Human Nature

In the Pursuit of Reason We Lose a Part of What Makes Us Human

Have we trained ourselves to praise a false idol?

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By Hunter Maats, Katie O’Brien

The human race is amazing. We have created the technology to process zettabytes of information and print in three dimensions. Paraplegics can walk again with the aid of robotic suits, and deaf toddlers can hear for the first time, thanks to cochlear implants—and we can watch it all on YouTube. Most unimaginably, we safely landed a probe on a comet that was traveling up to 80,000 miles per hour. Humans are closer than ever to mastery over the physical world. We have become experts at making the challenges in our lives, from illness to food supply to manual labor, less challenging.

And yet, riots erupt after the events in Ferguson, Missouri. ISIS gains territory in the Middle East and striking fear into hearts throughout the West. How is it that with all the advances we’ve made, we are no closer to solving the age-old issues: terrorism, poverty, racism, education, or the environment? In a time when we have more resources than ever that allow us to approach problems from a technical, scientific, purely rational standpoint, why does it feel like we are getting further away from solving the most human problems that face the human race?

Perhaps, in our excitement over our technological progress, we have trained ourselves to worship a false idol. We have gone so far in the direction of being obsessed with technology, robotics, big data—the cold, calculated, and rational— that we have forgotten that the most valuable asset we have in solving human problems is, in fact, our humanity.

This is not a recent development. Since the time of Plato, the West has worshipped reason. It is the ability to think critically that separates man from the beasts. Reason allowed Plato to philosophize, Pythagoras to perform his mathematics, and Aristotle to explore the precursors to science. Reason was considered to be pure, unsullied by our animal instincts. The natural implication, then, was that emotions were the enemy—base and dirty, coming from our most animal selves. Emotions like fear and shame could shatter the philosopher’s stoicism and turn him into a cringing wretch. Even celebrated emotions, such as love (be it romantic or filial), drew contempt for being “irrational.” With the Scientific Revolution, our reverence for reason has only grown. And today, we depend on computers and technology more than ever before, using them to reduce or eliminate what we call “human error.” Plato seems poised to emerge the victor.

The irony, though, is that our belief that science and emotionality can exist separately is no longer scientific at all. Since Plato’s time (and probably before) we have known that emotions can affect our decisions. But in the last few decades, science has shown exactly how our emotions work, what they do… and why trying to separate ourselves from them is a Sisyphean task. Our ability to think and our ability to feel are hard-wired together in our brain.

The outermost parts of our brains are responsible for high-order brain functions, including perception and abstract thinking; it’s how we can conceive of things like the internet without actually seeing them. But just because we have these sections of our brains doesn’t mean that our animal instincts have disappeared. Deep inside your brain is a structure called the amygdala (uh-MIG-duh-luh), which can automatically shut down your ability to think. From an evolutionary perspective, this is an impressive and essential capability; when our ancestors encountered a predator, they couldn’t afford to spend time being curious about the genus and species, or admiring the poisonous snake’s beautiful pattern. In that moment, the best response was to freeze and run. Emotion would automatically flood the attention, and critical thinking would go out the window. And while the modern world has thankfully reduced the frequency with which we encounter things that want to eat us, that fight-or-flight response is still in our brains. If you’ve ever heard someone say, “I was so scared, I couldn’t think,” that person was telling the truth.

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Fear isn’t the only emotion that can hijack our thinking. Shame causes us to want to hide, anger makes the blood rush to our hands (ever hear of a “blind rage?”), and frustration, jealousy and other powerful emotions all have a neurological ability to mess with our thinking in a major way. Of course, we all have the ability to override our emotions—ask anyone who has felt road rage after being cut off, only to discover that it’s a frantic man driving his pregnant wife to the hospital. When we get a rational explanation, we can tell ourselves that the emotion isn’t necessary or valid, and it will dissipate. But in order to effect that kind of rational override, you first need to be aware of the emotion and what it’s doing. Without recognizing and respecting the power of our emotions, we are left at the mercy of them.

