Loneliness is a growing problem in modern societies. Political polarization is also a noteworthy trend. Could the two phenomena be linked? Could loneliness, in fact, cause political polarization?
According to numerous sources, loneliness is a serious health problem – not just mental health but physical health as well. Several recent studies have documented the physical effects:
Additionally, the problem of loneliness is growing. The Harvard Business Review reports that, “Today, over 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely, and research suggests that the real number may well be higher.” The BBC reports that half of adults in England experience loneliness. And it’s not just old people. Julianne Holt-Lunstad’s study suggests, “ the prevalence of loneliness peaks in adolescents and young adults, then again in the oldest old.”
Vivek Murthy, the former U.S. Surgeon General, describes loneliness as an “epidemic”. The United Kingdom has now appointed a minister for loneliness. And Natalie Proulx asks in the New York Times, “Does Every Country Need A Loneliness Minister?”
Shifts in demographics and joining behavior have contributed to loneliness. People today are less likely to belong to church or fraternal organizations. Enrollment in trade unions has declined sharply. Men’s clubs have all but disappeared. Long-term employment with a single company has also declined. The gig economy is perhaps the ultimate expression of the atomized workplace.
If we can no longer find a sense of identity and belonging in traditional identity organizations, where do we turn to alleviate loneliness? Two trends suggest that we may have already moved in loneliness-alleviating directions.
The first trend is that we have sorted ourselves into what might be called “identity neighborhoods.” (Neal Stephenson, in his novel Snow Crash, calls them “burbclaves”). As Bill Bishop pointed out in his 2008 book, The Big Sort, we now segregate ourselves by political identity as much as by class or ethnic identity. Liberals live here; conservatives live there. Our neighborhood can give us a sense of identity and belonging. It also insulates us from opinions that differ from our own. Bishop points out that, “The clustering of like-minded Americans is tearing us apart.” Bill Clinton adds, “Some of us are going to have to cross the street, folks.”
The second trend is the rise of identity politics. We’ve moved away from broad-based political parties and towards “…political positions based on the interests and perspectives of social groups with which people identify.”
Is identity politics driven by loneliness? Simon Kuper thinks so. Writing in the Financial Times, Kuper notes that people are increasingly joining political parties to signal, “…they belong to the same tribe …with a shared identity … and something to talk about. In other words they are doing something that is usually considered positive: they are forging a new kind of community.” If Kuper is right – and I’m inclined to think that he is – then loneliness is the root cause of identity politics.
Loneliness then is not simply an individual issue. It affects the way we organize ourselves in neighborhoods, communities, nations, and political parties. Many observers suggest that identity politics is bad for America – click here, here, and here for representative examples. If we want to stifle identity politics, we first need to work on the problem of loneliness. Perhaps we need a minister for loneliness, after all.
Are older people wiser? If so, why?
Some societies believe strongly that older people are wiser than younger people. Before a family or community makes a big decision in such societies, they would be sure to consult their elders. The elders’ advice might not be the final word but it’s highly influential. Further, elders always have say in important matters. Nobody would think of not including them.
Why would elders be wiser than others? One theory suggests that older people have simply forgotten more than younger people. They tend to forget the cripcrap details and remember the big picture. They don’t sweat the small stuff. They can see the North Star, focus on it, and guide us toward it without being distracted. (Click here for more).
For similar reasons, you can often give better advice to friends than you can give to yourself. When you consider your friend’s challenges and issues, you see the forest. When you consider your own challenges and issues, you not only see the trees, you actually get tangled up in the underbrush. For both sets of advisors – elders and friends – seeing the bigger picture leads to better advice. The way you solve a problem depends on the way you frame it.
According to this theory, it’s the loss of data that makes older people wiser. Is that all there is to it? Not according to Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, the widely acclaimed master of big data and aggregated Google searches. Stephens-Davidowitz has written extensively on the value of big data in illuminating how we behave and what we believe. He notes that companies and government agencies are increasingly trawling big data sets to spot patterns and predict – and perhaps nudge – human behaviors.
What does big data have to do with the wisdom of the aged? Well … as Stephens-Davidowitz points, what’s an older person but a walking, talking big data set? Our senior citizens have more experiences, data, information, stories, anecdotes, old wives’ tales, quotes, and fables than anybody else. And – perhaps because they’ve forgotten the cripcrap detail – they can actually retrieve the important stuff. They provide a deep and useful data repository with a friendly, intuitive interface.
As many of my readers know, my wife and I recently became grandparents. One of the pleasures of grandparenting is choosing the name you’d like to be known by. I had thought of asking our grandson to call me Big Daddy. But I think I’ve just come up with a better name. I think I’ll ask him to call me Big Data.
Seth Stephens-Davidowitz is probably best know for writing the book, Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What The Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are. He’s also a regular contributor to the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times. I heard his idea about seniors-as-big-data on an episode of the podcast Hidden Brain. (Click here). I mentioned his work a few years ago in an article on baseball and brand loyalty. (Click here). He’s well worth a read.
It’s hard to think critically when you don’t know what you’re missing. As we think about improving our thinking, we need to account for two things that are so subtle that we don’t fully recognize them:
Because of assumptions and filters, we often talk past each other. The world is a confusing place and becomes even more confusing when our perception of what’s “out there” is unique. How can we overcome these effects? We need to consider two sets of questions:
The more we study assumptions and filters, the more attuned we become to their prevalence. When we make a decision, we’ll remember to inquire abut ourselves before we inquire about the world around us. That will lead us to better decisions.
