A Hurricane, a Dog, and the Secret of Wisdom

There were many sad photos last week at the height of Hurricane Harvey’s Texas destruction. One, particularly, stood out for me. It was a photo of a German Shepherd, all alone, tied to a pole, in the midst of rising waters.

The social media response to the photo was damning. Many people condemned the owners for leaving a dog in such a vulnerable position. Several suggested eternal damnation for the people who abandoned this animal. Many people posted that they couldn’t comprehend leaving their animals at all, let alone left so vulnerably. The invective and hate were running full throttle. And there’s the problem with human beings.

The photo definitely evoked emotions, and people ran with the thoughts those emotions evoked without seemingly any attempt to consider the universe of possibilities. They accepted their first — and only — perception and the emotion that the photo elicited. Here are several thoughts that would have been useful.

I wonder whether that is a staged photo?

Is this dog lost or was it abandoned?

Perhaps the owners left it there briefly to rescue their other dogs and the cat?

Perhaps the owners are out of shot, hailing a rescue boat?

Etc., etc.

Moreover, even if the dog had been abandoned, what were the circumstances?

Perhaps the owner was searching for his lost children? Or searching for his/her parents, spouse and other three animals?

It is also likely that whomever this dog belonged to, was in a severe state of stress, possibly having seen their home, lifestyle and future totally destroyed. I have had to evacuate from oncoming hurricanes. I have always taken my pets and couldn’t imagine leaving them behind, and many don’t evacuate for precisely that reason. Last year, Hurricane Matthew actually hit my community but despite a lot of damage, it was nothing like Harvey. However, let’s cut some slack to people whose lives has just been brutally turned upside down and truly are in survival mode. This doesn’t condone cruelty and the abandonment of animals, but neither should it justify the cruelty and abandonment of people.

The point is that the hurricane that is in this picture, isn’t a tropical cyclone, it is the seemingly increasing human incapacity to think beyond what is at the surface, what I call “iceberg thinking.” At a time in our evolution, when people have mastered the art of emotional manipulation (see Advertizing), we need our capacity to be discerning more than ever. We need to realize that the default setting of the brain is indeed a quick, impulsive, emotional response, which drives the narrative. But we have to move on from there, because that is the road not just to fake news, but hate and the end of objectivity, intelligence and wisdom.

Three of the hardest words to utter are simple: “I don’t know.” I have seen thousands of affirmations designed to improve self-confidence and remove fear but for me, before all that, we should start with this one.

“I really don’t know what is going on. I can imagine dozens of scenarios, but without more information I don’t know. And when I don’t know, I am in no position to judge.”

That is the thought process of the wise person.

PS: When I saw this photo, Leaha Mattinson and I had just finished recording a Master Your Life episode on the Secret of Wisdom, which begins airing tomorrow, Tuesday September 5th at noon ET on VoiceAmerica radio.

https://www.voiceamerica.com/episode/102147/they-secret-of-wisdom

Charlie Gard, the Binary Brain, and the Assumptions of Medicine

The dramatic case of the British baby, Charlie Gard, diagnosed with a “terminal illness,” illustrates the challenges we all face in our perceptions, thoughts, and even the use of our language, let alone our moral decisions. In a legal battle, doctors at Great Ormond Street Hospital argue that Charlie will die because of his condition and are urging the court to euthanize the baby. His parents, Chris Gard and Connie Yates, have raised money in hope of bringing their son to the US for an experimental treatment. Donald Trump even welcomed them, offering an opportunity in the U.S. to get the medical assistance that could help.

Charlie’s brain has apparently been compromised by his condition, but in a completely different way, all of us are compromised in our thinking.

Recent work in how we think shows that the brain inevitably reduces complexity to simple binary alternatives. It is very hard, if not impossible, for us to hold all the complex variables of a real life problem in mind, even if we knew them all, which we certainly don’t. A metaphor I use in my upcoming book I Think Therefore I Am Wrong is that we can cope with watching a football (or any other sporting event) that has two teams playing against each other. But life doesn’t really fit that comfortable binary perception. To get to grips with reality would be like watching ten teams playing against each other simultaneously and realizing that there were at least another ten teams on the field that we couldn’t even see. That seems to be beyond our current mental capacities, so we settle for a reduced, binary simplicity.

One problem with the binary brain is that it treats facts as if they were 100% certainties when for the most part they are probabilities. So, we tell people that they have a “terminal illness” which implies it is inevitably going to kill them, when in fact, we are talking about probabilities. And the words we use absolutely influence the way we perceive and interpret the information we are given. Words resonate in different parts of the brain and influence our emotions and thinking, as any good public speaker will tell you. And when “the facts” are delivered by experts, they become even more “true,” simply because of the implied authority of the speaker.

