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Francis Bacon and the Four Idols of the Mind

Francis Bacon the Four Idols of the Mind


Among the Enlightenment founders, his spirit is the one that most endures.
It informs us across four centuries that we
must understand nature
both around us and within ourselves, in order to set humanity
on the course of self-improvement. 

-E.O. Wilson on Francis Bacon

***

The English statesman and scholar Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was one of the earliest thinkers to truly understand the nature of the mind and how humanity truly progresses in collective knowledge.

Bacon’s first great contribution was to lessen the focus on traditional scholarship: the constant mining of the old Greek and Roman philosophers and the old religious texts, the idea that most of our knowledge had already been “found” and needed to be rediscovered.

To Bacon, this was an unstable artifice on which to build our understanding of the world. Better that we start reasoning from first principles, building up our knowledge of the world through inductive reasoning. E.O. Wilson summarizes Bacon’s contribution in a chapter on the Enlightenment in his excellent book Consilience.

By reflecting on all possible methods of investigation available to his imagination, he concluded that the best among them is induction, which is the gathering of large numbers of facts and the detection of patterns. In order to obtain maximum objectivity, we must entertain only a minimum of preconceptions. Bacon proclaimed a pyramid of disciplines, with natural history forming the base, physics above and subsuming it, and metaphysics at the peak, explaining everything below–though perhaps in powers and forms beyond the grasp of man.

In this way, Wilson crowns Bacon as the Father of Induction — the first to truly grasp the power of careful inductive reasoning to generate insights. Bacon broke down the old, rigid ways of classifying knowledge in favor of building a new understanding from the ground up, using experiments to prove or disprove a theory.

In this way, he realized much of what was being taught in his time, including metaphysics, alchemy, magic, astrology, and other disciplines, would eventually crumble under scrutiny. (A feeling we share about our current age.)

Insights of the Mind

Most importantly, hundreds of years before the advent of modern psychology, Bacon understood clearly that the human mind doesn’t always reason correctly, and that any approach to scientific knowledge must start with that understanding. Over 400 years before there was a Charlie Munger or a Daniel Kahneman, Bacon clearly understood the first-conclusion bias and the confirmation bias.

In his Novum Organum, Bacon described these errors in the same manner we understand them today:

The mind, hastily and without choice, imbibes and treasures up the first notices of things, from whence all the rest proceed, errors must forever prevail, and remain uncorrected.

[…]

The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) 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, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate.

He called the wide variety of errors in mental processing the Idols of the Mind. There were four idols: Idols of the Tribe, Idols of the Cave, Idols of the Marketplace, and Idols of the Theater.

Idols of the Tribe

The Idols of the Tribe made the false assumption that our most natural and basic sense of thing was the correct one. He called our natural impressions a “false mirror” which distorted the true nature of things.

The Idols of the Tribe have their foundation in human nature itself, and in the tribe or race of men. For it is a false assertion that the sense of man is the measure of things. On the contrary, all perceptions as well of the sense as of the mind are according to the measure of the individual and not according to the measure of the universe. And the human understanding is like a false mirror, which, receiving rays irregularly, distorts and discolors the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it.

Idols of the Cave

The Idols of the Cave were the problems of individuals, their passions and enthusiasms, their devotions and ideologies, all of which led to misunderstandings of the true nature of things.

The Idols of the Cave are the idols of the individual man. For everyone (besides the errors common to human nature in general) has a cave or den of his own, which refracts and discolors the light of nature, owing either to his own proper and peculiar nature; or to his education and conversation with others; or to the reading of books, and the authority of those whom he esteems and admires; or to the differences of impressions, accordingly as they take place in a mind preoccupied and predisposed or in a mind indifferent and settled; or the like. So that the spirit of man (according as it is meted out to different individuals) is in fact a thing variable and full of perturbation, and governed as it were by chance. Whence it was well observed by Heraclitus that men look for sciences in their own lesser worlds, and not in the greater or common world.

Idols of the Marketplace

You might call the Idols of the Marketplace a problem of political discourse: The use of words to mislead. (Nearly a half a century later, Garrett Hardin would argue similarly that good thinkers need a literary filter to suss out sense from nonsense.)

There are also Idols formed by the intercourse and association of men with each other, which I call Idols of the Market Place, on account of the commerce and consort of men there. For it is by discourse that men associate, and words are imposed according to the apprehension of the vulgar. And therefore the ill and unfit choice of words wonderfully obstructs the understanding. Nor do the definitions or explanations wherewith in some things learned men are wont to guard and defend themselves, by any means set the matter right. But words plainly force and overrule the understanding, and throw all into confusion, and lead men away into numberless empty controversies and idle fancies.

