Author: Farnam Street

Confirmation Bias: Why You Should Seek Out Disconfirming Evidence

“What the human being is best at doing is
interpreting all new information
so that their prior conclusions remain intact.”

— Warren Buffett

***

The Basics

Confirmation bias is our tendency to cherry pick information which confirms pre-existing beliefs or ideas. This is also known as myside bias or confirmatory bias. Two people with opposing views on a topic can see the same evidence, and still come away both validated by it. Confirmation bias is pronounced in the case of ingrained, ideological, or emotionally charged views.

Failing to interpret information in an unbiased way can lead to serious misjudgements. By understanding this, we can learn to identify it in ourselves and others. We can be cautious of data which seems to immediately support our views.

When we feel as if others ‘cannot see sense’, a grasp of how confirmation bias works can enable us to understand why. Willard V Quine and J.S. Ullian described this bias in The Web of Belief as such:

The desire to be right and the desire to have been right are two desires, and the sooner we separate them the better off we are. The desire to be right is the thirst for truth. On all counts, both practical and theoretical, there is nothing but good to be said for it. The desire to have been right, on the other hand, is the pride that goeth before a fall. It stands in the way of our seeing we were wrong, and thus blocks the progress of our knowledge.

Experimentation beginning in the 1960s revealed our tendency to confirm existing beliefs, rather than questioning them or seeking new ones. Other research has revealed our single-minded need to enforce ideas.

Like many mental models, confirmation bias was first identified by the ancient Greeks. In The Peloponnesian War, Thucydides described this tendency as such:

For it is a habit of humanity to entrust to careless hope what they long for, and to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not fancy.

Why we use this cognitive shortcut is understandable. Evaluating evidence (especially when it is complicated or unclear) requires a great deal of mental energy. Our brains prefer to take shortcuts. This saves the time needed to make decisions, in particular when under pressure. As many evolutionary scientists have pointed out, our minds are unequipped to handle the modern world. For most of human history, people experienced very little information during their lifetimes. Decisions tended to be survival based. Now, we are constantly receiving new information and have to make numerous complex choices each day. To stave off overwhelm, we have a natural tendency to take shortcuts.

In The Case for Motivated Reasoning, Ziva Kunda wrote “we give special weight to information that allows us to come to the conclusion we want to reach.” Accepting information which confirms our beliefs is easy and requires little mental energy. Yet contradicting information causes us to shy away, grasping for a reason to discard it.

In The Little Book of Stupidity, Sia Mohajer wrote:

The confirmation bias is so fundamental to your development and your reality that you might not even realize it is happening. We look for evidence that supports our beliefs and opinions about the world but excludes those that run contrary to our own… In an attempt to simplify the world and make it conform to our expectations, we have been blessed with the gift of cognitive biases.

How Confirmation Bias Clouds our Judgement

“The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects.”
— Francis Bacon

***

The complexity of confirmation bias partly arises from the fact that it is impossible to overcome it without an awareness of the concept. Even when shown evidence to contradict a biased view, we may still interpret it in a manner which reinforces our current perspective.

In one Stanford study, participants were chosen, half of whom were in favor of capital punishment. The other half were opposed to it. Both groups read details of the same two fictional studies. Half of the participants were told that one study supported the deterrent effect of capital punishment and the other opposed it. The other participants read the inverse information. At the conclusion of the study, the majority of participants stuck to their original views, pointing to the data which supported it and discarding that which did not.

Confirmation bias clouds our judgement. It gives us a skewed view of information, even straight numerical figures. Understanding this cannot fail to transform a person’s worldview. Or rather, our perspective on it. Lewis Carroll stated “we are what we believe we are”, but it seems that the world is also what we believe it to be.

A poem by Shannon L. Adler illustrates this concept:

Read it with sorrow and you will feel hate.
Read it with anger and you will feel vengeful.
Read it with paranoia and you will feel confusion.
Read it with empathy and you will feel compassion.
Read it with love and you will feel flattery.
Read it with hope and you will feel positive.
Read it with humor and you will feel joy.
Read it without bias and you will feel peace.
Do not read it at all and you will not feel a thing.

Confirmation bias is somewhat linked to our memories (similar to availability bias.) We have a penchant for recalling evidence which backs up our beliefs. However neutral the original information was, we fall prey to selective recall. As Leo Tolstoy wrote:

The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.

Why We Ignore Contradicting Evidence

“Beliefs can survive potent logical or empirical challenges. They can survive and even be bolstered by evidence that most uncommitted observers would agree logically demands some weakening of such beliefs. They can even survive the destruction of their original evidential bases.”
—Lee Ross and Craig Anderson

***

Why is it that we struggle to even acknowledge information which contradicts our views? When first learning about the existence of confirmation bias, many people deny they are affected. After all, most of us see ourselves as intelligent, rational people. So, how can our beliefs persevere even in the face of clear, empirical evidence? Even when something is proven untrue many entirely sane people continue to find ways to mitigate the subsequent cognitive dissonance.

Much of this is the result of our need for cognitive consistency. We are bombarded by information. It comes from other people, the media, our experience, and different sources. Our minds must find means of encoding, storing, and retrieving the data we are exposed to. One way we do this is by developing cognitive shortcuts and models. These can be useful, or unhelpful. Confirmation bias is one of the less helpful heuristics which exists as a result. The information which we interpret is influenced by existing beliefs, meaning we are more likely to recall it. As a consequence, we tend to see more evidence which enforces our worldview. Confirmatory data is taken seriously, while disconfirmatory data is treated with scepticism. Our general assimilation of information is subject to deep bias. To constantly evaluate our worldview would be exhausting, so we prefer to strengthen it. It can also be difficult to consider multiple ideas at once, making it simpler to focus on just one.

We ignore contradictory evidence because it is so unpalatable for our brains. According to research by Jennifer Lerner and Philip Tetlock, we are motivated to think in a critical manner only when held accountable by others. If we are expected to justify our beliefs, feelings, and behaviour to others, we are less likely to be biased towards confirmatory evidence. This is less out of a desire to be accurate, and more the result of wanting to avoid negative consequences or derision for being illogical. Ignoring evidence can be beneficial, such as when we side with the beliefs of others to avoid social alienation.

