Life Is Volatile & I Need A Wing Person

September 2, 2018 Long Read, Social Observation
Life Is Volatile - old man talking

If you try to hold on to some stable identity, job or world view, you risk being left behind as the world flies by you with a whooooosh.


YUVAL NOAH HARARI, On What The Year 2050 Has In Store For HumankindWIRED Magazine September/October 2018

Sitting in the coffee shop physically closest to where I live, I was leaning back in a soft chair, attempting to catch up on some of the reading that had alluded me for the past month or so when something happened that drove home the reality of what I was reading in an almost surreal way. Understand, the reason I’m sitting at the coffee shop in the first place and not on the couch at home is that the interruptions of people for whom I care are more intrusive than the less direct noise of someplace like the coffee shop, where conversations fade into the background as white noise. I want to read where I can concentrate on what I’m reading.

At this one particular moment, though, the words I was reading became alarmingly illustrative of what was happening with my brain in real life. What’s more, while I was acutely aware of what was happening, I felt powerless to stop it.

What I was reading came from an article in Inverse, by Emma Betuel“Scientists Reveal the Number of Times You’re Actually Conscious Each Minute.” This is the kind of article that highlights a biological issue and then tries to make everyone feel good about the fact we’re all essentially flawed. At the moment in question, Ms. Betuel quotes
Ian Fiebelkorn, Ph.D.:

“The brain is wired to be somewhat distractible,” he says. “We focus in bursts, and between those bursts we have these periods of distractibility, that’s when the brain seems to check in on the rest of the environment outside to see if there’s something important going on elsewhere. These rhythms are affecting our behavior all the time.”

Just at that moment, three people caught my attention. One was an attractive, model-worthy young woman picking up her drink. Another was a Democratic poll manager setting up shop for the afternoon. The third was an older gentleman wear a fairly odd hat. In that instant, my eyes left what I was reading and spent the next several seconds flitting back and forth between the three.

Now, the type of distraction I experienced isn’t necessarily what Dr. Fiebelkorn’s research was discussing. He’s looking at micro seconds of attention, coming to the conclusion that our brains essentially “check out” approximately four times a second. While many people are distracted easily, 240 times a minute is faster than our mind has the ability to comprehend on its own. We’re only aware of distractions that take place at a significantly slower rate, such as the length of time it takes an attractive woman to walk across the room and pick up her Frappucino.

Life Delights In Awkward Moments

Life Is Volatile - old man talking
Funny, she didn’t look like that when I took the picture

Fifteen, maybe even ten years ago, I would have acted on my distraction, gone across the room and inquired of the young woman as to whether she might consider modeling for me. Now, though, I’m too old to approach anyone without an obviously appropriate reason. Old men one doesn’t know are friendly enough sitting across the room, but creepy when they walk up to someone uninvited or without an obvious reason such as one’s hair being on fire. I won’t do it.

As a result, I sat there continuing to be distracted. While my eyes are reading  Randolph Helfrich, Ph.D. explain the multi-tasking benefits of brains that can switch rapidly between different items of focus, I can’t help thinking that what I need is a wing person. I need someone who understands what I look for in a model, or a friend, or a glass of scotch, and can approach someone without generating the instant feeling of threat inherent to old men. I need someone who can move from small talk to making an invitation without creating an awkward moment.

Unfortunately, life really seems to enjoy its awkward moments. Few of us are all that good at just walking up to someone and starting a conversation. Instead, we stumble over our own names, turn words and phrases inside out, or find our tongues hopelessly glued to the top of our mouths.

In an article on the website lifehacker.com, writer Aimee Lutkin suggests the following reasons for why we should work on doing better at small talk:

  • It Calms You
  • It Connects You
  • It’s How You Learn to be Brave

Wait a minute, who said anything about being brave? I don’t want to be brave! Brave people end up getting shot — or shot down. I don’t want my wing person getting shot, I want them to convince this young woman it’s safe to pose for my camera. Staring down a gun while sipping on a Frappucino would be incredibly awkward no matter how brave one is.

Be Careful What You Say

Life Is Volatile - old man talking
Her face had the perfect shape

One of the challenges to being the wing person for a photographer is that there is no easy way to ask someone if they want to be a model. The problem is that the way in which we frame words establishes these preconceived concepts and biases in our minds. We’ve already decided how to feel about a statement before the speaker gets to the end of the sentence.