Idols of the Theater

The final idol, of the Theater, is how Bacon referred to long-received wisdom, the ancient systems of philosophy, the arbitrary divisions of knowledge and classification systems held onto like dogma. Without emptying one’s mind of the old ways, no new progress could be made. This would be an important lasting value of the Baconian view of science. Truth must be reasoned from first principles.

Lastly, there are Idols which have immigrated into men’s minds from the various dogmas of philosophies, and also from wrong laws of demonstration. These I call Idols of the Theater, because in my judgment all the received systems are but so many stage plays, representing worlds of their own creation after an unreal and scenic fashion. Nor is it only of the systems now in vogue, or only of the ancient sects and philosophies, that I speak; for many more plays of the same kind may yet be composed and in like artificial manner set forth; seeing that errors the most widely different have nevertheless causes for the most part alike. Neither again do I mean this only of entire systems, but also of many principles and axioms in science, which by tradition, credulity, and negligence have come to be received.

The Lasting Importance of Narrative

Even with his rationalistic view of the world, a rigorous devotion to truth, Bacon realized that unless you used creative storytelling and engaged a learner’s mind, it would be impossible to communicate real truths about the world. He knew the power narrative had to instruct. E.O. Wilson writes in Consilience:

Reality still had to be embraced directly and reported without flinching. But it is also best delivered the same way it was discovered, retaining a comparable vividness and play of the emotions. Nature and her secrets must be as stimulating to the imagination as are poetry and fables. To that end, Bacon advised us to use aphorisms, illustrations, stories, fables, analogies–anything that conveys truth from the discoverer to his readers as clearly as a picture. The mind, he argued, is not like a wax tablet. On a tablet you cannot write the new till you rub out the old, on the mind you cannot rub out the old except by writing in the new.”

 

B.H. Liddell Hart and the Study of Truth and History

B.H. Liddell Hart (1895-1970) was many things, but above all, he was a military historian. He wrote tracts on Sherman, Scipio, Rommel, and on military strategy itself. His work influenced Neville Chamberlain and may have even (accidentally) influenced the German army’s blitzkrieg tactic in WWII.

What’s beautiful about Hart’s writing is his insight into human nature as seen through the lens of war. Hart’s experience both studying wars and participating in them — he was a British officer in World War I and present for both World War II and a large portion of the Cold War — gave him wide perspective on the ultimate human folly.

Hart summed up much of his wisdom in a short treatise called Why Don’t we Learn from History?, which he unfortunately left unfinished at his death. In the preface to the book, Hart’s son Adrian sums up his father’s approach to life:

He believed in the importance of the truth that man could, by rational process discover the truth about himself—and about life; that this discovery was without value unless it was expressed and unless its expression resulted in action as well as education. To this end he valued accuracy and lucidity. He valued, perhaps even more, the moral courage to pursue and propagate truths which might be unpopular or detrimental to one’s own or other people’s immediate interests. He recognized that this discovery could best be fostered under certain political and social conditions—which therefore became to him of paramount importance.

Why study history at all? Hart asks us this rhetorically, early on in the book, and replies with a simple answer: Because it teaches us what not to do. How to avoid being stupid:

What is the object of history? I would answer, quite simply—“truth.” It is a word and an idea that has gone out of fashion. But the results of discounting the possibility of reaching the truth are worse than those of cherishing it. The object might be more cautiously expressed thus: to find out what happened while trying to find out why it happened. In other words, to seek the causal relations between events. History has limitations as guiding signpost, however, for although it can show us the right direction, it does not give detailed information about the road conditions.

But its negative value as a warning sign is more definite. History can show us what to avoid, even if it does not teach us what to do—by showing the most common mistakes that mankind is apt to make and to repeat. A second object lies in the practical value of history. “Fools,” said Bismarck, “say they learn by experience. I prefer to profit by other people’s experience.”

The study of history offers that opportunity in the widest possible measure. It is universal experience—infinitely longer, wider, and more varied than any individual’s experience. How often do people claim superior wisdom on the score of their age and experience. The Chinese especially regard age with veneration, and hold that a man of eighty years or more must be wiser than others. But eighty is nothing for a student of history. There is no excuse for anyone who is not illiterate if he is less than three thousand years old in mind.