Examples of Confirmation Bias in Action

Creationists vs Evolutionary Biologists

A prime example of confirmation bias can be seen in the clashes between creationists and evolutionary biologists. The latter use scientific evidence and experimentation to reveal the process of biological evolution over millions of years. The former see the bible as true in the literal sense, and think the world is only a few thousand years old. Creationists are skilled at mitigating the cognitive dissonance caused by factual evidence which disproves their ideas. Many consider the non-empirical ‘evidence’ for their beliefs (such as spiritual experiences and the existence of scripture) to be of greater value than the empirical evidence for evolution.

Evolutionary biologists have used fossil records to prove how the process of evolution has occurred over millions of years. Meanwhile, some creationists view the same fossils as planted by a god to test our beliefs. Others claim that fossils are proof of the global flood described in the bible. They ignore evidence to contradict these conspiratorial ideas, instead of using it to confirm what they already think.

Doomsayers

Take a walk through London on a busy day and you are pretty much guaranteed to see a doomsayer on a street corner ranting about the upcoming apocalypse. Return a while later and you will find them still there, announcing that the end has been postponed.

Leon Festinger explained the phenomena:

Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart, suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief that he has taken irrevocable actions because of it. Finally, suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal, and undeniable evidence that his belief is wrong, what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervor about convincing and converting people to his view

Music

Confirmation bias in music is interesting because it is actually part of why we enjoy it so much. According to Daniel Levitin, author of This is Your Brain on Music:

As music unfolds, the brain constantly updates its estimates of when new beats will occur, and takes satisfaction in matching a mental beat with a real-in-the-world one.

Witness the way a group of teenagers will act when someone puts on Wonderwall by Oasis or Creep by Radiohead. Or how their parents react to Starman by Bowie or Alone by Heart. Or even their grandparents to The Way You Look Tonight by Sinatra or Je ne Regrette Rien by Edith Piaf. The ability to predict each successive beat or syllable is intrinsically pleasurable. This is a case of confirmation bias serving us well. We learn to understand musical patterns and conventions, enjoying seeing them play out.

Homeopathy

The multi-billion dollar homeopathy industry is an example of mass confirmation bias.

Homeopathy was invented by Jacques Benveniste, a French researcher studying histamines. Benveniste became convinced that the effectiveness of histamines increased as a solution was diluted, due to what he termed ‘water memories.’ Test results were performed without blinding, leading to a placebo effect. Benveniste was so certain of his hypothesis that he found data to confirm it and ignored that which did not. Other researchers repeated his experiments with appropriate blinding and proved Benveniste’s results to have been false. Many of the people who worked with him withdrew from science as a result.

Yet homeopathy supporters have only grown in numbers. Supporters cling to any evidence to support homeopathy while ignoring that which does not.

Scientific Experiments

“One of the biggest problems with the world today is that we have large groups of people who will accept whatever they hear on the grapevine, just because it suits their worldview—not because it is actually true or because they have evidence to support it. The striking thing is that it would not take much effort to establish validity in most of these cases… but people prefer reassurance to research.”
— Neil deGrasse Tyson

In good scientific experiments, researchers should seek to falsify their hypotheses, not to confirm it. Unfortunately, this is not always the case (as shown by homeopathy.) There are many cases of scientists interpreting data in a biased manner, or repeating experiments until they achieve the desired result. Confirmation bias also comes into play when scientists peer review studies. They tend to give positive reviews of studies which confirm their views and those accepted by the scientific community.

This is problematic. Inadequate research programs can continue past the point where evidence points to a false hypothesis. Confirmation bias wastes a huge amount of time and funding. We must not take science at face value and be aware of the role of biased reporting.

Conclusion

“The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.”
— Robertson Davies

***

This article has the potential to be an opportunity to assess how confirmation bias affects you. Consider looking back over the previous paragraphs and asking:

  • Which parts did I automatically agree with?
  • Which parts did I ignore or skim over without realizing?
  • How did I react to the points which I agreed/disagreed with?
  • Did this post confirm any ideas I already had? Why?
  • What if I thought the opposite of those ideas?

Being cognizant of confirmation is not easy, but with practice, it is possible to recognize the role it plays in the way we interpret information. You need to search out disconfirming evidence.

As Rebecca Goldstein wrote in Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Godel:

All truths — even those that had seemed so certain as to be immune to the very possibility of revision — are essentially manufactured. Indeed, the very notion of the objectively true is a socially constructed myth. Our knowing minds are not embedded in truth. Rather, the entire notion of truth is embedded in our minds, which are themselves the unwitting lackeys of organizational forms of influence.

To learn more about confirmation bias, read The Little Book of Stupidity or The Black Swan. Be sure to check out our entire latticework of mental models.

Footnotes
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Galilean Relativity and the Invasion of Scotland

A few centuries ago, when Galileo (1564-1642) was trying to make a couple of points about how our world really works, one of the arguments that frequently came up in response to his ‘the earth orbits the sun’ theory was “if the earth is moving through space, how come I don’t notice?”

Not that I have much to begin with, but I don’t feel the wind constantly in my hair, I don’t get orbit-induced motion sickness, so why, Galileo, don’t I notice this movement as the earth is spinning around over 100,000 km per hour?

His answer is known as Galilean Relativity and it contains principles that have broad application in life.

Understanding Galilean Relativity allows you to consider your perspective in relation to results. Are you really achieving what you think you are?

First, an explanation of the theory.

Imagine you are on a ship that has reached constant velocity (meaning without a change in speed or direction). You are below decks and there are no portholes. You drop a ball from your raised hand to the floor. To you, it looks as if the ball is dropping straight down, thereby confirming gravity is at work. You are able to perceive this vertical shift as the ball changed its location by about three feet.

Now imagine you are a fish (with special x-ray vision) and you are watching this ship go past. You see the scientist inside, dropping a ball. You register the vertical change in the position of the ball. But you are also able to see a horizontal change. As the ball was pulled down by gravity it also shifted its position east by about 20 feet. The ship moved through the water and therefore so did the ball. The scientist on board, with no external point of reference, was not able to perceive this horizontal shift.