What we’re up against is this thing called cognitive biases and whether we realize it or not our brain uses them all the time to shape what we feel and what we believe about the information we receive. Our experiences help shape those biases, along with the type of things we read, the movies we watch, and the music to which we listen. All of this works together to tell our brain how to respond to certain words.

There are at least 100 legitimate types of cognitive bias and reading through the list is enough to leave one with the opinion that life is just out to get us, derail us, and keep anyone from every succeeding. I’m betting you didn’t know a list could be so damn depressing. 

George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley states in his book Don’t Think of an Elephant!

“The most common frames are learned as a toddler when you learn about the world and every time a neural circuit is used, it strengthens.”

Because of all the tales of young women being taken advantage, the word “model” frames a conversation in a negative manner right off the bat. Young women often assume that modeling too often requires nudity and up until the last few years that assumption is not necessarily incorrect. So, when one asks an attractive woman if they want to model, what the woman is essentially hearing is, “Will you get naked for me?” Unsurprisingly, not many women respond positively to that inquiry. When they do, it’s likely because that word carries a more positive frame for them, such as the glamour and fame associated with models like Kate Moss or Karlie Kloss, both of whom, it should be mentioned, have spent a fair amount of time naked in front of a camera.

We’re all victims of having cognitive bias used against us, though, and no example is more clear than observing how political operatives spin conversations to appeal to their base audience. Further more, overcoming those biases, teaching our brains to not give into them, may be impossible no matter how hard we try.

Ben Yagoda has this article in The Atlantic that takes a deep dive on the topic of cognitive biases and how they trick our brain. He goes looking for ways to get around all the framing our minds create as we’re growing up and experiencing things. If we can find ways around the traps our brains set for us, then we might actually lead happier lives, one’s life might not have all the predictable downfalls such as failing to save for retirement or relying too heavily upon the first piece of information we receive.

I’ve read and re-read that article at least a half-dozen times now and quite honestly it makes me scared. With each read I realize just how much of my own brain is locked into these cognitive biases. Toward the end of the article, Yagoda offers an example that is a bit painful.

“Let’s say there is an officeholder I despise for reasons of temperament, behavior, and ideology. And let’s further say that under this person’s administration, the national economy is performing well. Will I be able to dislodge my powerful confirmation bias and allow the possibility that the person deserves some credit?”

No. I don’t want to. That office holder is a sonofabitch if ever there was one and the sooner he leaves office the better.

But that’s the bias talking, isn’t it? The fact that we are, as a nation, so incredibly entrenched in our political views demonstrates just how challenging it is to overcome the biases our brains have constructed. 

That being said, the President would make a horrible wing person.

What You Don’t Know Can Hurt

Life Is Volatile - old man talking
Don’t worry, no one will ever know it’s you

Trying to correct my distraction, I return to my original article. I don’t get a great deal of “quiet” reading time so I feel some pressure to maximize this moment as much as possible. I go on reading:

“…  this research makes it clear that while humans spend so much time in search of hyper-focus, it’s likely an unachievable goal. Thousands of years of the struggle for survival have wired us to be distracted. Maybe it’s time to embrace it as a fundamental part of life. Helfrich certainly thinks it is: “It’s the core of what makes us human somehow.”

I can’t help wondering how this approach potentially affects how the psychiatric community might diagnose and treat Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). If being distracted four times per second is hardwired into our brain function, are people with ADD experiencing an even higher level of distraction or are they merely responding to naturally the occurring distractions at a more frequent level?

The man in the odd hat removes it for a moment to scratch his balding head. I realize he’s probably not any older than I am, if as old. Genetics have just dealt him a bad hand in the hair department. No wonder he wears a hat, even if it is a bit odd looking. Summer temperatures were pretty warm that afternoon and no one wants a sunburned scalp.

The polling manager has had field agents coming and going, checking in and getting new territory assignments. I notice they’re all young, eager, and enthused about getting people their own age to actually turn out and vote this November. I also notice they’re all female while the manager is a tall, bearded, attractive male. My mind wanders into the territory of questioning whether the women doing the leg work are more enthused about which Midwestern white male gets elected to the US Senate or trying to impress the manager. After observing their body language and awkward speech patterns, I’m guessing the latter is their primary motivation.

Immediately, I catch my cognitive bias. I’ve opened myself to considerable error because I’ve made an assumption without sufficient evidence to support that reasoning. There is a lot about this situation that I don’t know, and I don’t even know the depth of what I don’t know.