In my critical thinking class, we begin by studying 17 cognitive biases that are drawn from Peter Facione’s excellent textbook, Think Critically. (I’ve also summarized these here, here, here, and here). I like the way Facione organizes and describes the major biases. His work is very teachable. And 17 is a manageable number of biases to teach and discuss.
While the 17 biases provide a good introduction to the topic, there are more biases that we need to be aware of. For instance, there’s the survivorship bias. Then there’s swimmer’s body fallacy. And the Ikea effect. And the self-herding bias. And don’t forget the fallacy fallacy. How many biases are there in total? Well, it depends on who’s counting and how many hairs we’d like to split. One author says there are 25. Another suggests that there are 53. Whatever the precise number, there are enough cognitive biases that leading consulting firms like McKinsey now have “debiasing” practices to help their clients make better decisions.
The ultimate list of cognitive biases probably comes from Wikipedia, which identifies 104 biases. (Click here and here). Frankly, I think Wikipedia is splitting hairs. But I do like the way Wikipedia organizes the various biases into four major categories. The categorization helps us think about how biases arise and, therefore, how we might overcome them. The four categories are:
1) Biases that arise from too much information – examples include: We notice things already primed in memory. We notice (and remember) vivid or bizarre events. We notice (and attend to) details that confirm our beliefs.
2) Not enough meaning – examples include: We fill in blanks from stereotypes and prior experience. We conclude that things that we’re familiar with are better in some regard than things we’re not familiar with. We calculate risk based on what we remember (and we remember vivid or bizarre events).
3) How we remember – examples include: We reduce events (and memories of events) to the key elements. We edit memories after the fact. We conflate memories that happened at similar times even though in different places or that happened in the same place even though at different times, … or with the same people, etc.
4) The need to act fast – examples include: We favor simple options with more complete information over more complex options with less complete information. Inertia – if we’ve started something, we continue to pursue it rather than changing to a different option.
It’s hard to keep 17 things in mind, much less 104. But we can keep four things in mind. I find that these four categories are useful because, as I make decisions, I can ask myself simple questions, like: “Hmmm, am I suffering from too much information or not enough meaning?” I can remember these categories and carry them with me. The result is often a better decision.
What made Leonardo da Vinci a genius? I’ve just finished Walter Isaacson’s all-purpose biography of the Italian Renaissance man and four words come to mind: curiosity, observation, analogy, and humility. These four traits combined and recombined throughout Leonardo’s life to create advances in painting, engineering, architecture, anatomy, hydrology, optics, weaponry, and theater.
Leonardo maintained a childlike curiosity throughout his life. Every kid wants to know why the sky is blue. As we reach adulthood, most of us simply accept the fact that the sky is indeed blue. Not Leonardo. He studied the question for much of his adult life and ultimately developed an explanation based on clear evidence and careful reasoning.
Leonardo combined his curiosity with powers of observation that beggar belief. He noticed, for instance, that dragonflies have four wings, two forward and two aft. He wondered how they worked. By close observation, he concluded that when the two forward wings go up, the two aft wings go down. It seems like a simple observation but it must have taken hours of acute and disciplined observation.
Similarly, he took an interest in how birds flap their wings. Do their wings move faster as they flap upward or downward? Most of us would not conceive of such a question, much less focus our attention sufficiently to answer it. But Leonardo did, not once but several times.
His first observations – taken over many hours and days – suggested that birds flap their wings faster on the down stroke. At this point, I would have recorded my observation, concluded that all birds behaved similarly, and moved on. But Leonardo persisted. He observed different bird species and found that some flap faster on the up stroke than the down stroke. Wing behavior differs by species. It’s an interesting observation about birds. It’s a fascinating observation about Leonardo. Arthur Bloch once said that, “A conclusion is the place where you get tired of thinking.” Leonardo, apparently, never got tired of thinking. He recognized that all conclusions are tentative.
Leonardo didn’t just study insects and birds. He studied pretty much everything – from rivers to trees to pumps to blood circulation to optical effects to anatomy to geometry to Latin to … well, whatever caught his eye. His breadth of knowledge allowed him to draw analogies that others would have missed. Some of his analogies seem “obvious” to us today – like the analogy between water flow in rivers and blood flow in humans.
But how about the analogy between arteriosclerosis and oranges? As he dissected cadavers, Leonardo noticed that older people’s arteries were often less flexible and more clogged that those of younger people. He became the first person in history to accurately describe arteriosclerosis. He did so by comparing it to the rind of an orange that dries, stiffens, and thickens as it ages.
In today’s world, expertise is often associated with narrowness. Experts gain ever more knowledge about ever-narrower subjects. Leonardo was certainly an expert in several narrow domains. But he also saw across domains and could think outside the frame. Philip Tetlock, an authority on political judgment, suggests that this ability to think across boundaries is a key ingredient to insight and discovery. In many ways, Leonardo thought more like a fox and less like a hedgehog.
If I could think and observe like Leonardo, I might become a bit of a prima donna. But Leonardo never did. He remained humble and diffident in an ever-changing world. As Isaacson notes, he “… relished a world in flux.” Further, “When he came up with an idea, he devised an experiment to test it. And when his experience showed that a theory was flawed … he abandoned his theory and sought a new one.” By revising and updating his own conclusions, Leonardo helped establish a world in which observation and experience trump dogma and received wisdom.
Leonardo’s legacy is so broad and so varied that it’s difficult to encapsulate succinctly. But Isaacson includes a quote the German philosopher, Schopenhauer, that helps us understand his impact: “Talent hits a target that no one else can hit. Genius hits a target that no one else can see.”