This analogy helped Galileo explain why we don’t notice the earth moving — because we’re at the same constant velocity, moving with our planet.

It can also show us the limits of our perception. And how we must be open to other perspectives if we truly want to understand the results of our actions. Despite feeling that we’ve got all the information, if we’re on the ship, the fish in the ocean has more he can share.

History offers an illuminating example of this principle at work.

In the early fourteenth century, two English kings (Edwards I and II) were repeatedly in conflict with Scotland over Scottish independence.

Nationalism wasn’t as prevalent as an identity characteristic as it is today. Lands came and went with war, marriage, and papal edicts, and the royal echelons of Europe spent a lot of time trying to acquire and hold on to land, as that is where their money ultimately came from.

There were a lot of factors that led Edward I, King of England, to decide that Scotland should be his. It has to do with how William the Conqueror divided things up in the area in 1066, the constant struggle by the English for the strategic upper hand against France, and more generally, the fact that the King of England was at the head of a feudal system that, “by enlarging a class of professional soldiers who owed military service in payment for land, it enabled it,” says William Rosen in his book The Third Horseman: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Century.

Edward I wanted to rule Scotland. The Scots weren’t interested. He invaded half a dozen times and succeeded only in giving birth to a separate Scottish identity. His desire for Scotland became his Galilean ship. He couldn’t see beyond that desire to understand how his actions were actually fundamentally undermining his goals.

History regards Edward I as a decent king. Strategic in battle, a good administrator, and so one can assume that what he generally wanted was to rule over a prosperous and powerful country. In his mind then it may have been a very simple equation – since prosperity in the middle ages was tied up with land, then to have more of it must be good. And Scotland was in a convenient location, as opposed to, say, Mongolia.

What Edward I did not see was that the repeated invasion of Scotland was undermining the very prosperity and power he was hoping to augment. It was costing tons of money, money that had to be raised from the nobility that supported his monarchy, which in turn had to be raised via the peasants from the land. People were getting sick of watching their taxes go up in flames on the Scottish border. And, as Rosen claims, “A king’s authority depends utterly on the loyalty and faith of his people.” Lose your popular support and you lose everything.

When Edward I died, his son, Edward II, inherited his father’s quest to own Scotland. He too repeatedly invaded with no lasting success. And he had it even worse. The beginning of his reign coincided with a major famine that decimated the population. This was followed by diseases that swept through the agricultural animal populations. So there was less money to support war.

But Edward II kept taxing and invading Scotland anyway, indifferent to the plight of his people. This contributed to widespread disgust with his reign and eventually led to his being disposed of, and likely murdered, in favor of his son. A cautionary tale on what happens when you lose the loyalty of the people you are meant to be leading!

This all begs the question, was Scotland really such a great prize to justify the repeated attempts to conquer it?

The answer is no. As Rosen writes, “the conquest of medieval Scotland was, by any rational economic calculus, a poor bargain for both of England’s King Edwards, who together spent more than the entire value of the country in one failed expedition after another.”

They certainly did not see this.

It is important to know that in Galilean relativity, neither the perspective of the scientist on the ship nor the fish in the ocean is incorrect. Both perspectives are true for those doing the observing. Because the scientist has no external frame of reference, he is not mistaken when he says that the ball moved only vertically, and not horizontally.

You aren’t always going to be able to adjust for Galilean relativity. Given the roles, expectations, and mythology surrounding kings, both Edwards were acting according to the viewpoint they had.

So discussing the attempted conquest of Scotland by both Kings is not about revealing that their assumptions were incorrect. From their perspective acquiring land was always a good thing. But by failing to consider other perspectives they didn’t achieve their intended results – control of Scotland – and, more importantly, were unable to appreciate the results they were affecting. More land cannot come at the expense of support for your leadership.

It is likely that at least one advisor might have said to the Edwards, ‘hey, maybe you should spend some more money on preventing the starvation of the population that pays you taxes and take a break on this Scottish thing’. This is where understanding Galilean relativity is useful – you won’t shoot the messenger.

You will know that sometimes you are on the ship, and the limitations this entails, and so be open when the fish shares his perspective with you.

Simone de Beauvoir on The Ethics of Freedom

Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) wrote The Ethics of Ambiguity in 1948. In many ways, it can be read as a reaction to World War 2, an attempt to make sense of all that war entailed, and therefore teach us what it means to be human in the face of the worst atrocities we can imagine.

Writer Maria Popova describes the book as “a difficult but enormously rewarding read, exploring the existentialist tension between absolute freedom of choice and the constraints of life’s givens.”

The book is concerned with freedom, what it means to be free. But also the ethics of that freedom, and so de Beauvoir works to give us an ethical system that we can use.

She places humans at the center of her philosophy, describing the role we have in our own freedom. “One can not start by saying that our earthly destiny has or has not importance, for it depends upon us to give it importance. It is up to man to make it important to be a man, and he alone can feel his success or failure.”

She explores not only this responsibility we have to ourselves to give our existence meaning but the responsibility we have to others in the actualization of their freedom. In doing so she defends humanity against the horrors it had just witnessed. She does not excuse them, but rather offers a path out. It is, in a sense, hopeful.

Turning away from the destruction of the War and the regimes that perpetrated it, she analyzes this space where we can continue to call ourselves human. A free man is one “whose end is the liberation of himself and others.”

She provides a powerful analysis of the types of men who are not free, and by doing so explains how we end up with war and oppression. She reveals the human condition to not be a universal. We all experience our being in this world differently depending on our engagement with it, and thus each type of man is categorized based on his treatment of others in the pursuit of his freedom.

First, there is the ‘sub-man’. A man who is far from freedom through the ongoing refusal to take ownership of his existence in the world.