This is called hypocognition. More than mere ignorance, hypocognition is the inability to communicate an idea or a concept or an emotion because we lack the linguistic vocabulary for adequately doing so. Hypocognition is about missing things in our observations because we don’t know to look for the flags and probably wouldn’t recognize the flags if we did. 

I need a better example. In an article for Scientific American, Kaidi Wu and David Dunning write:

Amid pitched political battles, partisans see only the concepts associated with their own side, hypocognitive of the principles that support the judgments of their ideological opponents. Liberals, for example, construct moral arguments primarily on two principles, harm/care and fairness/reciprocity, failing to recognize additional principles, such as in-group loyalty, respect for authority, and purity concerns that drive conservative opposition.

Recognizing hypocognition and taking steps to avoid it is an important attribute in a wing person. Actually, now that I think about it a little more, a good wing person avoids the hypocognition by being able to identify with the other person. There is a reason that a young woman being approached by a significantly older man comes off as creepy. The hypocognition between men and women is tremendous.

Journalist Caitlin Mora summed it up quite well:

 “Men’s tabula for women is completely rasa.… There are no templates for how to approach a woman in a jolly and uplifting manner, discover her sexual preferences, get feedback while you’re rolling around naked, and learn from her without feeling oddly, horribly emasculated.”

Okay, so maybe our goal isn’t always to get to the point of rolling around naked together. Sometimes we really just want a good, reliable, flexible, attractive model in front of the camera. That doesn’t seem like it’s too much to ask of a person.

When we approach someone who we know nothing about, a complete stranger, one starts making assumptions about their gender, their sexual preference, whether they’re single (check for that ring), their economic situation, their social standing, and their political opinions. We make all those judgments in a split second without even realizing the degree to which our cognitive biases have kicked in.

Then, one often blows the introduction because our hypocognition blocked us from considering the elements of the other person’s background that shape how they relate to people in public. However, one also has to be careful to not become hypercognitive, where we apply a concept or emotion to a situation where it doesn’t belong.

For example, we know that an alarming number of young women are sexually assaulted as teenagers. The Department of Justice states that women between the ages of 12-34 are at the highest risk for sexual assault. Knowing that information might lead us to be careful in our choice of vocabulary. However, since we don’t know when meeting someone for the first time what their background may be, the more careful vocabulary might be inappropriate as well.

Being a wing person is a tough job.

Life Gets Harder The Longer You Live

Life Is Volatile - old man talking
The crazy never really goes away

By the time one hits the age of 60, the average person has accumulated a cognitive vocabulary, the words we use and/or understand, of roughly 60,000 pieces. Before congratulating ourselves, however, one might consider the perspective that an unabridged English dictionary contains over 600,000 entries. Moreover, when we consider the depth of every other language in the world, English is one of the smaller vocabularies one might speak.

For example, did you know that English speakers have the fewest selections for describing shades of blue than any other major language in the world? We only have one, blue. Other languages have as many as eight! Consider how much more expressive one can be when one isn’t limited to a small selection of words.

Wasn’t life supposed to get easier as we got older? I’m pretty sure someone told me that life became easier to navigate as one “learns the ropes.” That’s complete and utter nonsense. Nothing in life today is easier and the bad news is that it’s only going to get more confusing.

Yuval Noah Harari, who I quoted at the beginning of this article, writes about what we could be looking at by the year 2050. I would turn 90 that year, which would mean that I’m probably not going to be at my absolute best. This is how Harari describes the future:

By the middle of the 21st century, accelerating change plus longer lifespans will make traditional models obsolete. Life will come apart at the seams, and there will be less and less continuity between different periods of life. “Who am I?” will be a more urgent and complicated question than ever before.

Life coming apart at the seams? Yeah, that sounds like a level of fun I’d just as soon avoid. The fact remains, though, that it’s not the change itself but rather the speed at which that change occurs that make it difficult to manage.

Consider that when I was growing up, which doesn’t feel as though it were that long ago, most of us only considered there to be two genders: male and female. What we understand now, however, is that gender and sexuality are fluid and where one identifies at one point in their life may not be where they identify later in their life. 

On one hand, it is wonderful that we’re recognizing that gender and sexuality are not so black and white. At the same time, though, these social changes happen so quickly that it cannot help but set up a certain amount of hypocognition. How can I begin to understand what a transitioning person experiences or feels when the very concept of transitioning is external to my personal reality? I want to be supportive but the opportunity for getting the vocabulary wrong and misspeaking is rather high.

