On Counterfactual Thinking and Negativity Bias

It seems that humans can’t help but think about the inevitable “what ifs” that we encounter in life — how things would have turned out  “if only” some factor or another was different. This is known as counterfactual thinking, and it is often problematic not only because we wrack our brains with  regret for having not taken a different path, but also because tend to only apply this train of thought to unfortunate circumstances.

Thus, counterfactual thinking works in tandem with another apparent human predisposition: a negativity bias that focuses more on the bad things that happen to us rather than the good. We’re less inclined to wonder how things could have been worse, because we’re more than happy with the results and would much rather milk the good fortune and move on.

All this makes sense: we dwell on the absence of something because our advanced cognition inclines us to wonder about such mysteries. And we focus on the negative because what hurts us is far more impactful than what doesn’t (with respect to applying this bias to news reports,  it works the same way: what tugs at our negative emotions is going to be more profound).

While there are many explanations for this tendency towards focusing on the negative, the point is, we can’t seem to help it. The bad things stand out the most, and subsequently, our regret at their occurrence makes us struggle with all the ways we — as individuals or as a species — could have prevented them.

But I believe we must make it a habit to notice the bad things that didn’t happen; to acknowledge that the absence of negativity is something to be cherished and pointed out, rather than taken as the default condition. What about making it home in one piece, when you could have very well gotten into a car accident? What about having your loved ones or your health, when the existence of both is ever so fragile? Indeed, the very fact that you’ve managed to live another day is something to be appreciated.

It is a tragedy of human nature — one very much observed throughout our history — that it takes something awful to happen to us to appreciate what life is like in the absence of that awfulness. Terrible things await all of us; inevitably, loved ones will die, hard times will come, and we will suffer and eventually expire. It can be a terrifying thought, but it’s all the more reason that we must stop and be mindful of the good times and precious moments while they last. The finiteness and fragility of life, and what is good, is precisely what makes those things so precious.

Thoughts of the Day – 10/23/2012

  • The idea that our public education system is dysfunctional is pretty much a given nowadays. Indeed, just about every Gallup poll concerning education shows that Americans are overwhelmingly dissatisfied with the quality of American schools. Yet 77% of parents award their own child’s public school a grade of A or B, which is the highest level of approval since the question was first asked in 1985.
  • So I still see anti-Obama signs that say something like “Castro/Stalin/Hitler/Mao wanted change too” – as if to suggest that only evil people run on a platform of change. Didn’t Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and our own Founding Fathers desire change too? I mean, isn’t Mitt Romney himself running to change things up (presumably dramatically)? Change in and of itself is not a bad thing; it’s one thing to criticize certain types of it. But to essentially demonize the very concept of change shows just how absurd and petty our public discourse has become.
  • Many Americans, particularly self-identified conservatives, erroneously believe that the government spends far more on foreign aid than it really does: typically, most people think it’s 25% of the federal budget, when in actuality it’s only around 1%. Furthermore, when asked what amount they think should go to foreign aid, these same respondents – again, including conservatives – end up picking a percentage higher than 1%. In other words, most people inadvertently support more humanitarian aid than we actually provide.
  • I can think of no justification for paying an executive hundreds of millions of dollars in salary, bonuses, stocks, and other assets. Tens of millions of Americans are expected to work hard and do their job well without such incentives – indeed, low-paying jobs that offer little to no benefits make up around 60% of jobs recovered since the recession. So if a person needs an eight or even nine figure salary to do a good job, it says a lot about their ethics and integrity. Heck, in many cases they can still run a company to the ground and come away very rich, which defeats the original presumed purpose of paying them so much in the first place.

The Olympics

While I still enjoy watching the Olympics, I’m still disappointed by the strong correlation between wealth and performance: for obvious reasons, the top performers are almost always the countries with the most money and resources. Thus, the majority of events end up being contested mostly by the same dozen or so countries that have the largest economics (albeit with some exceptions, such as Romania in gymnastics, Caribbean or African countries in running, etc).

It’d be interesting to see how all the countries in the world would perform if they had access to the same finances and infrastructure. It’s no surprise that America’s highly commercialized athletes often top the charts, as do China’s representatives, who have the investment of a large state to back them up. Imagine what the world’s mostly poor countries could do with just half of those resources. There’s a lot of untapped potential out there, and I think the games would be far more competitive and interesting.

Just a thought.

On Judging Others

“When we see men of worth, we should think of equaling them; when we see men of a contrary character, we should turn inwards and examine ourselves.” – Confucius

Anyone could judge someone else; humans do it instinctively. But it’s much harder to analyze ourselves. When we see a bad or otherwise disagreeable person, take a moment to wonder if you’re any different than they are. Most people are hypocritical without even realizing it.

I would also interpret this quote as suggesting that we should look at such negative individuals as examples of what not to be. Emulate the good and virtuous, but try to learn from the immoral as well. Confronting both positive and negative characters can be very educational.