The strange character of a universe with which he has created no bond also arouses fear in him. Weighted down by present events, he is bewildered before the darkness of the future which is haunted by frightful spectres, war, sickness, revolution, fascism, bolshevism. The more indistinct these dangers are, the more fearful they become. The sub-man is not very clear about what he has to lose, since he has nothing, but this very uncertainty re-enforces his terror. Indeed, what he fears is that the shock of the unforeseen may remind him of the agonizing consciousness of himself.

This passage reminds us that it is hard to be human. It is hard to embrace a precarious existence and find fulfillment in the transitory. But the description of the sub-man reminds us that it is important to try. To do otherwise, to avoid being, is to “manifest a fundamental fear in the face of existence, in the face of the risks and tensions which it implies.” The sub-man is the one who, to avoid disappointment, avoids in engaging. If he doesn’t try, he doesn’t fail.

Next, we have the ‘serious man’. This man is one who wraps the value of his existence in an external goal. Money, power, position, conquest – it is only by achieving these external objects that he feels his existence will be validated. And the result is that he never gets this validation because there is always someone with more. To pursue a life in this way is to be cursed to one of Dante’s rings of hell — a prescription for ensured perpetual unhappiness.

The serious man cannot ever admit to the subjectivity of his goals, that he himself identified them as such because to do so would be to acknowledge the subjectivity of his own existence.

Everything is a threat to him, since the thing which he has set up as an idol is an externality and is thus in relationship with the whole universe; and since, despite all precautions, he will never be the master of this exterior world to which he has consented to submit, he will be constantly upset by the uncontrollable course of events.

Meaning has to come from within. But serious men wrap up the meaning of life in exterior constructs that they believe are universal. Money isn’t just important to him, it is important to everyone. De Beauvoir argues that this makes the serious man controlled by his goals, and therefore he sacrifices his freedom, and the freedom of others, to attain them. Achieving these goals is actually what breaks the serious man because he is then forced to acknowledge their subjectivity which undermines his understanding of his existence.

There is also ‘the adventurer’ a man who “throws himself into his undertakings with zest, into exploration, conquest, war, speculation, love, politics, but he does not attach himself to the end at which he aims; only the conquest.” He asserts his freedom quite forcefully. The problem is that he often undermines the freedom of others in the process. And to have your freedom at the expense of others is to participate in oppression.

Adventurers either do not understand that “every undertaking unfolds in a human world affects men,” or they willfully ignore it. We call it selfish. Like Don Juan, breaking the hearts of women just so his desire for conquest is fulfilled, hurting others to achieve your own fulfillment, doesn’t work.

Finally, there is the ‘passionate man’, who, like the adventurer, treats other men as things on the way to achieving his freedom. Passionate men also want to attain external goals, but unlike the serious man they acknowledge the subjectivity of them. These goals are, similarly, things to be possessed and through this possession, the passionate man believes he will confirm his existence. “The whole universe is perceived only as an ensemble of means or obstacles through which it is a matter of attaining the thing in which one has engaged his being.”

De Beauvoir advises that the passionate man, the closest of the four to freedom, must accept the eternal distance he has from the thing which he wants to possess. Love, happiness – freedom comes in recognizing there will always be a distance between us and these things yet aspiring to them anyway.

Her description of these different types of men is her way of trying to make sense of the behaviors of dictators and tyrants, the people who support them, and the people who carry out their orders.

Unlike many philosophers de Beauvoir does not assert that her description of ‘man’ is of all men. She acknowledges that not all humans have the same access to freedom.

Oppression is the result of fearful men trying to justify their existence. Unable to accept the ambiguities of being human they, as we have seen above, deny others freedom in order to validate their shallow attempts to give their life meaning. The reason these attempts are shallow is because they cannot embrace the transitory nature of existence. It is in trying to make existence concrete that the negative impact to other’s freedom manifests.

Why does the drive for freedom not ever die out completely in the oppressed?  She does not spend a lot of time on this, but offers this remarkable passage: “Yet, with all this sordid resignation, there were children who played and laughed; and their smile exposed the lie of their oppressors: it was an appeal and a promise; it projected a future before the child, a man’s future. If in all oppressed countries, a child’s face is so moving, it is not that the child is more moving or that he has more of a right to happiness than the others; it is that he is the living affirmation of human transcendence: he is on the watch, he is an eager hand held out to the world, he is a hope, a project.” It is this that tyranny can never fully eliminate.

For de Beauvoir, freedom comes in the act of trying to be free and accepting that this journey is the freedom. It is the process, not the outcome. This naturally leads to questions of ethics because if I want the freedom of others in pursuing my own freedom, I must have a system to evaluate conflicts. “To be free is not to have the power to do anything you like; it is to be able to surpass the given towards an open future; the existence of others as a freedom defines my situation and is even the condition of my own freedom. I am oppressed if I am thrown into prison, but not if I am kept from throwing my neighbor into prison.”

Her ethics are not absolutes – she strives to give us something we can actually use. She says “ethics does not furnish recipes any more than do science and art. One can merely propose methods.”

To that end, we must constantly question our actions. “What distinguishes the tyrant from the man of good will is that the first rests in the certainty of his aims, whereas the second keeps asking himself, ‘Am I really working for the liberation of men? Isn’t this end contested by the sacrifices through which I aim at it?’” Rightness and goodness aren’t objective constructs that, once attained, we achieve forever. They do not exist independently in nature. They are concepts that evolve with the rest of it, with us, and so must we always evaluate our actions in light of the new knowledge and understanding we acquire along the way.

There are no perfect answers to ethical questions. In sacrificing one man to save many, de Beauvoir argues persuasively that sometimes this sacrifice will be justified and sometimes it will not. Sometimes temporary oppression of the minority will be the path to freedom for the majority. It is impossible to address all questions of morality in advance, and so “we can merely ask that such decisions be not taken hastily and lightly, and that, all things considered, the evil one inflicts be lesser than that which is being forestalled.”

Finally, we must also admit to humility. No one knows it all or has perfect understanding.

Oppressors are always opposed, for example, to the extension of universal suffrage by adducing the incompetence of the masses, of women, of the natives in the colonies; but this forgetting that man always has to decide by himself in the darkness, that he must want beyond what he knows.

The Ethics of Ambiguity is worth reading in its entirety.

