outcomes to judgments about the decision represents a thinking trap. Those who research decision quality recognize that the decision maker has no control over the external consequences resulting from the decision. It may be fun to consider “what if” scenarios, but focusing on outcomes doesn’t help us learn to become better decision makers. What if the railroad industry had reacted differently to the advent of the automobile? Would we be driving around in a Union Pacific sedan or a Reading Lines SUV? If you only consider outcomes when asking about Steve Jobs’s decision to make John Sculley the CEO of Apple in 1983 you might reach different conclusions depending on whether you asked the question when Sculley fired Jobs in 1985 or when Jobs returned to Apple with fresh insights about product design in 1997.

We can’t ‘unknow ‘ the outcomes of a decision when reevaluating the decision maker’s alternatives after the decision has been acted on.

Sometimes the relationship between the decision and an outcome is direct and obvious, in which case it’s more tempting to judge the decision by the outcome. The TV show America’s Funniest Home Videos is a treasure trove of questionable decisions followed immediately by unfortunate and weirdly entertaining outcomes. We have learned from the TV show not to stand next to the blindfolded kid desperately swinging a stick at a piñata, especially if the kid’s shoulders are roughly the same height as your crotch. Still, judging the decision exclusively on outcomes changes if a video of the incident earned you the $25,000 prize.

I’m guessing that evaluating the “umbrella” decision felt differently to you than evaluating the Super Bowl decision, especially if you’re a Seahawks fan. The difference you experience when passing judgment (no pun intended) on Pete Carroll versus passing judgment on Tracy has to do with the fundamental nature of the two activities. Calling football plays is an activity in a finite game. Getting ready to leave the house for work is an activity in an infinite game.

James Carse coined the terms “finite games” and “infinite games” in 1986. Lately, Carse’s distinction between finite and infinite has been gaining popularity thanks to the irrepressible Simon Sinek. Carse succinctly defines his terms in the opening paragraph of his book, Finite and Infinite Games: A vision of life as play and possibility, Carse wrote:

There are at least two types of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.

The distinction is a helpful way to differentiate attitudes regarding much of human activity. As an example, if you play “school” as a finite game, you focus on getting the best test score or the highest class ranking at the end of well-defined periods on an academic calendar. If you play “school” as an infinite game, you focus on learning and discovery; for every subject, there will always be more to learn.

When engaged in a finite game like football, it’s easier to connect a decision to an outcome. Most people consider Pete Carroll’s decision among the worst coaching choices in the history of the sport. However, without the rules and finality of a finite game wherein a winner is unambiguously determined, outcomes don’t help us judge decision quality. If you’re counting on the umbrella and discover that it’s missing, you may feel as though taking it with you on a day when it never rained was a bad choice. If the missing umbrella sets a series of events in motion that result in meeting the love of your life (who remembers Tracy McConnell’s yellow umbrella in the TV series How I Met Your Mother?), the decision to carry the umbrella feels like an act of genius.

To promote the publication of his new book, former FBI director James Comey has been making the rounds of talk shows and has been interviewed by many of today’s best know journalists. At some point in all the interviews I have seen, Comey is asked about a decision he made in the fourth quarter of a different kind of Super Bowl, the Super Bowl of American politics known as the presidential election.

In July of 2016 Comey announced that the FBI would not be prosecuting Hillary Clinton in connection with the use of her personal email server. Three months later, and one month before the election, Comey informed Congress that the FBI had obtained supplemental evidence in the Hillary Clinton email investigation. Various media outlets reported on the letter to Congress by characterizing the news as a “reopening” of the Clinton email investigation. In November of 2016 Donald Trump was elected President. Hillary Clinton and her supporters blame Comey’s decision for her defeat.

If you view Comey’s decision in the context of the finite game of a presidential election, you might feel like it’s easy to judge his choice. If as Comey would prefer, you judge his decision in the context of the infinite game of ethical leadership, we will need to understand more about the process Comey employed to reach his decision.

As for me, I would prefer interviewers stop asking Comey whether or not he made the right decision. We don’t need to reinforce our thinking traps by appealing to an inclination to turn infinite games into finite games. I want to hear his answer to a different question: What, Director Comey have you learned about making high stakes decisions?