four minds

detective = objective reality

When you hire a detective or private investigator, you are inclined to trust their report because a detective doesn't have a preferred outcome. They don't know you or your back story. They are here to observe what you request them to observe and then report truth only, no embellishment, and with no regard for whether you will like or hate it.

For example, a detective hired to determine whether your spouse is cheating does not factor in your preferences or feelings before telling you whether your spouse is/isn't 100% faithful. Whichever is the truth is what you paid for, therefore it's what you are going to hear.

"Detective" is a metaphor for any source of information that represents objective reality. A video camera positioned over the cash register of your family store is a detective. It reports theft whether it is a stranger or that trusted niece or nephew you hired. Your bank account statement is detective-like. It faithfully reports how much money you have and where it went without regard for how much money you might prefer to have.

friend = "reality-lite"

Think of the person you like to grab a beer or glass of wine with on Friday. You unload about your week and how frustrating that one co-worker is who points out when you are late to work. "Yeah, that guy/gal should mind their own business" they echo back.

But it may simultaneously be true that you show up late more than is acceptable. Someone interested in objective reality could hazard to tell you this, but during Friday beers they will feel less like a friend and more like a wet blanket. We enjoy affirmation, we want to hear that we are good & right, and we tend to spend time with the people who affirm us.

However, a true friend will interject when you try to get in the car after too many drinks. Now they no longer affirm you because it's dangerous, the stakes are higher and your preferences are less important than the truth: reality is you should not be driving. If reality wins out over preference, you have a true friend who gives you the hard truth even if it's not what you want to hear.

lawyer = "choose a reality"

Consider a "totally flexible" lawyer, the type that does not insist on exposing what really happened. Rather, they are prepared to convince a jury of the version of a story that presents you in the most favorable light. Whatever version of reality is most convenient for the client is adopted by the lawyer the moment they are hired, and the rest of the time is spent building a narrative that supports it.

When people hear about the shooting in Kenosha, WI they often quickly arrive at one of two positions and then work backwards to justify. "Guns are bad and that kid committed murder" vs "when attacked, self-defense is justified and thank goodness he had a gun to defend himself." People don't approach these situations with pure objectivity, rather, they decide almost without realizing it. Judgements are fast.

If there is one redeeming quality of lawyer-think, it is they still accept whatever final judgement is made by the court. They may appeal, but after a long fight, there is some begrudging acceptance of a contrary reality.

search engine = "all realities are valid"

What reality can your search engine serve you today? Would you like the extensive evidence that the Earth is flat? Elvis is still alive? Secret societies are in control of everything? Meat is deadly? Meat is healthy? Carb-only diets work? Carbs are terrible?

There is no need for anyone to consider contrary facts to the reality they prefer. A search engine will provide you with 28,000,000,000 hits for [fill in the blank] so anyone may conclude there is overwhelming support for it. Consensus gives a great deal comfort that there is no need to scrutinize the evidence further. After all, thousands of people already agree with this.

Search engines now tailor their results to match the searcher's assessed preferences. Based on search history, it knows if the requester prefers one side of an issue vs. the other and top results will conform to that preference. This is an echo chamber: what was preferred to be true suddenly has the strength of every confirming voice on the whole internet.

Fueling this fire has been the deterioration of journalism. Newspapers lost advertising dollars to Facebook and had to cut costs by demanding more articles per week from fewer employees - almost 10x more than just 20 years ago. Along the way, they discovered that provocative headlines generate more clicks, so now we have a stream of mediocre articles getting more divisive, strongly-worded titles. And few even read past headlines.

the twist

This isn't actually about other people.

It's about you.

Each of us adopts one of these four modes of thinking depending on what it is we are discussing. Each of us, to some degree, can act like a detective, friend, lawyer, or search engine. Imagine you receive a measurement of your blood glucose level reporting the onset of diabetes.

  • Consequently, you change your eating habits. This is detective-like; you don't like the grim reality, but reality > preference.

  • You ignore the information. A story emerges about how the test is potentially flawed and you feel fine. You continue eating however you like because preference > reality. This is lawyer/search engine mentality.

The problem is we all engage these four modes automatically. Robin Hanson describes a human brain as an elephant-with-rider: the rider has no control where the elephant wanders, just as we essentially have no control over what we rapidly decide. Yet we remain convinced we are in absolute control.

You are not the king of your brain. You are the creepy guy standing next to the king going: "A most judicious choice, sire." -R. Hanson, podcast

We tend to scrutinize what we don't like and accept unchallenged what we do like. Richard Feynman famously said "you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool" meaning you must be careful to not unquestioningly believe the false data or fake news when it confirms our existing beliefs and preferences.

The degree to which you will skeptically investigate vs blindly accept information (aka, "be a detective" vs "be a lawyer") often comes down to how much skin is in the game. We all have preferences and the things we prefer to be true will receive the least skeptical scrutiny. This was beautifully demonstrated when a professor fabricated an authentic-looking journal study with the title "Coffee causes breast cancer" then distributed the fake study to a college-level biology class of men and women and asked for an evaluation of it's validity.

  • The men in the class spent the least time and took the fewest objections on statistical/procedural grounds.

  • The non-coffee-drinking women spent more time and uncovered more flaws

  • Coffee-drinking women were the most determined and the most successful uncovering the fraudulent nature of the study.

When a statement confirms our preference (or at least doesn't offend our preferences) we require frighteningly little evidence. But when we have vested interest, especially an opposed vested interest, we demand extraordinary evidence and we delve deeply into the details. Unfortunately, even with extraordinary evidence, about ½ of people don't change their mind. Only those who think like a detective or friend will reverse or update their position. Remember, the lawyer and the search engine begin a priori with your preference and never change sides.

Here is the one question test to help you determine your main thinking mode:

  1. When was the last time you changed your mind on a serious issue?

If you can't recall a single instance, I'm afraid you embody the lawyer/search engine. If you can recall one instance in the last six months, you are a friend. If you can recall something last week or several+ in the last year, you are closer to detective-like.

You may not like this revelation and you may even be entering a moment of "cognitive dissonance" where you try to maintain that you value truth, even though you don't change your mind. Douglas Hofstadter has some helpful words:

"One of the most severe of all problems of evidence interpretation is that of trying to interpret...signals to who one is. The psychic mechanisms have to deal simultaneously with the individual's internal need for self-esteem and the...flow of evidence from the outside affecting the self-image. The result...a complex it goes round and round, parts of it get magnified, reduced, negated, or...distorted...over and over an attempt to reconcile what is, with what we wish we were."

This is my 1,400 word summary of a brilliant 17,000 word blog post "The Thinking Ladder" by Tim Urban.