[…]

History is the record of man’s steps and slips. It shows us that the steps have been slow and slight; the slips, quick and abounding. It provides us with the opportunity to profit by the stumbles and tumbles of our forerunners. Awareness of our limitations should make us chary of condemning those who made mistakes, but we condemn ourselves if we fail to recognize mistakes.

There is a too common tendency to regard history as a specialist subject— that is the primary mistake. For, on the contrary, history is the essential corrective to all specialization. Viewed aright, it is the broadest of studies, embracing every aspect of life. It lays the foundation of education by showing how mankind repeats its errors and what those errors are.

Later, Hart expounds further on the value of truth, the value of finding out what’s actually going on as opposed to what one wishes was the case. Hart agrees with the idea that one should recognize reality especially when it makes one uncomfortable, as Darwin was able to do so effectively. If we forget or mask our mistakes, we are doomed to continue making them.

We learn from history that men have constantly echoed the remark ascribed to Pontius Pilate—“What is truth?” And often in circumstances that make us wonder why. It is repeatedly used as a smoke screen to mask a maneuver, personal or political, and to cover an evasion of the issue. It may be a justifiable question in the deepest sense. Yet the longer I watch current events, the more I have come to see how many of our troubles arise from the habit, on all sides, of suppressing or distorting what we know quite well is the truth, out of devotion to a cause, an ambition, or an institution—at bottom, this devotion being inspired by our own interest.

[…]

We learn from history that in every age and every clime the majority of people have resented what seems in retrospect to have been purely matter-of-fact comment on their institutions. We learn too that nothing has aided the persistence of falsehood, and the evils resulting from it, more than the unwillingness of good people to admit the truth when it was disturbing to their comfortable assurance. Always the tendency continues to be shocked by natural comment and to hold certain things too “sacred” to think about.

I can conceive of no finer ideal of a man’s life than to face life with clear eyes instead of stumbling through it like a blind man, an imbecile, or a drunkard—which, in a thinking sense, is the common preference. How rarely does one meet anyone whose first reaction to anything is to ask “Is it true?” Yet unless that is a man’s natural reaction it shows that truth is not uppermost in his mind, and, unless it is, true progress is unlikely.

Indeed, in the 125 short pages of the book, Hart demonstrates the above to be true, with his particular historical focus on accuracy, truth, and freedom, explaining the intertwined nature of the three. A society that squashes freedom of thought and opinion is one that typically distorts truth, and for that reason, Hart was a supporter of free democracy, with all of its problems in full force:

We learn from history that democracy has commonly put a premium on conventionality. By its nature, it prefers those who keep step with the slowest march of thought and frowns on those who may disturb the “conspiracy for mutual inefficiency.” Thereby, this system of government tends to result in the triumph of mediocrity—and entails the exclusion of first-rate ability, if this is combined with honesty. But the alternative to it, despotism, almost inevitably means the triumph of stupidity. And of the two evils, the former is the less. Hence it is better that ability should consent to its own sacrifice, and subordination to the regime of mediocrity, rather than assist in establishing a regime where, in the light of past experience, brute stupidity will be enthroned and ability may preserve its footing only at the price of dishonesty.

Hart’s clear-eyed view of the world as an examiner of human nature and the repetition of folly led him to conclude that even if authoritarianism and coercion were occasionally drivers of efficiency in the short-run, by the quick and determined decision-making of a dictator, that in the long-term this would always cause stagnation. Calling to mind Karl Popper, Hart recognizes that freedom of thought and the resulting spread of ideas is the real engine of human progress over time, and that should never be squashed:

Only second to the futility of pursuing ends reckless of the means is that of attempting progress by compulsion. History shows how often it leads to reaction. It also shows that the surer way is to generate and diffuse the idea of progress—providing a light to guide men, not a whip to drive them. Influence on thought has been the most influential factor in history, though, being less obvious than the effects of action, it has received less attention— even from the writers of history. There is a general recognition that man’s capacity for thought has been responsible for all human progress, but not yet an adequate appreciation of the historical effect of contributions to thought in comparison with that of spectacular action. Seen with a sense of proportion, the smallest permanent enlargement of men’s thought is a greater achievement, and ambition, than the construction of something material that crumbles, the conquest of a kingdom that collapses, or the leadership of a movement that ends in a rebound.

Once the collective importance of each individual in helping or hindering progress is appreciated, the experience contained in history is seen to have a personal, not merely a political, significance. What can the individual learn from history—as a guide to living? Not what to do but what to strive for. And what to avoid in striving. The importance and intrinsic value of behaving decently. The importance of seeing clearly—not least of seeing himself clearly.