Cleopatra and Self-Preservation

“For the last time in two thousand years Cleopatra VII stands offstage.
In a matter of days she will launch herself into history,
which is to say that faced with the inevitable,
she will counter with the improbable. It is 48 BC.”
— Stacy Schiff

***

Cleopatra (69BC 30-BC) was a master of self-preservation. She lived a life under constant threat and yet never fell victim to it. Her success was so uncommon, particularly for a woman, that it seems like history has been trying to make excuses for it for over 2000 years. But as Stacy Schiff illuminates in her book, Cleopatra: A Life, her story is worth learning and taking inspiration from. Cleopatra has a lot to teach us about drawing on all our resources in the face of adversity.

Self-preservation in the biological sense is about our very profound instinct to keep ourselves alive. This instinct is exhibited by all animals and is about the survival of our genes. It’s not about spirituality or morality or about how we feel. It’s a biological desire to live until we can pass our genes onto the next generation and ensure their survival.

As John Medina explains in Brain Rules, “Without a flexible, immediately available, highly regulated stress response, we would die. Remember, the brain is the world’s most sophisticated survival organ. All of its many complexities are built toward a mildly erotic, singularly selfish goal: to live long enough to thrust our genes on to the next generation. Our reactions to stress serve the live-long-enough part of that goal. Stress helps us manage the threats that could keep us from procreating.”

This sophisticated stress response is an extremely useful system to have. It works when it needs to — no effort required — propelling us to fight, flight, or freeze. It allows us to process information so quickly that we are not conscious of the thoughts. We obey our bodies when it tells us not to move a muscle, to attack with as much violence as possible, or to run like hell.

But it has to be able to turn off. It can’t be the only system you use every day. Why? Because it is meant to come out only in situations where our life is threatened.

Our stress responses were shaped to solve problems that lasted not for years, but for seconds. … These days, our stresses are measured not in moments with mountain lions, but in hours, days, and sometimes months with hectic workplaces, screaming toddlers, and money problems. Our system isn’t built for that. And when moderate amounts of hormone build up to large amounts, or when moderate amounts of hormone hang around too long, they become quite harmful.

And so, in human society, which often seems one long, ongoing battle, we can’t exist in a constant state of fight/flight/freeze if we are to preserve both our genes and our sanity. We need to integrate other capabilities of our brain into our dealings with stress, such as rational, strategic thought that leverages the resources of knowledge we’ve built over the years. And this is where Cleopatra excelled.

To be fair, we all don’t respond the same way to stress. As Medina says, “Psychiatrists long have observed that some people are more tolerant of stress than others. … Some people’s genetic complement naturally buffers them against the effects of stress, even the chronic type.”

We will never know if this is true for Cleopatra, but there is no doubt she rose to the formidable challenges of being Queen of Egypt circa 40 BCE. She adapted, survived, and thrived despite constant peril. So maybe her story can illuminate for us a different mindset with which to deal with our daily stressors.

First she had to deal with a tradition of murder within her own family.

Cleopatra

Schiff explains in Cleopatra: A Life:

Over the generations the family indulged in what has been termed ‘an orgy of pillage and murder’ … Over and over mothers sent troops against sons. Sisters waged war against brothers. Cleopatra’s great-grandmother fought one civil war against her parents, a second against her children.

Because, in Cleopatra's Ptolemy line, brothers often married sisters, all children had legitimate claims to the throne and often ended up disposing of each other. In keeping up with family practices, Cleopatra got rid of a brother/husband and a sister who had designs on her throne.

So right from the beginning it was kill or be killed. There were no allies in the home.

When Caesar arrived in 48 BCE, Cleopatra’s brother was occupying the throne having banished her to the desert.

That summer she rallied a band of mercenaries, at a desert camp, under the glassy heat of the Syrian sun. She was twenty-one, an orphan and an exile. Already she had known both excessive good fortune and its flamboyant consort, calamity. Accustomed to the greatest luxury of the day, she held court two hundred miles from the ebony doors and onyx floors of home. Her tent amid the scrub of the desert was the closest she had come in a year. Over those months she had scrambled for her life, fleeing through Middle Egypt, Palestine, and southern Syria. She had spent a dusty summer raising an army.

She was resourceful. She took the throne back and held on for 18 tumultuous years.

Politics in the Mediterranean during her time were volatile. Changing allegiances, murder, competing personalities and ideologies characterized the Roman spirit. Caesar had formed a vision of how powerful Rome could be, and this was tempting to many.

Egypt was the richest country on the Mediterranean. Because it had the most fertile soil, it could grow and produce exceptional amounts of food. So it was an early stop in any attempts to conquer the world, because it could fund the efforts.

Rather than focus on the things she couldn’t overtly control (e.g. the timing of Roman invasions), she set to order those elements within her sphere of power and influence. The Greek language, “by Cleopatra’s day [was] the language of business and bureaucracy … While Egyptian speakers learned Greek, it was rare that anyone ventured in the opposite direction. To the punishing study of Egyptian, however, Cleopatra applied herself. She was allegedly the first and only Ptolemy to bother to learn the language of the 7 million people over whom she ruled.”

She worked hard to gain and maintain the support of her people because no monarch wants to be fighting on two fronts at once. She got rid of her competitors, spent money on developing Egypt’s infrastructure, and as Schiff explains, learned Egyptian culture so well that she was able to invoke their Goddess Isis as “provider of wisdom and of material and spiritual sustenance.” Rome was always going to be a problem, but she did an excellent job keeping peace on the home front. She had the longest reign of all the Ptolemies.

When the inevitable Roman intrusions came she aimed to best support Egyptian interests, sometimes backing the wrong horse. After Caesar, there was a fight for Roman leadership. When the dust settled Mark Antony was in charge of everything East of Rome and Cleopatra was in the awkward and potentially fatal position of not having supported him.