While the neuroscience is fascinating in itself, the ramifications of how we’ve lived without understanding emotions for all this time is the truly amazing part. In fact, by ignoring the power of emotions, we sabotage ourselves as early as our very first day of school. Everyone who has ever been a student remembers the experience of sitting in class next to the classmate whose hand shoots up for every answer. Why does that students just know it right away? What does that say about me? There is also the experience of sitting through an entire class and not “getting” any of what the teacher is saying. As we’ve all been trained to do, students in that situation look for a rational explanation, and they soon find it: the other students are naturally smart, and I am not. As tutors, we have spent over a decade working with countless students who have told us they were “just bad at math” or “would never get Shakespeare” or didn’t have “an ear for languages.” And as soon as they open their books, we can see exactly what the problem is. Their eyebrows raise, worry lines appear and, very often, their bodies pull away from the material. Given the chance, they would literally run away from their textbook. They believe they are destined to fail at these subjects, when in reality, they are simply afraid of those subjects, and their amygdalas have shut down their ability to learn. In other words, students’ feelings about school determine how they perform in school.

The easiest way to identify the power of emotions over the success of the learning process is in understanding what students mean when they say they “feel stupid.” We have heard that sentence time and time again, and although most of us think of stupid as an inherent trait, stupid is a feeling—the feeling of shame. In an embarrassing social situation, shame triggers us to hide our faces and leave the room. In school too, shame triggers us to avoid the source of our shame: our mistakes. Students take a test with a poor grade, wad it up, and bury it in the bottom of a backpack, never to be looked at again. The problem with this, of course, is that mistakes are exactly what we use to improve. Any expert in any field will tell you that systematically facing and fixing your mistakes is what it takes to reach the top. The rational course of action would be to take each bad test and fix the mistakes until they are guaranteed to never happen again. But students do not choose the rational course, because they are too busy feeling stupid.

We experience the emotions of school on a personal level, but we must consider what happens when that emotional approach to learning is cultural and systemic. Emotions trigger a self-fulfilling prophecy in the learning process. When you enjoy a subject, you are happy to spend more time working on it, which in turn leads to faster progress, which supports your idea that you are talented in that area. And when you feel stupid, the opposite happens. You avoid your mistakes, which means that you continually repeat them, and each time you get a disappointing grade, it confirms your “belief” that you are stupid. This cycle is the true danger of emotions, and it stems from a phenomenon called “naive realism.”

Naive realism is the human tendency to believe that what we feel about the world is how the world actually is. Our feelings about politics, religion, and especially ourselves do not feel like “feelings” at all; we tend to believe they are the actual, incontrovertible truth. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt wrote that if he could “nominate one candidate for ‘biggest obstacle to world peace and social harmony,’ it would be naive realism.” In fact, as Haidt has shown, we don’t build our beliefs from facts. We start with how we feel about something, and then our mind races to find facts that might justify those conclusions. Students begin by feeling stupid, and then they gather data to support and justify that idea. “My mother said she was never good at math. It must be genetically passed on to me. In class, other kids understand right away, and I don’t. So it makes sense that I’m naturally bad at math. Math is a lost cause for me.” No geneticist would support these conclusions, but emotionally they make perfect sense to a teenager.

The irony is that for decades, many Western nations have addressed the educational crisis in an all-too-rational way. Debate focuses on the ratio of teachers to students, the number of laptops in each classroom, and the dollars being spent per student per year. And for decades, the numbers have not added up. We funnel more resources into our students, but we don’t see proportional results. Shouldn’t more teachers, dollars, and laptops lead to more academic achievement? The truth is that it won’t—not until we first learn to recognize and respect the role of emotions in learning. Plenty of students are given brand-new textbooks and never open them.

They are given iPads that they use not for research but for YouTube. Technology and resources are not enough.