Hart’s final statement there calls to mind Richard Feynman: “The first principle is you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Finally, Hart admits that the path of studying history and studying truth is not an easy one. Truth is frequently cloaked, and it takes work to peel away the layers. But if we are to see things clearly, and we must do so if we’re to have a peaceful world, we must persevere in the hunt:

It is strange how people assume that no training is needed in the pursuit of truth. It is stranger still that this assumption is often manifest in the very man who talks of the difficulty of determining what is true. We should recognize that for this pursuit anyone requires at least as much care and training as a boxer for a fight or a runner for a marathon. He has to learn how to detach his thinking from every desire and interest, from every sympathy and antipathy—like ridding oneself of superfluous tissue, the “tissue” of untruth which all human beings tend to accumulate for their own comfort and protection. And he must keep fit, to become fitter. In other words, he must be true to the light he has seen.

Still Interested? Check out the short book in its entirety.

Paul Graham on Free Speech, Suburbia, Getting Rich, and Nerds

“I think a society in which people can do and say what they want will also tend to be one in which the most efficient solutions win.”

***

Paul Graham is a programmer, writer, and investor. His 2004 anthology Hackers and Painters explores not only topics like where good ideas come from but also touches on social and cultural issues such as free speech, getting rich, and geek culture. Here are a few interesting tidbits worth pondering.

***
Free Speech

I wonder how Graham thinks about this in the context of organizations. Ideas are the lifeblood of organizations but it seems to me that in certain workplaces “free speech” is not so free. The best ideas fall to politics, consensus, and pettiness. Suffering from such intellectual corruption dysfunctional behaviour results, which causes an ultimately self-correcting spiral into bankruptcy.

I think a society in which people can do and say what they want will also tend to be one in which the most efficient solutions win, rather than those sponsored by the most influential people. Authoritarian countries become corrupt; corrupt countries become poor; and poor countries are weak.

***
Getting Rich

Graham illuminates how the industrial revolution changed the incentives from corruption to wealth creation as the primary vehicle to getting rich.

Once it became possible to get rich by creating wealth, society as a whole started to get richer very rapidly. Nearly everything we have was created by the middle class. Indeed, the other two classes have effectively disappeared in industrial societies, and their names been given to either end of the middle class. (In the original sense of the word, Bill Gates is middle class.)

But it was not till the Industrial Revolution that wealth creation definitively replaced corruption as the best way to get rich. In England, at least, corruption only became unfashionable (and in fact only started to be called “corruption”) when there started to be other, faster ways to get rich.

***
Nerds

Highlighting the difference between the popular kids and nerds, Graham writes:

While the nerds were being trained to get the right answers, the popular kids were being trained to please.

***
Suburbia

In exploring suburbia, Graham looks at how the environment encourages helicopter parenting.

Why do people move to suburbia? To have kids! So no wonder it seemed boring and sterile. The whole place was a giant nursery, an artificial town created explicitly for the purpose of breeding children.

Where I grew up, it felt as if there was nowhere to go, and nothing to do. This was no accident. Suburbs are deliberately designed to exclude the outside world, because it contains things that could endanger children.

***
Still Curious?

All of the essays in Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age are worth reading and thinking about.

Rebecca Goldstein and Why We Need to Matter

“The will to survive evolves, in a higher creature like us, into the will to matter.”
-Rebecca Goldstein

***

Why do we need to matter? It sounds like kind of a hollow question. Of course we matter. But when you really consider it, do you think an ant has decided whether it matters or not? We tend to think not.

When it comes to humans, though, we seem to have a deep need to believe that our actions carry us towards some essential goal. Otherwise, why bother? (In fact, we think our lives matter so much that most of us seek straight-up immortality.) And in a new essay on Edge, philosopher and author Rebecca Goldstein argues that this mattering is a necessary, biological imperative. In fact, contrary to some popular thinking, it is science, more specifically the science of evolutionary psychology, which can give us some insight into the problem of why we need to matter. As Goldstein argues, this is a place where science and philosophy very usefully overlap.

***

Goldstein calls this need to matter the Mattering Instinct, labeling it as such to give it a flavor of biological grounding; something that exists not just in a metaphysical way. We do really, actually, need to matter. We’re dependent on it. It’s not abstract, but a core part of what makes us tick and survive.