Confident though she may have been, contemptuous though she may have appeared, Cleopatra left nothing in her preparation to chance. … She would have known she was entering a sort-of sweepstakes for Antony’s attention. She seemed determined to conjure a display so stunning it would propel Plutarch to Shakespearean heights, as it would elicit from Shakespeare his richest poetry. And she succeeded. In the annals of indelible entrances – the wooden horse into Troy; Christ into Jerusalem; Benjamin Franklin into Philadelphia; the Beatles on Ed Sullivan’s stage – Cleopatra’s alone lifts off the page in iridescent color, amid inexhaustible, expensive clouds of incense, a sensational, simultaneous assault on every sense.

She was also extremely adept at framing her actions to suit whatever narrative she needed to preserve her power. By the time she was dealing with Mark Antony, “her ability to molt, instantly and as the situation required, to slide effortlessly from one idiom to another, her irresistible charm, were already well established.”

Cleopatra worked her whole life to keep her independence from Rome, to maintain her control over the land of which she was Queen. She fought to preserve her power and in doing so preserve her self and give her children the best chance of survival. “Cleopatra could generally be counted on to do the intelligent thing,” Schiff writes. “She was fighting for her life, her throne, and her children. She had ruled for two decades, and was without illusion.”

She adapted to the many vicissitudes of life by learning as much as she could, making sure her risks were calculated, and never giving up control of the position she held. Even her death was on her own terms. Although Schiff artfully argues that the actual circumstances of her death are unlikely to ever be know for sure, “for any number of reasons Cleopatra was unlikely to have recruited an asp, or an Egyptian cobra, for the job. A woman known for her crisp decisions and meticulous planning would surely have hesitated to entrust her fate to a wild animal.”

Eventually, Cleopatra could not outrun the aggression of Rome in pursuing the fertile Nile valley. But her intelligence and adaptability allowed her to last a remarkably long time in the face of a lifetime of tumult.

How to Live on 24 Hours a Day: Arnold Bennett on Living a Meaningful Life Within the Constraints of Time

“We shall never have more time.
We have, and have always had,
all the time there is.”

***

Despite having been published in 1910, Arnold Bennett’s book How to Live on 24 Hours a Day remains a valuable resource on living a meaningful life within the constraints of time. In the book, Bennett addresses one of our oldest questions: how can we make the best use of our lives? How can we make the best use of our time?

Bennett begins by reflecting on our counterintuitive tendency to value money over time. This is a topic which has been discussed as far back as the Stoics, and more recently by the financial independence movement. He writes:

Newspapers are full of articles explaining how to live on such-and-such a sum…but I have never seen an essay ‘how to live on 24 hours a day.’ Yet it has been said that time is money. That proverb understates the case. Time is a great deal more than money. If you have time, you can obtain money-usually. But…you cannot buy yourself a minute more time.

Next, he urges people to realize what a wonder it is that our daily allocation of time appears anew each time we wake:

The supply of time is truly a daily miracle. You wake up in the morning and lo! your purse is magically filled with 24 hours of the unmanufactured tissue of the universe of your life! It is yours.

Bennett’s original audience consisted of working people of slim means, used to structuring their lives around money. For this reason, he uses money as a metaphor for time, to make the abstract concepts seem more real:

You cannot draw on the future. Impossible to get into debt! You can only waste the passing moment. You cannot waste tomorrow, it is kept from you.

You have to live on this 24 hours of time. Out of it you have to spin health, pleasure, money, content, respect and the evolution of your immortal soul. It’s right use…is a matter of the highest urgency.

Perhaps one of the starkest and most memorable lines in the book is this:

We shall never have more time. We have, and have always had, all the time there is.

Bennett strongly encourages his readers to pursue their dreams, even if they fail. When we listen to the regrets of the elderly and dying, they invariably lament on what they neglected to do, not what they did. It is, however, the trying which matters, the journey which fulfills us:

A man may desire to go to Mecca… He fares forth…he may probably never reach Mecca; he may drown before he reaches Port Said; he may perish ingloriously on the cost of the Red Sea; his desire may remain eternally frustrated. Unfulfilled aspiration may always trouble him. But he will not be tormented in the same way as the man who…never leaves Brixton.

There is no magic bullet, no secret way to find more time. We see the desire to find one today, as people chase time management techniques which promise to free up more hours in the day:

I have found no such wonderful secret. Nor do I expect to find it, nor do I expect anyone else to find it. It is undiscovered… there is no easy way, no royal road. The path to Mecca is extremely hard and stony and the worst part is that you never get there after all.

This could be discouraging but it's not. Bennett encourages us to focus on how we can use our time to improve ourselves, stating that it is never too late:

You can turn over a new leaf every hour if you choose.

The idea that you can reinvent yourself each hour of the day is liberating. We get stuck in ruts and tell ourselves that we cannot change because we are too old, too young, too poor, too tied down. These are only excuses. They absolve us from responsibility. Bennett reminds us that just as money can be spent on anything, so can time. And, as Seneca reminded us, most of us fail to understand time until it's too late.

Bennett foreshadows modern research on habit change and personal development, which urges people to start small:

Beware of undertaking too much at the start. Be content with quite a little. Allow for accidents. Allow for human nature, especially your own… a glorious failure is better than a petty success.

Having set the stage, Bennett begins to discuss exactly how much time his audience has available to them. It is a simple fact that most of us believe we work for far more hours than we do – the average person’s estimate of their work week is out by 20 hours. Most workers are only productive for 3 hours a day. (the rest is spent on social media, gossiping and so on.) You can indeed get more done by working less.

You say your day is already full to overflowing. How? You actually spend in earning your livelihood – how much? Seven hours on the average. And in sleep, seven? I will add another two to be generous. And I will defy you to account for me the other 8 hours on the spur of the moment.

We all know the odd feeling of time passing without us noticing. We have all looked up on a Sunday evening, baffled as to where the day went. We have all arrived home at 6 pm and found that by the time we make dinner and shower, it is suddenly midnight.

Looking at the example of the average office worker at the time, Bennett reflects on our skewed attitude to work. We view our hours at work as our day and the rest as a margin. (Another example of how we fail to understand time.)

He persists in looking at the hours from 10 to 6 as ‘the day’ to which the 10 hours proceeding and the 6 hours following are an epilogue and prologue … this general attitude is illogical and unhealthy.