We’re not aided by the fact that we’re not taking the time to actually study and learn in the same manner we once did. In fact, it seems questionable as to whether younger generations can slow their brains down long enough to comprehend deep levels of thought in what they read.

My reading list for the past year has been full of articles decrying the fact that we have become a society of people who skim rather than read. The research on the effect technology has on our brains and our reading patterns is growing rapidly and none of it is especially encouraging.

MaryAnne Wolfe, author of Proust and the Squid and more recently, Reader, Come Home, sums up the situation:

Skimming has led, I believe, to a tendency to go to the sources that seem the simplest, most reduced, most familiar, and least cognitively challenging. I think that leads people to accept truly false news without examining it, without being analytical. One of my major worries is that when you lose the novel, you lose the ability to go into another person’s perspective. My biggest worry now is that a lot of what we’re seeing in society today — this vulnerability to demagoguery in all its forms — of one unanticipated and never intended consequence of a mode of reading that doesn’t allow critical analysis and empathy.

As all of this is coming together in what’s left of my brain, which has become rather numb at times to the deluge of information, I cannot help but wonder if there is a link between our choice to skim and the rate at which our brains are distracted. If we cannot hyper-focus on something, or anything for that matter, doesn’t that make it more necessary to develop those skimming skills so that we’re taking as much information as possible from the different things that distract us?

Maybe, but at the same time, we are risking not actually knowing anything, including ourselves. Let that sink in for a second. How can we adequately relate to and have any kind of relationship with other people if we increasingly become unsure of who we our, ourselves?

Harari sees a danger point here as we may soon reach a situation where corporations, with their collections of big data, know us better, can predict our actions, better than we can.

To succeed in such a daunting task, you will need to work very hard on getting to know your operating system better. To know what you are, and what you want from life. This is, of course, the oldest advice in the book: know thyself. For thousands of years, philosophers and prophets have urged people to know themselves. But this advice was never more urgent than in the 21st century, because unlike in the days of Laozi or Socrates, now you have serious competition. Coca-Cola, Amazon, Baidu and the government are all racing to hack you. Not your smartphone, not your computer, and not your bank account – they are in a race to hack you, and your organic operating system. You might have heard that we are living in the era of hacking computers, but that’s hardly half the truth. In fact, we are living in the era of hacking humans.

Feeling scared, yet? I’m not sure “scared” is necessarily the best word. The framing makes life sound a little too much like a trip to a haunted house when what we are facing is, in fact, much more serious.

Fortunately, Harari has some thoughts on how we might combat this lack of cognitive connection.

Many pedagogical experts argue that schools should switch to teaching “the four Cs” – critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. More broadly, schools should downplay technical skills and emphasise general-purpose life skills. Most important of all will be the ability to deal with change, to learn new things and to preserve your mental balance in unfamiliar situations. In order to keep up with the world of 2050, you will need not merely to invent new ideas and products – you will above all need to reinvent yourself again and again.

While that sounds good and makes perfect sense, Harari also understands that our brains aren’t quite as flexible and plastic at 60 as they are at 16. Someone significantly younger than me is going to process these rapid changes much more efficiently than I am. 

Hence, I really need a wing person. I need someone who is a lot younger than me, someone who is more in touch and who has a better grasp of contemporary society and its complexities. I need someone who can be gender flexible and talk with people anywhere on the spectrum without coming across creepy or aggressive. I need someone who offsets my own cognitive biases and balances out the inherent hypocognition that comes from having grown up in rural America in the 1960s and 70s. 

Fortunately, I have that. Kat is a fantastic wing person. The biggest challenge we face there, though, is other people’s cognitive bias that leads them to think that she must be my daughter or that our relationship must be monogamously restrictive. Some people block her ability to communicate before she ever gets close enough to speak. I’ve written about those challenges before.

Life is volatile and weird and strange and, in no small amount, kinky. We get so distracted by things external to what we are doing that we don’t notice what’s right in front of us. For example, did you catch that there is a naked person in all of the pictures in this article? There’s even a couple having sex in one of them. If you’re skimming through this article, that little detail likely escaped your attention entirely.

We are not the same people, the same society, that our parents or grandparents were. Old paradigms no longer work. Lessons once taught religiously don’t necessarily hold any validity for us.  Perhaps the key to survival is that we need to become wing persons for each other. Together, we can survive.

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