While we throw rational solutions at the crisis, nations who have far lower GDPs have higher-performing students, as evidenced by the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) scores. It is becoming increasingly clear that students’ attitude toward and perspective on learning far outweighs any advantage that technology or resources can provide. In The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, William Kamkwamba tells the incredible story of his childhood in Malawi; unable to afford school, he walked every day to the local library and taught himself out of books. Kamkwamba taught himself to build a wind turbine from junkyard parts, brought electricity to his town, and today, Kamkwamba has given a TED talk, appeared in Time magazine, and just graduated from Dartmouth College. Rationally speaking, more resources should mean more learning. But the truth is that learning is an unavoidably emotional process. Until students, parents, teachers and voters treat feelings seriously, there will be no serious educational change on a personal, national or international level.

School is where we first train ourselves to devalue our feelings and revere rational solutions, and we carry that trait into adulthood, where it quietly drives our politics. There was little room for the idea that feelings matter in the post-9/11 Pentagon. The nation had been attacked. Indeed, the Pentagon itself had been attacked. The solution was simple: kill or capture all the terrorists, and the problem would be solved. Since World War II, the view that all conflicts can be won with overwhelming firepower has been the core focus of US military strategy. The attacks on 9/11 were another Pearl Harbor. We were fighting a War on Terror and Iraq, Iran, and North Korea were all part of the Axis of Evil. America wanted this conflict to be another World War II, but the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were quickly turning into two more Vietnams. Fortunately, the Army had within its ranks a group of individuals who understand what America had done wrong in Vietnam.

The logic of war is that victory comes from killing as many of the enemy as possible, and to that end, our obsession with technology has historically driven Western military efforts. New bombers or cruise missiles or drones boost our morale, because they boost our brute power. That World War II-based logic is the precise logic that the United States applied in Vietnam; this time, however, the more firepower the U.S. put in, the worse the conflict became. The equation wasn’t working the way it was supposed to work. Nearly four decades later, in the documentary Fog of War, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara would say the following:

“In the case of Vietnam, we didn’t know them well enough to empathize. And there was total misunderstanding as a result. They believed that we had simply replaced the French as a colonial power, and we were seeking to subject South and North Vietnam to our colonial interests, which was absolutely absurd. And we, we saw Vietnam as an element of the Cold War. Not what they saw it as: a civil war.”

The one thing the U.S. military hadn’t factored into its calculations was the feelings of the Vietnamese people. As their family members were killed and their country was laid to waste, is it really a surprise that they increasingly turned against the American people and sided with the Viet Cong? A statistical approach to Vietnam said a high enemy death toll was the key to victory. An empathetic approach reveals the human truth: in a guerrilla war, minimizing death toll is one of the cornerstones of victory. This does not mean that the technology is not an essential part of the effort. But our obsession with technology cannot trump our focus on people.

Building on what we learned from Vietnam, the US military and its allies have moved from trying to kill as many of the bad guys in Iraq and Afghanistan as possible, to trying to provide as much peace and security as possible for the vast majority of locals, whose priority is the safety and well-being of their families. The dividend of this new “hearts and minds” strategy was that several of Iraq’s Sunni tribes switched from fighting with Al Qaeda to fighting against them. Considering how the occupation was going, this “Sunni Awakening” as it is called is a truly staggering accomplishment. When it comes to conflicts like Vietnam and the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, empathy is the most powerful tool a military can have.

This obsession with purely rational efficiency began in business, and so it is perhaps no surprise that numbers-only analysis, strict hierarchies, and the elimination of inefficiencies have become the cornerstones of the corporate world. While a rational, impersonal management style can certainly reduce costs, it comes at the expense of what corporations (and governments) desire more than anything else: innovation. In his book Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of Innovation, Ed Catmull, who co-founded Pixar with Steve Jobs and John Lasseter, had this to say:

“…The best managers acknowledge and make room for what they do not know— not just because humility is a virtue but because until one adopts that mindset, the most striking breakthroughs cannot occur. I believe that managers must loosen the controls, not tighten them. They must accept risk; they must trust the people they work with and strive to clear the path for them; and always, they must pay attention to and engage with anything that creates fear.”