Love, Knowledge, and Compassion

Humankind has become so much one family that we cannot insure our own prosperity except by insuring that of everyone else. If you wish to be happy yourself, you must resign yourself to seeing others also happy.

Bertrand Russell, a philosopher, social critic, historian, and logician, has long been one of the most influential people in my life. A noted humanist, atheist, and rationalist, he is the model for my own aspirations: to value love, knowledge, and compassion as the greatest pursuits in one’s life. Indeed, my personal mission statement, and that for this blog, is based upon these principles, which he so eloquently espouses in the following tract:

Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a great ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.

I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy – ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness–that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what–at last–I have found.

With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.

Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.

This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.

I should hope to live a life so rich in goodness and enlightenment. Few men have ever been as ethical and moral. Furthermore, Russell gives lie to the popular notion that a rational mindset devoid of religious belief is too cold, calculating, or prone to nihilism to be compassionate and sympathetic. Empathy, love, and the sincere desire to see other people be happy and prosperous are not predicated on any particular dogma – such things should pervade all of humanity, regardless of religious, political, or ideological persuasions. Virtue for virtue’s sake.

I could devote an entire blog on the prodigious amount of writing and thought that emerged from this great thinker, and I’ll no doubt be revisiting him more than once in the future. If anyone would like at least a sample of his wisdom, visit this collection of his sayings and observations.

On Regret And Letting Go

It’s a widely-accepted canard that letting go of something is one of the hardest things in life. Humans are very prone to attachment: to loved ones, possessions, memories, and the past. Once we hold on to something and call it ours, we find it so difficult to give it up.

There are all kind of reasons why this is the case: because we find the familiar to be secure and comfortable, compared to the unknown future; because we live in a scary world and need all the comfort that we can get; because we live in a world where everything eventually dies, and such a fleeting existence leaves us defiantly holding on to things for however long we can. Or maybe it’s something that is just inexplicably ingrained in our psyche.

In any case, life is too short to be so entrenched in something, be they tangible possessions or nostalgic times. Change is the only constant in the universe, and as the world around us progresses forward beyond our control, we find ourselves in the tragic circumstance of being stuck in the past, wishing to be there, wishing to keep things we have no use for, or people we’ve long grown apart from.

That’s what makes regret so terrible. We dwell on things that have long been beyond our control. We let our present and future get bogged down by a past that exists only in memory. Ex-lovers, lost friends, familiar and good times that have since passed – these all continue to hold power over us even though they, in a sens, no longer exist. It’s literally all in our heads. And no matter how much we may tell ourselves that it’s over, that we did the right thing or that there is nothing we could’ve done, we retain that ever pervasive thought of “what if.”

It’s always easier to question our past actions or decisions in retrospect, once we’ve already gone through them and thus learned the facts. We wonder if we could’ve done more or changed things. We realize that, had we known a certain outcome or consequence, we would have acted differently. But we need to accept that, at the time, we could not have understood what our decisions would’ve led to.

And even if we were culpable, so what? What is done is done. Regretting it and holding on to it won’t fix anything. Only learning from the experience, and trying to ensure it doesn’t bog you down a second time in life, is what matters. Of course, all this is easier said than done, and one simply can’t help the way the mind dwells on things sometimes. But it is still something we must train ourselves to accept.

Letting go is so liberating. Realizing that life goes on anyway is what keeps me going. Who cares if I lost some argument, if I messed up in the past or lost my chance at something big. I’m still alive. I’m still on a path. I’m still in some degree of control. Inevitably I will, like everyone, continue to dwell on the past. It’s human nature to ponder and look back on our experiences. But I will do everything in my power never to let it dominate me. As long as I’m alive, things can change and I can learn from my sources of regret rather than unproductively wallow in them.

(Curiously, I used the term “we” for most of this post, and I didn’t even notice it until now).

On Regret and the Counter Factual Problem

A frequent source of torment that plagues me is the ever-haunting “what if” question. These range from mundane decisions to the more profound choices we’re all invariably faced with. What if I had studied for this degree rather than that one, or had taken that job offer instead of sticking with what I had. What if I had chosen that friend over this one, or done more to repair the friendships I ended up losing. What if I hadn’t dumped some ex-girlfriends, or had asked that one girl out instead of the other one (what if I never had the courage to approach my current girlfriend for that matter).

The sense of freedom and control we derive from our capacity to make choices can also be accompanied by dread, frustration, and paralysis. I cannot help but dwell on the paths that were never taken, or on those decisions I never made. The counter-factual problem deals with the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of determining what would have happened had alternative courses of action been taken. Once something is done, there is no turning back. Even reversing a decision still comes after the fact, and is itself a consequence of having not taken it in the first place. The fact that all these what ifs will never been addressed with any certainty wracks my anxiety-prone mind periodically.

