How to Beat Your Brain's Natural Biases
I wanna talk a little bit about the brain science of our biases and why we resist exploring intellectual territory that's seems weird, or seems crazy. And so, change is not easy. Our brains resist change. They resist sort of going out into the unknown. One of the factors of intellectual humility is willingness to revise our viewpoints and part of what prevents us from doing this is actually something that's built deep into our brains. We talked earlier about the xenophobia thing, about how we tend to be afraid of people who aren't quite like us, and our brains do that as a survival mechanism. Turns out our brains have a similar survival mechanism that prevents us from changing our mind too hastily. Which can be good, but it's actually pretty overactive in the modern human brain, given how much we need to have this ability to provide us with a viewpoint. The story I wanna tell about a man named Malcolm X. Malcolm X started his life named Malcolm Little. He changed his mind in very signi...
ficant ways, twice. And not just about politics but actually about his entire philosophy and view on the world and his religion at the same time. First time he changed his mind was after he went to prison. So, Malcolm Little grew up and immediately realized that basically he was hated for his race. His father was murdered by KKK, his house was burned down by white supremacists. He was thrown into jail because his white girlfriend ratted him out for stealing a watch, even though she participated in stealing the watch. The white jailers and white wardens were incredibly cruel to him, and he decided that, you know, that was not fair, and he was born who he was, and why was there so much hate? Why would you murder my father for just this color of his skin. He was full of hate by the time he got to prison. He said he went by the nickname Satan in prison because his mouth was so foul. He was so angry. He was 18 at the time. So angry and upset in prison, and he snorted nutmeg, which it turns out if you snort enough of it, it has like a hallucinogenic affect. So he was full of hate and nutmeg in prison. (faint laughing) And when he was there, he started corresponding with a preacher, a guy named Elijah, who had sort of concocted this new, sort of version of Islam. He decided that he was a prophet and that he'd seen God, and he was here to sort of continue Muhammad's work. The rest of mainstream Islam was not very keen on this, because Muhammad is the last prophet. and Malcolm didn't know this. He wasn't religious. Started corresponding with this guy, and started changing his heart. He stopped cursing which was really amusing to the jailers and the other inmates. He started reading the Bible, reading the Quran, reading all sorts of religious text, everything that he could in the library, and decided that he was gonna convert to this Elijah guy's little religion, who were a couple hundred people at the time. And this religion had story that really appealed to him, which was that the truth about black people and white people, was backwards. So angry, hateful white supremacists had used this story for vague justification for why black people were not as good as white people, for years and years. But Elijah taught that actually the history of race, was that everyone used to be black. And then a guy named Yakub created white people as a evil science experiment and they were all devils. And that's where devils came from is this science experiment, and so every white person is a devil. Malcolm, at first was like that doesn't make sense, but then after a while he assessed and he was like, well killed my father, burned my house down, put me in prison, cruel to me my whole life, maybe they are devils. And maybe that makes it okay to hate them, 'cause they're not human. Cool, let's get rid of them. Basically, that's like the crude way of putting the story. But he gets out of prison a changed man, starts becoming a preacher. He's really good at preaching. Gets a lot of people to follow him. He preaches a lot of really good things in the middle of this message. Preaches a lot about self-pride, and hard work, and kind of taking your destiny in your hands, and this sort of conservative but empowering message. Especially to black who were kind of at the bottom of this shit waterfall in American society at that time. And he preached this and he got a lot of followers and got really popular, but mixed in was this message that it was okay to hate and assault white people, to the point that when JFK was assassinated, he said he had it coming. To the point that he said that Dr. King and Bayard Rustin and all of the civil rights activists, trying to do this nonviolent movement, were all in the pocket of the white devils. To the point that Dr. King and all of his associates said, "We do not believe in the violent rhetoric "of Malcolm X. "He is the enemy." To the point that Malcolm X started makin' handshake deals with neo-Nazis, and other white supremacist groups on the premise that hey, we can just like sort of split everyone up. We both want us to not have to deal with each other, so let's do that. Kind of awful. Understandable, but awful. And then, what happened is really interesting, the second time he changed his mind. But I wanna back up to psychological concept, called Balance Theory. So our brains have this thing, that they try to do, which is when we have an association between people or ideas, we wanna keep that association in balance. Such as, say that you think triangles are good and you also think that octagons are good. And you learn that triangles think octagons are good too. Your brain is in balance, hooray. But if you learn that triangles think octagons are bad, your brain freaks out. 