We can’t pursue our lives without thinking that our lives matter—though one has to be careful here to distinguish the relevant sense of “matter.” Simply to take actions on the basis of desires is to act as if your life matters. It’s inconceivable to pursue a human life without these kinds of presumptions—that your own life matters to some extent. Clinical depression is when you are convinced that you don’t and will never matter. That’s a pathological attitude, and it highlights, by its pathology, the way in which the mattering instinct normally functions. To be a fully functioning, non-depressed person is to live and to act, to take it for granted that you can act on your own behalf, pursue your goals and projects. And that we have a right to be treated in accord with our own commitment to our lives mattering. We quite naturally flare up into outrage and indignation when others act in violation of the presumption grounding the pursuance of our lives. So this is what I mean by the mattering instinct—that commitment to one’s own life that is inseparable from pursuing a coherent human life.

Goldstein sees the concept of mattering as so important that we’d live an incoherent life without it. Imagine if you took the concept of true nihilism to its logical conclusion: What kind of Joker-like tricks might you be tempted to play on the world? Of course, some solve this problem in the opposite way, through religion: I matter because God cares about me, and because my soul will live eternally in an afterlife. But what if you can’t get yourself to accept a religious worldview?

Mattering and Morality

Goldstein argues that you don’t really need either conception, nihilism or religion; that mattering is simply a precursor to successful living and survival at all.

And I also ought to mention that I think the mattering instinct is a natural consequence of natural selection. The basic unit of survival in natural selection is the gene, which survives by being replicated in future generations—the gist of Richard Dawkins’ useful, if misunderstood phrase, “the selfish gene.” A gene’s default scheme is to give the organism traits that help it (the organism) to survive, and to endow that organism with an unthinking ceaseless instinct to survive: to seek sustenance, flee the predator, be devoted 24/7 to seeing another dawn. Self-preservation is a prerequisite to an entity persisting rather than entropically falling apart, and a gene’s best strategy is to keep an organism intact for as long as the genes need it in order to get themselves replicated. Of course, individual organisms eventually wear out their usefulness to the genes, which is why senescence is built into living cells, leading to inevitable decline and death. From the vantage point of the gene, individuals are always expendable, which is something that individuals—certainly us!—find profoundly regrettable. If an organism—any organism—were to have the capacity to articulate its deepest motivation, the motivation that’s a prerequisite for all its other motivations that drive it on in its ceaseless tasks and activities—its scurrying, hiding, roaming, raiding, mating—it would say that its own existence in this world, its persistence and its flourishing, matters. Its own life deserves the assiduous attention and dedicated activity that every creature unthinkingly gives it. This is a presumption that lies beyond the sphere of justification. To be within that sphere is to be subject to the possibility of doubt, to require grounding. Natural selection wasn’t going to leave it to such an uncertain process as that!

This philosophy is taken by some to mean that a pure biological view of life leads naturally to selfishness and amorality. Goldstein disagrees. This drive to matter creates a very useful non-religious morality. As Goldstein puts it, I would argue that the core of the moral point of view is that there is an equitable distribution of mattering among humans. So not only does mattering have a core impact on how we carry out our lives, it also leads us to greater general morality over time. This is philosophy’s greatest achievement.

Returning to some themes we took up toward the beginning of our conversation, that far from invalidating our moral intuitions evolutionary psychology can be put to work to help ground them. I bring it back to the concept of mattering. We can’t live lives that are recognizably human without presuming an attitude toward our own mattering. If we’re going to presume that we matter and that others have to treat us as if we matter, either we think that we’re somehow ontologically special and the universe revolves around us—which is to be certifiably nuts—or we’re going to have to extend this modicum of mattering to other creatures like us. How far do we take it? What are the justifiable borders of demarcation between our own obvious mattering and others to whom we attribute a lesser portion of mattering or even no mattering at all?

My view about morality is that it’s rooted in human nature but in such a way as to objectively ground moral conclusions we draw. There are certain things that we have to take for granted about our own life. We can’t live a coherently human life without taking for granted that we have the right to live and to flourish, and that’s what we all try to do. You can begin to explain what it is to pursue a life without seeing how this commitment to our own mattering operates. This means that in simply pursuing a recognizably human life, we’re already occupying moral ground, and then you have to see what follows from that. We don’t have to make the impossible leap between is and ought. We’re already firmly implanted in the land of oughts.

That’s what the history of moral philosophy has tried to show us. You have to extend the mattering you claim for yourself to enslaved people, to colonized people, even to women. They have as much right to matter as men, to pursue their lives and find their own diverse ways of working out their mattering, even if their doing so sometimes has bad effects on male egos, making them feel like they matter less because of this striving to matter of women. How are they going to impress women if those women are achieving so much?