Then I must consider the choices never acknowledged – in other words, the seemingly mundane judgments that end up having more significance than we could have ever anticipated at the time. Sometimes, we may never even come to notice their importance at all. What if I missed out on taking a class that would have put me in contact with someone that could eventually land me in a position of power? What if deciding not to go out one night ended up saving my life, since I might have ended up in a fatal car accident? We learn of numerous anecdotes, some famous and others from friends and family, in which the right circumstances, precipitated with a certain sequence of events, led to Earth-shattering consequences (what if Hitler had been accepted into art school? What if the Archduke Franz Ferdinand wasn’t assassinated? These are just the more famous ones we know).

It needn’t all be negative of course. The problem is that humans tend to have a confirmation bias when it comes to the bad things – we remember the hits more than misses. But with the counter-factual problem, the prejudice for the negative is exacerbated: we’ll never know if an outcome could have actually been worse, which would’ve made a seemingly bad decision far better than the alternative. We can focus on the missed opportunities, but have a harder time noticing the ones that didn’t get passed over, since we have no alternative to compare it to.

I know it’s futile to obsess over the many eternally unchangeable judgments of my past. But it’s an exercise that my neurotic thoughts can’t help but entertain, especially in moments of boredom or daydream. I find these concerns to be most prevalent prior to bedtime. I often keep myself awake wondering “what if” about countless things in my personal life and even about historical events across the world. Surely I’m not the only one that does this, right? 

Regret is interesting because it comes only with hindsight – you never regret something in the present-tense, because you obviously never know the consequences of your actions until moments or even years later – if at all. Feelings of remorse cannot emerge until the facts are gathered, and that only ever comes when it’s too late. Most actions should arguably never be regretted, since there is generally little you could have done at the time given the circumstances and limited knowledge. No amount of planning and preparation can account for any and every outcome of whatever action you take – humans aren’t naturally inclined to be that calculating and foresightful anyway.

Even if you use your knowledge and sense of repentance to rectify your mistakes (assuming they’re even fixable), you’ll still have to endure the troubles that may have already transpired. The only consolation is that, hopefully, you learn something from the experience – not that any amount of learning will ever eliminate the inevitable cycle of guilt we all endure consistently throughout our lives. No one can ever live a perfect life devoid of demons. To do so would be inhuman, and since even inactions are themselves decisions, trying to avoid that hard choices in life won’t save you either.

Arguably, a life without regret is probably not worth living. Those of us who have been bold or decisive enough to take action will inevitably face the consequences – but we’ll also benefit from the fruits of our courage as well. To paraphrase Einstein, anyone who has never made a mistake has never tired anything new. More human successes, on an individual and global scale, are the product of experimentation, risk-taking, and simply making the choice and dealing with what may come of it. I like to comfort myself with the notion that all this nagging guilt is the small price to pay for a life that is otherwise fulfilling and fortunate.

Now I’ve come to wonder: what if I could quiet my mind for just a moment and stop letting these musings get the best of my concentration, sanity, and peace of mind? There’s a counter-factual I’ll probably never really know.

Thought of the Day

In any given day, some sort of missive or reflection – often several of them –  emerge and begin swirling around in my mind. I don’t like to risking these epiphanies or observations dissipating, so I often share them on Facebook or Twitter, as well as jot them down in my journal. It’s nice to get feedback, see if anyone else can relate, or have others build upon my thoughts with their own ideas, views, or insights.

Previously, I found such organic thoughts to be too disjointed and brief to bother posting on a blog. Spontaneous ideas rarely translate well in a formal structure, and I have a difficult time articulating them in any readable way. But I’ve decided to experiment a bit more and develop my blog into something a bit more personal.

I doubt I’m the only one that gets lost in my own mind. This is especially common for those of us who remain so caught up in the daily grind of work that there’s no other time or place for our thoughts to emerge. It’s like trying to suppress a wellspring, or better yet a flood: the brain just releases a torrent of missives, ideas, and reflections that know no context. A profound idea suddenly enters our minds while we’re stuck at traffic, eating lunch, or at our desks in the office.

There’s no rhyme or reason for it, and such ideas will dissipate as quickly as they emerge. They are ephemeral and raw. They’ll sometimes disappear for good, but most times they reappear again, perhaps refined. And no matter how much you try to focus, they’ll nag at you: its hard to kill the product of free-thinking mind. Hence why I try to carry a journal around wherever I go, in the hopes of capturing as much as I can. It’s remarkable what questions even our distracted consciousness can raise. It’s almost as if we have two minds: one engaged in mundane, day-to-day activities; the other occupied with pondering everything and anything we can (ironically, this entire musing on the nature of thoughts is itself a spontaneous outburst).

Its for this reason that I also want to create a series of “Thoughts of the Day” that will consist mostly of these brief tidbits of ideas, many of them informal or incomplete, but hopefully no less interesting. The benefits will be threefold:  I’ll have an archive of my various random musings over time, will sate my  desire to post here at least once a day without having to take up too much time and energy, and will hopefully still provide some meaningful substance for my readers.

As always, your own thoughts and missives are welcomed. Never hesitate to share what’s on your mind here. It’ll enrich my site and my perspective.