Thinking Toys #3 — Construal Levels

Have you been feeling a lack of direction, purpose, or a sense of progress? Try asking yourself “Why?”. Why are you doing what you are doing, what does it accomplish? And then ask “Why?” again about that, and another time or two if you can.

Why am I working as a dog walker? Dogs need to be walked but their owners are busy.

Why? They have other demands on their time but still love their dog.

Why? Their dog brings joy to their lives.

By walking the dog, I am bringing joy to the lives of the owners and the dogs.

Similarly, you can try extracting abstractions or patterns. Every day you come into work and do a little bit of meaningless labor. Large accomplishments require time and coordination among many people. Sometimes the outcomes are things everyone can point to, like a skyscraper. Other times they may be more subtle, like saving a few extra lives per year with a new automobile safety feature. The pattern in these undertakings is the cooperation of many specialized humans working on little bits at a time.

Alternatively, you may be experiencing a sense of disconnection from the world. You may feel stuck, disembodied, lacking flow, or overwhelmed by repetitive mental chatter. Try asking yourself “How?”. Go deeper into the details of implementation and feasibility.

I want to save the world. How?

I need to find the threats and stop them. How?

Research potential threats and interventions. How?

I can Google “existential risks”

 

The mindset we bring to perceiving and interpreting the world is our construal level. High construal corresponds with more abstract thinking. Low construal is more about concrete thinking. Asking “Why?” recursively, or seeking abstraction and pattern, raises our construal level. Asking “How?” recursively, or seeking detail and difference, lowers our construal level. Being aware of our ability to manipulate construal level is huge. Learning to play with going up and down in construal helps us engage with the world more skillfully.

 

Higher construal reduces our susceptibility to impulse while reducing engagement with environmental cues and the present moment. Going up gives us more top-down control — rational regulation. But it also risks leaving us disengaged from experience and external feedback. When you think about the future, you are in high construal “far-mode” thinking. Notice how everything feels more abstract and conceptual. Far-mode enables greater risk taking and makes big challenges feel more surmountable. But it can obscure details that may be important to know in advance. Engaging near-mode (low construal) can reveal these.

There’s no objectively optimal or correct level. The world is an inseparable mix of pattern and nebulosity. The easier we can switch between these perspectives, the more fluidly we engage with the world. The worst feelings seem to come when we are stuck seeing the world as only one of these. Below is a table of some triggering feelings and which way to shift construal to better engage with them.

This whole analysis is pretty high construal! What would be a low construal approach?

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Thinking Toys #2 — Opportunity Pointers

Thinking Toys are mental moves that help us solve problems. They can help us get unstuck. We’d like our minds to have effortless subconscious access to these tools. However, this requires regular practice until they’re installed. Learning to drive takes a lot of time and attention up front but eventually becomes automatic. That’s the goal with thinking toys. With practice, the process of “thinking” can automatically run through explicit moves that get us better solutions.

Of course, to practice a thinking toy requires having a problem at hand. Sometimes it’s hard to think of a problem but luckily there are some tricks to help. Thinking Toy #2 is Opportunity Pointers: prompts that help us find things to work on. There are at least three categories of Opportunity Pointers.

 

Satisfaction checks

Asking your gut about where something is lacking or not-quite-right can be revealing. Say to yourself: “Everything is going perfectly with my ___” and fill in the blank. Some places to look include health, relationships, and career. Then, check your gut for a feeling of dissonance or an “except for…” and see if you can put it into words.

Retrospective

Ask yourself what could have gone better, and how, in the past day, week, or year. Where did you come up short? How might this happen again in the future?

Comparing yourself to others

Look for people that have skills or capabilities that impress you. “What’s something that others can do that I wish I could?” It’s quite likely that this is merely a weakness that can be overcome. They have had better practice developing a skill than you have.

 

A few months ago I found myself in a state where, at first glance, it seemed like everything was perfect with my life. However, after trying some of these exercises I was able to find directions to grow. This resulted in even greater satisfaction a few months later. I looked back on my previous year and noticed one major shortcoming: I lacked a strong sense of progress and accomplishment. In the past, I achieved this by working on concrete tasks that had an immediate tangible impact on myself and my coworkers. Noticing that I was missing this, my mind quickly jumped to some potential ways to remedy it. Spending more time blogging, and creating this newsletter, are just a few of the things I’m trying. It’s working, so far.

Not being able to find one’s problems and weaknesses seems pretty common. I think this is a better problem to have than the reverse. Paying too much attention to our shortcomings, failures, and weaknesses is not productive. It causes feelings of frustration and inadequacy. However, not being at all aware of our weaknesses can also hurt us. If we don’t know where we can improve, it can be hard to grow. Next time you are feeling this way, especially when seeking to practice a new thinking toy, try using an Opportunity Pointer.

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Thinking Toys #1 — Inversion

This will take about 2 minutes and may magically solve a problem for you.

Pick a problem from your life. It can be big or small, but keep it salient — what was on your mind before reading this?

Take 15 seconds and load it up into your head.