'Cause how can you think both things are good if they think each other are bad? So you have to decide, and this happens subconsciously, either you have to say, "Yeah, octagons suck!', and then you're in balance and you're like phew, or you have to decide that triangles are the one that is bad, because they think octagons are bad, and you think they're good. Either way your brain has to recalibrate this equation. So the second time, Malcolm X changed his mind, there was trouble going on in this little religion, this Nation of Islam, is what it was called (gulps), and the leader it came out had been taking a bunch of money, and buying mansions and fathering children and sort of breaking the rules that he was preaching. Malcolm spoke out about this, and he was kind of put in the doghouse. So he's wrestling with what's going on, this religion that saved his life, that got him through prison, and helped him build this very popular thing that had a lot of positive aspects to it, but also put him at odds with the good guys, he decided that he was doing this hiatus, he was taking from preaching, that he was gonna go to Mecca and do a pilgrimage, do the thing that every good Muslim does, go to Mecca. And he went there and something happened. He came back from Mecca, from his trip, and a sort of extended trip, living in Africa. He started saying things like, "I believe that racial separation is wrong. "I believe that the goal should to be to "disintegrate, but to integrate. "I think that Dr. King is right. "I think that blacks and whites should work together "and be equal. "In fact, I think that men and woman are equal. "In fact, I think it's okay to love whoever you wanna love." He started saying this stuff, that his followers were like, "What's happened to you?" And he became a key proponent of the civil rights movement that then changed the world. To the point that he actually affected the way that Dr. King thought about the movement. And Dr. King started taking some of Malcolm X's ideas around self-respect, around building businesses, and around these things that were the positive aspects of this message and not just being nonviolent, but actually being aggressive and nonviolent, things that actually helped the movement. Dr. King started to sound like a nonviolent, Malcolm X by the end of his life. And, you know, the sad thing was, of course, Malcolm X was assassinated before he could get too far further down, because his message upset so many people. But the thing that he said that changed his mind, he went to Mecca, he said this. He said, "I've eaten from the same plate, "while praying to the same God "with men and women who's skins were whiter than mine, "and blacker than mine." He realized that in this journey of sort of his religious epiphany, that race wasn't the thing that made all humans, you know, devils or not. That actually humanity was actually more connected and more of a family. And he came back and became an indispensable part of the civil rights movement, sort fighting for human rights, not just civil rights, but human rights. So what happened during this journey, when he went to Mecca and he saw people who didn't try and put him in jail and try and kill his family, try and burn his house down. Even after having lots of debates with people about this idea, experiencing kindness from other people, while he was outside of his own home turf, was really powerful. So, you know, his balance theory, at first, or at some point was, you know, white people burned my house down, killed my dad, put me in jail. Bad, of course. And white people who do this think that black people are bad, which he thinks are good, 'cause he is black. And then that changes to, he had some set of experiences, realizes that he can decouple bad white people from okay white people. Or you could actually recouple race from this equation. You can decouple race from hate. And how that happened was he went somewhere, where his identity was not attached to the place. He went somewhere, where he was the foreigner. Where he psychologically was more able to let go of ideas, that had been fearful for him to let go of, while he was in his homeland, with this people, where everything was all kind of enmeshed in this balance theory chart. Super-cool research in the intellectual humility open-mindedness test that you guys just took, one of the big correlations that we've found is when you ask people and you answered this question, I think, "How much of your life, if any, "have you lived outside of the country, "where you spent your childhood?" The more time you spend living outside of your home country, the more intellectual humility you have. And there's certain dimensions that have more, but the respect for other viewpoints and willingness to change your viewpoint, actually goes up. "How many countries have you visited besides your own?", goes up and up and up, the more countries you visit. One and two countries, not as much, but 10 countries, 11 countries, it's pretty significant. His daughter, Malcolm X's daughter said, "The more he traveled, the freer he became. "The freer we all became." It's kind of awesome. And it wasn't just visiting Mecca and having this experience that was certainly pivotal, but when he went and lived in Africa for a few months, he lived among other cultures, that he was connected to, but that also helped him to shift his viewpoint. We already know that he had the ability to revise his viewpoint, because of that first transition, becoming a religious man, but then this transition