Catmull’s emphasis on humility is striking and fits exactly with the vast body of research on innovation. Humility makes space for everyone to share their ideas. It allows for the collective intelligence of the group. On the other hand, hierarchical systems where CEOs expect their employees to do only what they’re told, where the government prescribes exactly what teachers must do, and where armies give soldiers on the ground no discretion leave room for the intelligence of only one person: the leader. Pixar has created an environment that uses emotional and psychological motivators for its employees in order to pursue their core principle: that two heads really are better than one. Whether you measure their success financially or based on how their stories move you, Pixar’s approach clearly works.

While the emotional motivators—the emphasis on shared humanity—is an intentional part of the corporate culture at Pixar, the power of embracing our humanity is already at work in subtler ways in our daily lives, creating tremendous opportunities. Nowhere is that clearer than in the modern spread of ideas. In the summer of 2014, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge used social networks to raise $100 million. This represents a 3500% increase in donations over the same time the previous year. While most fundraising drives have to be driven, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge drove itself. Many commentators have pointed to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge as a great example of the power of social media. However, it is worth remembering that the real engine behind social media is not Facebook or Twitter. It is the deeply human desire to be social, to share things of interest, to help out a good cause, to add to our prestige, and to do something fun and new. The success of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge (and of websites like Facebook and Twitter in general) is a tribute to what happens when we work with our humanity rather than against it.

Above all, working with our humanity requires letting go of our expectations of the things to which people “should” respond. In 1985, the state of Texas was spending about $20 million dollars per year cleaning up litter from its highways. Studies had shown that far and away, the biggest offenders were men aged between 18-35. Tim McClure (one of the ad agency people trying to solve the problem) described the people they were trying to reach as “bubbas in pickup trucks” who believed littering was a “God-given right.” This group of people didn’t like being told what to do—but they loved their home state. That is how the “Don’t Mess With Texas” campaign was born. Elderly, conservative government officials in charge of approving the message didn’t like it; they preferred messages like, “Keep America Beautiful.” (One of them even suggested adding a “please” in front of “Don’t Mess With Texas.”) The slogan’s creators politely refused. To have the right emotional impact with men 18-35, it needed to appeal to that ornery, Texas-loving mindset. Between 1986 and 1990, the “Don’t Mess With Texas” campaign reduced highway littering by 72%. The slogan was still so popular a decade and a half later that when George W. Bush accepted the Republican Party’s Presidential nomination, he used the phrase in his acceptance speech, making it internationally famous. “Don’t Mess With Texas” struck just the right emotional chord with Texan men. And striking the right emotional chord is what moves people and changes lives.

And so, it’s time we ask ourselves one final question: if emotion and reason are inextricably linked inside the human brain then what is the emotion of pure reason? In pursuit of pure reason, we have aspired to be cold, unfeeling, and detached from our fellow human beings. To achieve “pure reason” we have to choose to feel nothing for our fellow human beings and then we wonder why we cannot understand their behavior. We have robbed ourselves of empathy. So, as we head into era of Big Data, let us be excited about it, but let us be ever watchful that it is paired with an empathy that is at least as big. Emotionally-isolated experts who plan education without listening to teachers and students, military generals who approach their soldiers and local civilians with arrogance, and CEOs who have no room for the mistakes that create innovation will turn the philosopher’s dream of pure reason into a hellish nightmare.

The human race is amazing. We have an unbelievable power to innovate, to create, and to improve the world around us, and to solve the problems that stand in our way. But first, we need to accept that technology alone will not cause people to change. People cause people to change. We are not computers, and that should be a point of pride. It is time for us to take a fresh approach to solving the biggest issues in humanity, by starting from the core of that humanity itself.

23 October 2015

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