Does What Matters to You, Matter to Me?

Where the mattering instinct can go wrong, though, is when it leads us to think that what matters to us is what should matter greatly to all. Goldstein calls attention to something she calls the mattering map. We each have our own map, but we sometimes cannot see outside our own mattering maps. We can barely conceive that someone else’s map would look a lot different than our own. And this leads to us being upset or combative when we simply need to do a better job of putting ourselves into others’ shoes or to step back and take in the larger perspective.

I’m a philosopher and a writer. It matters to me that I think well and that I write well. I could feel like I don’t matter—to the point of genuine depression—because other people think so much better than I or write so much better than I. It’s good to gain perspective on these sorts of things. Such perspective is part of what it is to attain wisdom. And it helps sometimes to realize that there’s no absolute value to the region of the mattering map you happen to occupy, by reason of your own individual traits and talents and history. I might want to put a gun to my head because I’m not the most brilliant philosopher of my generation, but to the guy situated in the next mattering region over, philosophy doesn’t matter in the least—the whole subject is a waste of time. He’s got the gun to this head because he’s not the greatest physicist of his generation, or not the greatest speed skater of his generation, or actor of his generation, or is losing his fabulous looks.

I’m particularly interested in the ways in which the mattering instinct can go terribly wrong—not only psychologically but ethically. The mattering instinct is so strong in us, and our tendency to want to justify our own mattering is so persistent that it leads us to universalize what individually matters to us into dicta about what ought to matter to everybody. This is a tendency that ought to be resisted.

When you figure out what matters to you and what makes you feel like you’re living a meaningful life, you universalize this. Say I’m a scientist and all my feelings about my own mattering are crystalized around my life as a scientist. It’s quite natural to slide from that into thinking that the life of science is the life that matters. Why doesn’t everybody get their sense of meaning from science? That false universalizing takes place quite naturally, imperceptibly, being unconsciously affected by the forces of the mattering map. In different people the need to justify their own sense of mattering slides into the religious point of view and they end up concluding that, without a God to justify human mattering, life is meaningless: Why doesn’t everybody see that the life that matters is the life of religion?

In some ways, this line of reasoning reminds us of David Foster Wallace’s speech, wherein he says that whatever deep needs we live by are the things we’ll die by when they’re no longer being met. It’s up to us to rein in that mattering instinct a little bit and give it a leash in order to save ourselves from being too harsh on ourselves and too narrow with others.

***

In the end, we all feel the need to matter, and there are deep biological roots for that, roots which help us survive. These roots help us form a Golden Rule style morality that exists independent of our views on religion or our existential place in the universe. But at the end of the day, we must realize that everyone else carries around their own mattering instinct, and live in a way that respects this basic truth.

Still Interested? Check out Goldstein’s conversation on reasoning with her husband Stephen Pinker.

Roger Fisher on a Better Way to Negotiate, Part 2

In Part 1 of our series on the best-selling negotiation book Getting to Yes, we covered Roger Fisher’s four-part framework on Principled Negotiation — his “way out” of highly contentious negotiation. To review, the four parts were as follows:

  1. Separate the People from the Problem
  2. Focus on Interests, Not Positions
  3. Invent Options for Mutual Gain
  4. Insist on Objective Criteria

Habitual use of these four criteria is a way to build, or at least not destroy, win-win relationships in the process of negotiation. The truth is we all must negotiate from time to time. Refusing to negotiate is a strategy in and of itself — and usually a pretty bad one relative to the alternatives.

Fisher’s framework brings up some obvious follow-on questions: What if the other side is more powerful? What if they refuse to play by your rules? What if they play dirty?

Let’s check out a few.

(Don’t want to read online? Purchase a sexy PDF of the two-part series for only $3.99.)

Negotiate Fairly

What if they are more Powerful?

We’re all afraid of being taken advantage of in a negotiation. Our tendency to demand fairness is a big part of it, as is our tendency to try to minimize future regret. In a negotiation with a more “powerful” part, it would seem at times like our only play is to make a stand — demand that they meet us or we will not negotiate. That turns out to be a bad play sometimes, and completely unnecessary at other times.

To combat this, Roger Fisher introduced a concept that a lot of people know the name of but not how to use: the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. He addresses the basic problem of powerlessness first:

In response to power, the most any method of negotiation can do is to meet two objectives: first, to protect you against making an agreement you should reject and second, to help you make the most of the assets you do have so that any agreement you reach will satisfy your interest as well as possible.