at the end of his life, that turned him into the person that we revere in our culture, happened when he was able to detach from his home place. So, our brains have this ability to do this. There's this thing called neuroplasticity, which basically says that our brains can form new connections, new pathways, things that we can learn, and we can kind of train our brains to become used to different things. So, when Vlad was talking about going to different countries, and realizing that there's more than one right way to do something. Turns out that this is what's going on. The more you live among other cultures, the more you visit other cultures that are not your own, not only does your brain give itself a break from an ego and identity standpoint, but it forms these neural pathways that say, you know, it's okay for people to eat one way and eat another way. Turns out that learning multiple languages actually has the same effect too. They've done brain scans where they show people who are multilingual have physically different brains than people who are monolingual. And also the IH study shows that having multiple languages in your head, leads to higher levels of open-mindedness. It's the same thing. If you can decide that it's okay to say something in different ways, your brain reinforces this neuroplastic path that says, maybe it's okay for someone to have a different idea than me in another realm. So it sort of transfers over this idea, which is super-cool. This is, you know, when I learned about this, I have a problem with separating my ego from my intellect, and being intellectually over-confident, I speak pretty good Spanish, but I decided earlier this year, to actually go live in Mexico. I went and I moved to Mexico City for a couple of months, and just to have, and I actually would love to live there for a long time now, but just to have the experience, of not just visiting but living in someone else's culture, and deliberately trying to be curious about it. So I help that's increasing my intellectual humility. One of the things that I learned there, that I realized, an epiphany I had, even though I speak Spanish, was in English we have this thing that kind of primes us to be a little less open-minded about changing our minds, or have a little more ego than we ought to, when we describe how we're feeling, or what we're experiencing. In English you say, "I am hot.", or "I am sad.", or "I am a bad person.", or whatever. In Spanish you say, "I have heat.", or "I feel heat. "I feel sadness.", not "I am." And just detaching your identity from the thing that you're feeling actually is very good for priming you to not feel, like you need to dig your claws in, when someone proves that you're wrong, or when that thing changes. Also, it helps you to not get so down on yourself, when you do something wrong. That's just something that like another language taught me. I can only imagine if I learned Mandarin, you know what I would learn. But also my brain is learning that it's okay to do things differently. So there's a hack on that subject of separating ego from intellect. And if you can't right away go travel somewhere, go live somewhere else, there are things that you can do rhetorically, like the I feel hot, rather than I am hot kind of thing, that can help with this balance theory thing whenever we're discussing with other people things that are important. Ben Franklin knew he was smart, knew he was usually smarter than most people he was dealing with, but he also knew that he was fallible, and that he needed to, and he had the danger because he was smart, of having his ego get in the way of him changing his mind when he needed to. He had this rhetorical trick that he would do. He would say, when he was about to express a strong opinion about something, or you know, a very forceful persuasive argument, he would start by saying, "I could be wrong, but...", and then he'd hit you with his argument. And he said that he did this because if he was proven wrong, he was still right. 'Cause he could say, "I said, I could be wrong." And even if that's his internal dialogue, saying upfront that "I could be wrong.", meant that he could have it both ways. He could be convinced that he was wrong, and still be correct, and that satisfied his ego, and allowed him to make the changes that he needed to. In the same way that going and living somewhere else where your way of doing things is not the right way of doing things, is sort of a hack, to help you to change your mind about things. That kind of rhetorical trick helped. It also helped other people to be less defensive when he expressed a strong opinion. If I say, "I could be wrong.", and then I say something you disagree with, I'm allowing you to disagree in a way, which makes you less defensive, which means that both of us can have a conversation, have cognitive friction without it getting personal, which is super-cool. When you think about Malcolm X, and his journey, he was naturally I think primed, naturally the kind of person that could change his mind. But how hard is it to abandon your religion? How hard is it to be a very, very public figure saying a lot of things, and then go back on them, when you know that it might mean the death of you. And so if he can do that, in like the heroic way that he did, we all have it in us to change our minds about things that are very deeply held. So we can do that. And I think knowing that we can do that, being cognizant of it, and setting ourselves up internally mentally for that, can be extremely helpful when we're working on things that are much less important, like building a website or something.