Moreover, the medical probabilities that are presented by doctors are not based on today’s data; they are based on yesterday’s data because it takes a while for the data and the assumptions about it to penetrate professional consciousness and practice. And given the rapid pace of change, the probabilities are ever changing. Who knows what treatments might be available in 2, 5, or even 10 years from now? In medicine, today’s wisdom can be tomorrow’s malpractice.

I have been fortunate enough to see several people defy the probabilities of today’s medical diagnoses. In my book Inspired to Lose, there is the story of a woman, diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, whose faith and resilience defied the odds and she has gone on to run marathons in every state and Canadian province. A neighbor of mine refused to accept the medical view that some discomfort she was experiencing was 99% benign, sought out the most sophisticated testing, and found that she had the beginnings of pancreatic cancer. She has been in remission for five years.

The soon-to-be-released In God’s Waiting Room, written with Barbara Morello-O’Donnell, recounts her miraculous recovery from the H1N1 virus, in which she emerged from a coma, not with a failing heart that needed transplanting as had been diagnosed from sophisticated medical imaging, but the heart of a 20 year-old, as was predicted in one of her amazing coma dreams.

Man has achieved some amazing things but it is easy to overestimate our capabilities and forget that the brain, while incredible, is still very limited. Just because science is based on data, doesn’t make it immune from these natural human limitations. We need to realize that even in science, we know very little and what we “know” now will inevitably change, probably sooner rather later.

With these limitations in mind, it is surely unethical to prevent the exploration of all treatment possibilities for anyone, especially a baby. No one is certain of the course of Charlie’s condition. While it is often fatal in infants, some have apparently lived into childhood and beyond. Of course, other variables, such as pain, need to be considered but are just one part of the complex matrix of an unseen reality.

The fact is that humility has not been a hallmark of the human race. An expert is someone who knows more than the average person, but they don’t know everything, or all the possibilities. It’s time for more humility and the recognition of our limitations. Wisdom comes from knowing what you don’t know.

Homo needs to get more sapiens.

And Charlie Gard needs to be given every chance at life.

 

 

 

5 Reasons I Hate Listicles Part Two: Was I wrong about #1?

 

 In a recent post I gave five reasons why I don’t like listicles. The first reason was that just getting attention could be counter-productive. “I would rather write a piece that had 50,000 views and 50% of readers liked it, than a piece that had a million views but only 1% liked it,” I wrote in the piece.

Several people contacted me to tell me that the more views, the more revenue. If we know that we can get a 1% conversion rate, it stands to reason that the more overall views generated, the more people that 1% audience response represents. So, more eyeballs means more profit.Or does it?

However, there is a flaw in that argument. It only focuses on the 1% who respond. What about the 99% who don’t? If the assumption that the other 99% don’t care is actually true, that’s one thing, but suppose 3% get really angry and frustrated at being led to click on a silly article that promises more than it can possibly deliver? Then getting a huge response, might actually turn out to be a negative.

What drives a behavioral response is the emotional response. Now, I will agree this could be more of a problem with some clickbait rather than a listicle. For example, if the headline bait mentions a celebrity but then the story has nothing to do with him or her, readers are likely to feel cheated and angry. For example, the lead might have a photo of Colin Kaepernick but the story has nothing to do with him but is about a steroid cream that turned Humpty Dumpty into the Jolly Green Giant. If you’re going to use a celebrity at least make the piece relevant and authentic. For example, check out my latest blog, First Down and Ten Commandments: What GOD thinks about the NFL.

 My point is that there are assumptions made about audience response that don’t include annoying, and thus negatively influencing, the vast percentage of the people that view the piece. Frustration and anger, I suspect, are common responses to intrusive ads.

Let’s take a common scenario — you’re on a roll trying to make it into the top hundred of the rankings of a Slots game, e.g. Double Diamond. You’re currently ranked 159,344 so there’s a long way to go. Suddenly, you are interrupted by an ad for another slots game, which you’re never going to get because you have already invested several months of your life trying to move up the rankings of the current game. The pop up ad is a distraction, activating the brain’s Default Mode Network and stimulating the Limbic System. As a result, you shout an expletive and decide you’re never, ever going to buy a game from that company.

Of course, the world is full of examples of people who reneged on their promise to never, ever do X again, so perhaps a temporary emotional outburst is irrelevant.

However, in a SproutSocial survey1 58 per cent felt of respondents said they felt annoyed by brands posting too many promotions on their social media accounts, 46 per cent said they are likely to unfollow brands if they post too many promotions and 41 per cent said they would unlike or unfollow a brand on social media if they do not post relevant content.

However, the argument from any company might be, “We’re not trying to sell to everybody, 1% will be just fine, thank you. We don’t care what the other 99% think of us.”

I guess it depends on how much the other 99%, especially the 41% of temporarily annoyed users, might influence “brand perception.”

Any thoughts?

  1. Referenced at http://engagecustomer.com/brands-alienating-consumers-social-media-blunders/