The common tactics are to either cave very easily, thus ending the negotiation and any possible bitterness, or to set a “bottom line” and walk away if it’s not met. They’re both weak responses: The “softie” tactic almost assures you’ll take a deal that’s not in your best interest, while the “bottom line” mentality makes you rigid, unable to learn and adapt during the negotiation process and probably too focused on one single variable at the expense of other ones. (Lack of creativity.)

The better approach to is understand your BATNABest Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. It’s simple to understand in the context of a job offer negotiation: If you lose this negotiation, what alternatives do you have? If you set your “bottom line” too high and you lose, are you on the street? Or, do you have a great second or third option to go to?

While the BATNA acronym is useful and explanatory, it’s really just a dressed-up version of the elementary concept we call opportunity cost, which is constantly at play in life. Realizing that opportunity cost is a “superpower” in negotiation, we can derive the following:

  1. He with the best opportunity cost holds the power. Let’s say you’re negotiating with a large car dealership over the price of a new sedan. Who holds the power? On the surface it might look like the dealer does, given their stature in power. But if you have three dealerships in a 30-mile radius which can sell you the same car, the power is yours, not the dealer’s. When you enter into negotiation, you can almost always afford to lose and go down the street to another dealership, find a different type of car to buy, change your mind and go used, or even keep your current car longer. (That’s one reason why the car business is such a tough one.) Point being, size does not = power. Opportunity cost = power.
  2. Developing alternative opportunities is the way to gain power. If you’re afraid you’re entering into a job negotiation with no power, your best bet probably isn’t to play hardball, it’s to develop other job offers, or even figure out if you can afford to start your own business. Once you can afford to walk away, the power shifts at least slightly. Raise your opportunity cost bar to shift the odds and make the negotiation a little more fair.
  3. Think about their opportunity cost as much as your own. Can they afford to lose? If not, you probably have more power than you think.
  4. If they win the opportunity cost battle, argue on merit. Roger Fisher makes this final point well: To the extent that they have muscle and you have principle, the larger a role you can establish for principle, the better off you are. If your opportunity costs are weak, you must resort to making it clear that the house is objectively worth X, that you deserve to be paid Y, or that a drawn-out fight will only ruin your relationship. This goes back to insisting on objective criteria.

What if they Won’t Play?

A problem arises if you aren’t successful in shifting the negotiation to objective criteria or creating win-wins. Sometimes the other side simply takes a position and stubbornly (often irrationally) holds their ground. What then? There are two approaches.

The first tactic Fisher argues for is Negotiation Jujitsu. In other words, using their own forcefulness against them. Not playing their game. It’s nuanced and we won’t try to cover it all here — the book does it well. But the salient point is that you can’t react emotionally to forceful negotiation. Let them criticize, let them attack if they must. But your job is to keep asking objective questions. “You say you won’t accept less than $2,000 — where do you get that figure from? What makes you say that this is a fair number?” Keep things in the realm of objectivity and don’t get them further entrenched by “attacking back.”

Another part of the jujitsu is to explain to them the consequences of adopting an extreme position. Ask them, hypothetically, what would happen if things went the way they preferred. Fisher gives the example of an Arab-Israeli negotiation where an American was able to get the Arab contingent to understand that if the Israelis gave in entirely, their people would castigate them back home. It was enough to end that line of negotiation.

The last jujitsu tactic is to take criticism unusually well — not allowing the discussion to get personal, even if the other side wants to make it so. I understand you don’t want to be taken advantage of, neither do I — can you explain how your proposal is fair to me as well as you? Can you explain how my position could be altered to be more fair? What would you do if you were in my position? Soliciting an adversary for advice can be disarming if used wisely. All it takes is tamping down your ego. Good lines of inquiry don’t criticize, they probe and try to be helpful. And when you do so, simply pausing and letting the other side talk themselves into or out of a corner can work as well. Use silence to your advantage if you’re making sense and they’re reacting emotionally.

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The second approach is to use a third-party to mediate. Have them draft up a solution as impartially as possible, with both parties giving input, and the final decision being a mere “yes” or “no” by each party. This can simplify and de-personalize the process.

If you cannot change the process to one of seeking a solution on its merits, perhaps a third party can. More easily than one of those directly involved, a mediator can separate the people from the problem and direct the discussion to interests and options. Further, he or she can often suggest some impartial basis for resolving differences. A third party can also separate inventing from decision-making, reduce the number of decisions required to reach agreement, and help the sprites know what they will get when they do decide. One process designed to enable a third party to do all this is known as the one-text procedure.