You’ve probably thought about it already. You’ve been trying to fix something, or make something different, or achieve some goal. You may have some sense of what you want, what success would feel like.

Let’s call that X — the goal. And let’s try something else. Instead of trying to achieve X, think of the different ways that you could achieve the opposite: Not-X.

What can you do to achieve what you don’t want? How can you predictably fail?

Now, check if you are doing these things. Also, given that these are things you probably don’t want to be doing, what options remain?

Pay attention to what it feels like for your mind to flip the problem like this. There is no right way to do it. Paying attention to how it feels for you will help this move be accessible in the future.

When it’s not obvious how to succeed, or even what success looks like, define failure and avoid the actions that will lead to that.

This is inversion. The first, and arguably most powerful, thinking toy I’m going to write about. Rather than saying a bunch of neat things about the strategy, it seems much more useful to try to get people to practice it. Try to feel what it’s like from the inside and install it as a tool that you can actually use. So, if you skimmed the above, I urge you to actually try it!

Bonus: Try it on someone else. Load up a problem that you know a friend or loved one is struggling with and try to invert it for them. Even better, introduce them to the idea and try it together with them. Teaching someone else is one of the best ways to learn something, plus you get to help someone solve a problem!

Reply and let me know what worked above. What was confusing or aversive or where did you get stuck?

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Talking past each other

“Free speech, liberty, freedom, human rights — we need more! Also, let’s eat more bologna sandwiches!”

We can probably agree on the first part but perhaps the bologna sandwich draws some protest. In fact, we don’t actually agree on the first part — we are nodding our heads thinking about very different things. Or not thinking about things at all.  Either the word triggers substantially different concepts for each person, or, even less usefully, a vague emotion. We are speaking English but our utterings are not equally reliable. For us to agree, we need our minds to be thinking of the same things. Instead, we are mostly talking past each other while we nod our heads in agreement.

We hear the same words, it seems we agree and understand, and yet our minds are dwelling on different objects. This is the underlying mechanism by which communication fails except by accident. Often, we can switch out our words for gibberish and our ability to act or coordinate in the world would not change. The scary part is the language doesn’t feel alien — it seems intelligible at all times.

How can we feel equally sure of our understanding but have different things “in mind”? It seems our mind draws itself towards confirming existing beliefs. “Yes, this is just confirmation bias.” Just. It sounds trite but grasping the magnitude of this overwhelms me. We are constantly interpreting the world, including words coming in, taking actions with our bodies, and making words come out. What is guiding this process? It feels like we are relying on a sense of fit — aesthetics — to bounce between a context-dependent consonance and dissonance. Hearing words, our mind activates relevant belief structures and emotions — a function of past experiences. We then find a way to make everything fit as neatly as possible, quickly resolving dissonance when it rears its head.

“All of us are seeing a different world, interpreting things differently, noticing different things, and are filled with different desires, longings, worries, anxieties, loves, hatreds, and all the rest.  We seem to occupy the same world, but really it’s a pluraverse, not a world.” from Larval Subjects

How to make sense of a word like “freedom”? To one person it may trigger memories of fascist tyranny while for another the image of immigrants coming to America. It’s not that either person can’t understand each other’s concepts. And yet, the specific word resonates with quite different ideas for each person’s mind. Similar ones, perhaps, but I propose that the details diverge and become important if one seeks to act upon their beliefs.

“I’m just saying that the two of us can inhabit the same world and nonetheless “see” entirely different things.  We can even be talking to each other about these things, thinking that we’re talking about the same things, while we’re nonetheless talking about divergent things.  There we were, having this discussion for years, only to wake up one day and realize that we were never talking about the same things and that the sense that we understood each other was all a fantasy or an illusion.” Ibid

To better experience someone else’s view of the pluraverse — to interpret things as they do — one must practice wearing their way of seeing. This is hard, scary, and sometimes painful.

“We think we’re listening, but 99% of the time what we’re really doing is filtering the words of the other through our “interpretive scheme”.  “Understanding”, Lacan said, is always filtered through the lens of the imaginary, of that sense that we’re alike and that we’re the same and that we mean the same things. But it’s not like that.  The most difficult thing is to hear, to really hear.  Nothing is harder, I think, than really hearing the otherness of others…  Their universes.” Ibid

Communication doesn’t always completely fail, obviously, because we do manage to coordinate successfully. We can increase our awareness of when we’re talking past each other and deploy strategies to avoid it. Contra “freedom”, we are more likely to approach agreement when discussing “getting lunch”. We promptly converge on what kind of food, where, and at what time. Differences in opinion may or may not be contentious, but they will quickly become salient. The main difference here is operationalization and an intent to act in a coordinated way. As soon as you notice yourself fumbling into abstraction land, seek object-level synchronization. Try to be concrete about how your beliefs are going to result in different actions in the future, how those actions will cause specific outcomes in the world, and how the outcomes will affect your life in a way that you care about. Pay attention to the interactions between parts of the whole: how pieces of a system will connect, or how people will synchronize in time and on actions in the service of common goals. It’s not that speaking about “freedom” is totally hopeless, but by default be prepared to come to a false sense of agreement — to talk past each other.