Next, Bennett laments the practice, ubiquitous of the time, of spending the morning commute reading the newspaper. We can apply his statements to the newspapers modern equivalent: social media. No doubt you have seen pictures of the past where a train carriage is full of people reading newspapers. Today the buses and subways are full of people on their telephones.

You calmly and majestically give yourself up to your newspaper. You do not hurry…your air is the air of a leisured man, wealthy in time, of a man from some planet where there are 124 hours in the day…I cannot possibly allow you to scatter such precious pearls of time with Oriental lavishness. You are not the Shah of time.

If you have ever known someone who complains of being time poor, yet scrolls Facebook with all the ease of a cat watching dust particles, you can doubtless relate to Bennett’s frustration. The number one question I receive from readers is how can I find more time to read? There is a simple answer but it involves tradeoffs that most of us are unwilling to make. It means putting reading and learning and growing ahead of the immediate gratification of social media. To waste vast swathes of time mindlessly consuming the day’s information is a bizarre concept to anyone who shares his attitude. Depending on the activity, The Red Queen of time is indeed formidable.

(In case you're wondering how I square this view of time squandering on newspapers with the fact you're reading a wesbite right now, allow me to explain the difference. Newspapers are focused on things that change. You can't run fast enough to keep up with this world and yet while you may think it's valuable the information you receive is full of noise. Farnam Street focuses on helping you learn things that don't change over time — It's an investment. What you learn today becomes the scaffolding to solving tomorrow's problem.)

Bennett describes the average person’s evening which has changed little in the last century.

You are pale and tired…in an hour or so you sit up and feel you could take a little nourishment. And you do. Then you smoke, seriously, you see friends, you potter, you play cards, you flirt with a book, you take a stroll, you caress the piano…by jove! A quarter past eleven.

Replace seeing friends for texting them, cards for video games, a book for a movie, a stroll for a trip to the gym and that is how most of us spend our evenings. Worn out by work, we flirt between whichever diversion seems interesting, dumping it when it begins to require focus. Then, suddenly it is time to sleep. Another day is over. But tomorrow will be different, right? Not without a concentrated effort, it won’t.

Bennett remarks on how different our evenings are when we have something specific to do and urges us to find specific diversions more often:

When you arrange to go to the theatre (especially with a pretty woman), what happens? You rush…you go. Friends and fatigue have been equally forgotten and the evening has seemed so long…can you deny that when you have something definite to look forward to at eventide, something that is to employ all your energy – the thought of that something gives a glow and more intense energy to the whole day?

Next, come some specific instructions on how we should spend our evenings. Bennett, echoing Machiavelli's ideas, suggests employing an hour and a half each evening for cultivating the mind, which still leaves 45 hours a week for errands, adventure, and seeing friends. This is a practice which we can all employ if only we'd stop the mindless diversions of Netflix and Snapchat and exchange the time for a concentrated effort on something meaningful.

My contention is that those 7 and a half hours will quicken the whole life of the week, add zest to it, and increase the interest which you feel in even the most banal occupations.

The control of the thinking machine is perfectly possible. And since nothing whatsoever happens to us outside our brains, since nothing hurts us or give us pleasure except within our brain, the supreme importance of being able to control what goes on inside the mysterious brain is patent… people complain of the lack of the power to concentrate, not witting that they may acquire the power if they chose…mind control is the first element of a full existence.

Bennett advocates an exercise which has much in common with mindfulness meditation, an idea which had yet to reach the country:

When you leave your house, concentrate your mind on a subject (no matter what to begin with.) You will not have gone ten paces before your mind has skipped away under your very eyes and is lurking around the corner with another subject. Bring it back by the scruff of the neck. Ere you have reached the station you will have brought it back 40 times. Do not despair. Keep it up. You will succeed.

As a subject to focus on, he recommends the works of the Stoics, which is still an ideal choice for personal study.

How can we, a century later in a somewhat different world, take Bennett’s advice?

It’s quite simple. His messages are uncomplicated, despite being wrapped up in his somewhat difficult to understand prose. For starters, we can stop viewing our work as our lives and learn to distinguish the two or intertwine them. We can plan specific pursuits for our spare time, rather than flitting it away. We can take stock of how much free time we actually have and where it is going. Then, we can structure those hours and minutes to ensure they are used for something meaningful. We can stop using all our spare time to consume stimulating information that changes quickly and focus on things that last. Instead, we can set aside blocks of time (guarded well) for working on our minds.

Unsurprisingly, the best way to improve ourselves is by reading. Books enable us to add the lives of other people onto our own. They are the most effective means humanity has found of making our lives meaningful, no matter how little time is available.

If you're looking to expand on these ideas, other books on the same topic which compliment this one include On the Shortness of Life by Seneca and Martin Eden by Jack London.

Emergence and Power — Four 13th Century Sisters who Became Queens

“Some systems are very sensitive to their starting conditions,
so that the tiny difference in the initial push you give them
causes a big difference in where they end up.  And there is
feedback, so that what a system does affects its own behavior.”
— John Gribbon

***

Emergence is the occurrence of genuinely new and novel qualities that are unique to a system and thus separate from its components.

Emergence can be a tricky concept, but it is an extremely useful model to explore. It allows us to understand why some things are greater than the sum of their parts. It demonstrates that power can arise from components that on their own are relatively powerless.

A school of fish is a perfect example. If you study the movement of one fish you would have no appreciation for the shape and behavior that 10,000 of them together will produce. Essentially, the complex behavior they exhibit as a group is more than the physical motion of each individual fish.

Understanding that organisms, including humans, can self-organize into systems that have properties that are unique to the collective is a lens through which you can better understand the behaviors of large organizations such as a bureaucracy, political system, or a marketplace.

Western Europe in the 13th century was almost dysfunctional. The borders of England, France, and Germany were not what we’d recognize today, and most rulers spent their time (and money) constantly reorganizing the geopolitical boundaries. Peace treaties were seasonal and monarchs would go into enormous debt to finance various exploits designed to take, or take back, land. Taxes were a certainty. Not so much who you’d be paying them to.