The essence of that procedure is to have a draft drawn up that best satisfies both sides impartially and without pre-commitment. The final decision for each party is a simple “yes” or “no” to the draft solution. You can do it yourself, asking for opinions and revisions as you go along, or have a third party take it on. In either case, you’re trying to change the game rather than fight a losing battle.

What if they Play Dirty?

A tricky tactic is defined as one that fails the test of reciprocity — they are designed to benefit one side only, and most often, the other side is not supposed to know they’re being used . Some of the most common dirty tactics include: Using phony facts, introducing phony authority, hiding dubious intentions, psychological manipulation, refusal to negotiate, and good-cop, bad-cop type routines. There are too many to enumerate, but the basic answer to all of them will be to refer back to the four central ideas of principle negotiation. You need to point out and negotiate the rules of the game itself when you suspect you’re becoming a victim of “tricky tactics” which you’re not supposed to know about.

There are three steps in negotiating the rules of the negotiating game where the other side seems to be using a tricky tactic: recognize the tactic, raise the issue explicitly, and question the tactics’s legitimacy and desirability — negotiate over it.

You have to know what is going on to be able to do something about it. Learn to spot particular ploys that indicate deception, those designed to make you uncomfortable, and those which lock the other side into their position. Often just recognizing a tactic will neutralize it. Realizing, for example, that the other side is attacking you personally in order to impair your judgment may well frustrate the effort.

The book has some great examples of dirty tactics in play, which are good to refer to. Another book to pick up some of these ploys is Cialdini’s Influence, one of the great books written to protect people against manipulation. However you learn them, it’s good to learn them well. Once you can see that it’s happening, you need to gently, non-threateningly, point out what’s going on and ask to return to principles, or to excuse yourself momentarily. These things serve to defuse an embarrassing situation. And never forget that the best defense in most cases is a worthy set of alternative opportunities, what Fisher calls the BATNA. These give you the ability to walk away if you feel yourself being manipulated with no recourse.

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Negotiating is difficult. It’s a part of life that some people enjoy and some do not, leading to outcomes in the vein of the old saying Don’t ever wrestle with a pig — you’ll both get dirty but the pig will like it. Strong-willed negotiators have a natural advantage over those of us more averse to confrontation, and yet if we push back, stalemate is a usual result. Adopting the Principled Negotiation approach, rooted deeply in human nature, seems to give us the best chance of getting fair results for all involved.

Still Interested? Check out Fisher’s bestselling book, read Part 1 of our two-part series, or check out our post on Fisher’s approach to giving better feedback in the workplace.

Mortimer Adler on Understanding What You Read

One of our goals when reading is to find and elucidate the key sentences in a book.

Independent of whether we agree with these key sentences, we first need to digest them — to capture the author’s meaning. This is easier in non-fiction than fiction (in part, because typically non-fiction authors stick to the same definition throughout the book whereas fiction authors can change the meaning.)

Consider this beauty from Machiavelli’s The Prince:

You must know there are two ways of contesting, the one by the law, the other by force; the first method is proper to men, the second to beasts; but because the first is frequently not sufficient, it is necessary to have recourse to the second. Therefore it is necessary for a prince to understand how to avail himself of the beast and the man.

Think for a second. What does it mean in your words?

In a long ago discussion between Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, authors of The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading, they dissect this quote.

Van Doren: That’s a terrible statement isn’t it? It means that in the way of life, in which we all live, we cannot afford to be wholly human, we also have to be beastual.

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Most of the time, especially with expository books, it’s easier to find the key sentences than to understand them.

We all read these sentences and feel as though we understand them. After all we understand the words the author is using. Adler however encourages us to go further. To demonstrate understanding he recommends putting the sentence in your own words. After you’ve done this, he suggests you offer a concrete example of the meaning.

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Here is another example of this process playing out from Adler and Van Doren’s conversation.

Adler: In the middle ages the great philosophers were very fond of saying, again and again, ‘nothing acts, except it is actual.’ What does that mean to you? Say that in your own words now …

Van Doren: It means I can’t be hurt by something that is only potential. Unless something actually is, it can’t hurt me.

Adler: Unless something exists it can’t hurt you. Show me you understand that by giving me a concrete example of something that can’t hurt you because it isn’t actual.

Van Doren: Well … a possible thunder storm can’t wet me.

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We’ve just added some insightful excerpts from Adler and Van Doren’s fascinating conversation as bonus content to How to Read a Book. You don’t want to miss this.