Women of the royalty and nobility were a huge component of these ‘raising funds for invasion’ schemes. Maybe beauty mattered, and there is some evidence that Kings and Queens did occasionally love each other. But money mattered more. High-class women came with dowries of lands and goods, which helped fund the ongoing conquests.

So women didn’t get to choose whom they were going to marry. It was like Monopoly trading – I’ll give you Pacific Avenue for St. Charles and Ventor and free rent for the next five rolls.

In 1230 four sisters lived in Provence, then part of the Holy Roman Empire (now part of France). Their father was a Count, which made them nobility, but not royalty. They didn’t have loads of money, but they were pretty. They had good marriage prospects, but not amazing ones. They should not have all ended up as Queens. And yet, that’s what happened.

Nancy Goldstone, in her book Four Queens, explains the geopolitical maneuverings that brought about this extraordinary set of circumstances.

Marguerite, the eldest, was the first to marry. She was chosen by the Dowager Queen of France, Blanche de Castile, for her eldest son Louis IX. Provence’s neighbor Toulouse was acting up, violating his treaty with France and the Dowager wanted friends in the region. A storm was brewing with England, and she knew France couldn’t handle a war on two fronts. So Marguerite, pretty, but of inferior rank, was chosen, as long as her family could provide a dowry of 10000 silver marks (needed for, among other things, dealing with the English). They couldn’t, so they pledged some Provence real estate which was good enough for all parties and the deal was done.

Eleanor was next, the second eldest of the sisters. She married Henry III, the King of England. Eleanor was even a less obvious choice than Marguerite. Henry III was broke, and what little liquid assets the Provence family had all went to Marguerite’s marriage. Goldstone argues that it is the first marriage that made all the difference for the second.

Marguerite’s marriage to the King of France had elevated the position of all the sisters. Plus, Henry was sick of losing to France and so sought Eleanor out. If Blanche “had selected a daughter of the count of Provence to be the wife of her eldest son [which] carried weight with Henry. … There must be something to it.” Essentially the King of England wanted what the King of France had.

The third daughter, Sanchia, was the unfortunate victim of her older sisters’ success. Also unhelpful was that she was rumored to be the most beautiful of the four. She was propositioned by Henry’s brother, Richard, the Earl of Cornwall and the richest man in England. They married, and Goldstone shows how her family connections helped him eventually buy the title of King of Germany, then part of the Holy Roman Empire (allegiances changed before Richard could be crowned Emperor.)

Finally, there was Beatrice. Because he had no sons, the father of the four sisters chose his estate, the rule of Provence, to be passed down to his youngest daughter Beatrice upon his death. When he died, she was still single and therefore had the best dowry to offer. Perhaps due to a dearth of available kings, she married the King of France’s youngest brother, Charles. Goldstone notes that they were well matched in terms of ambition. Their political and military endeavors eventually gave them the title of King and Queen of Sicily.

The key concept of emergence that is at play here is that components of a system self-organize to produce a state of affairs that is neither obvious nor predictable if you focus on the capabilities of the components themselves. The coming together produces capabilities that are new.

The internet encyclopedia of philosophy explains it this way:

Effects are resultant if they can be calculated by the mere addition or subtraction of causes operating together, as with the weight of an object, when one can calculate its weight merely by adding the weights of the parts that make it up. Effects are emergent if they cannot be thus calculated because they are qualitatively novel compared to the causes from which they emerge.

The power that each sister wielded in each marriage, if we generally consider how much power an individual woman would have had in a royal relationship, does not add up to explain their immense influence over the events of the mid-13th century.

Goldstone writes that “almost nothing of significance that occurred in western Europe during the period in which they lived was not influenced by the actions of this family. It is impossible to fully understand the underlying political motivations of the thirteenth century without them.”

The thing about emergent phenomenon is you can’t point to the components and say, ‘oh yeah, it’s because of this and that’. Like the school of fish, you can’t say, ‘they’re moving this way because of fish number 8 and number 63’. You can only look at the behavior of the school as a whole. And this whole has, for example, a power to evade predators that the individual doesn’t have.

So too with the sisters from Provence. Looking at the influence Marguerite developed over her husband or the fact that Eleanor and Henry ended up respecting each and thus worked as a team is not enough to explain what they could achieve. It wasn’t Sanchia alone who got Richard a crown, and Beatrice’s money didn’t directly buy Sicily. The sisters were, in varying degrees, determined, smart, pious, ambitious, and beautiful. And they all had sons. But although these things may have played a part, you can’t point to any of them and say it was the deciding factor in the influence they had. The reach of the collective was more than adding up the reach of each individual. A higher degree of power emerged, and one that couldn’t have been predicted.

Goldstone tells of the reaction of the family when one of the Queens’ uncles was captured in battle. “The news of his capture spread quickly to the courts of Europe and the family took immediate action. In England, Henry and Eleanor shut down trade with northern Italy, and forcibly detained all merchants and citizens from Asti and Turin who happened to be visiting at the time. In France, Marguerite had Louis follow suit, an action that resulted in hundreds of arrests. She then demanded a payment of ten thousand pounds, in addition to the release of her relative, as a condition of freedom. Beatrice of Savoy, the sisters’ mother (in a bit of a power struggle with her youngest daughter over lands in Provence), ordered her soldiers to close the roads between Switzerland and Provence and took numerous prisoners. Sanchia even persuaded Richard to do his part by forwarding the money needed to underwrite a rescue attempt. Faced with the poverty brought on by the imposition of what were, in effect, international economic sanctions, the citizens of Asti realized their mistake, and let Uncle Thomas go.”

If Marguerite was the only one of the sisters who was a Queen, would the King of England and his brother have actively participated in the rescue of an ally of the King of France? Likely not, given the history between the two countries, which, both before and after, was characterized more by war than cooperation.

The sisters didn’t always work together, but this supports the explanation of emergence, which occurs due to interconnectivity and complex causal relations, not from any organized, external control factor. The power the sisters had was not conscientiously developed and wielded, it was more a force that influenced behavior and outcomes for an entire continent for over 30 years.