What Influences Our Thinking: Notes on Seeking Wisdom (Part 1)

Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger is one of the most dense yet valuable books I’ve ever read. Peter Bevelin’s aim with Seeking Wisdom is evident from the title: seeking ways to become more wise, to make better decisions, and to improve judgment.

Bevelin divides the book into four parts. In this essay we will concern ourselves only with Part 1. In the future, we will continue this series of “Notes on Seeking Wisdom.”

The other theme is also referenced in the title: “From Darwin to Munger.” Bevelin compiled a boatload of wisdom from some of the most brilliant minds in recent history; Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett, Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, and even fictional characters such as Sherlock Holmes. He quotes speeches, parts of books, and other commentary from these genius’s in order to solve the question: how do you improve decision making?

WHAT INFLUENCES OUR THINKING

For today’s post we are focused on Part One entitled What Influences Our Thinking.

Throughout the rest of the book Bevelin discusses psychological biases that cause misjudgment, areas in life where intuition may hinder our judgment, and finally he prescribes a set of mental models to improve decision making. But before those ideas can be discussed, we must first understand What Influences Our Thinking.

Bevelin begins at the anatomical, physiological, and biochemical level. He then discusses the role environment plays in our thinking. Next, he moves onto natural selection and evolution before finally relating how all of these processes have allowed us to adapt to modern society.

OUR ANATOMY SETS THE LIMITS FOR OUR BEHAVIOR

Before we discuss the intricacies of decision making we must first understand our anatomy, genes, and brain.

Our anatomy, physiology, and biochemistry are the fundamental bases for our behavior.

Does each gene have its own specific part to play?

No, we can’t isolate one gene as causing something or arrange them in order of importance. They are part of an interconnected system with many possible combinations. And more genes contribute to more than one characteristic.

The brain changes continually as a result of our experiences. Experiences produce physical changes in the brain either through new neural connections or through the generation of new neurons. Studies show that the brain can change even during the course of a day. This means that the anatomy of the brain varies from individual to individual.

People behave differently because differences in their environment cause different life experiences. This is why it is sometimes hard to understand other people’s behavior. To do that, we must adapt to their environment and share their experiences. This is often impossible.

Our state of mind is a function of our life experiences and the specific situation …

It’s not just what happens to us that counts – it’s what we think happens to us. We convert our expectations to a biochemical reality meaning that our mental state and physical well-being are connected.

EVOLUTION SELECTED THE CONNECTIONS THAT PRODUCE USEFUL BEHAVIOR FOR SURVIVAL AND REPRODUCTION

Charles Darwin shocked the world with his revelations about natural selection and evolution. Evolution remains a guiding force for all life and gives context for certain behaviors.

Evolution is change (structural, physiological, behavioral) – which occurs over time through interaction with the environment. Paleontology Professor John Horner says in Dinosaur Lives: “When you flip through the pages of the family album you’re witnessing evolution at work.”

Darwin called his principle natural selection. Any slight variation in traits that gives an individual an advantage in competing with other individuals of the same or different species or in adapting to changes in the environment increases the chance that individual will survive, reproduce, and pass along its characteristics to the next generation.

Since environments change over time and with geography, different variants are “selected” under different conditions. Characteristics that are successful in one environment may be unsuccessful in another.

We are driven by our need to avoid pain (and punishment) and a desire to gain pleasure (and reward). Evolution has made any behavior that helps us survive and reproduce feel pleasurable or rewarding. Behavior that is bad for us feels painful or punishing.

Harm avoidance first. Our brain is equipped to register pain more sensitively than any other emotion. We also remember negatively arousing stimuli better.

Richard Dawkins says in The Blind Watchmaker: “However many ways there may be of being alive, it is certain there are vastly more ways of being dead, or rather not alive.” The fear of loss is much greater than the desire to gain.

The more we are exposed to certain experiences, the more the specific connections are strengthened, and the better we learn and remember those experiences. We then use these stored representations of what works when we respond to people and situations. Essentially what we do today is a function of what worked in the past. We adapt to our environment by learning from the consequences of our actions. We do things that we associate with pleasure and avoid things that we associate with pain.

Dr. Ralph Greenspan says: In no sense does the brain work like a computer. Computers record, and computers have things stored in specific places that are stable. Our brains do none of that … We do pattern recognition. Even though we are capable of logic, our brain does not operate by the principles of logic. It operates by selection of pattern recognition. It’s a dynamic network. It’s not an “if-then” logic machine.

ADAPTIVE BEHAVIOR FOR SURVIVAL AND REPRODUCTION

Humans have evolved over the course of a few million years. We evolved in a “Hunter Gatherer” environment where we lived in small tribes for 99% of our time on Earth. Therefore, we must study this lifestyle to help teach us why we think and act in certain ways.

Yes, one basic trait that all individuals share is self-interest. We are interested in protecting our close family and ourselves.

It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe, yet that an advancement in the standard of morality and an increase in the number of well-endowed men will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another.

Fear is our most basic emotion. Fear has evolved to help us anticipate danger and avoid pain. As science writer Rush Dozier writes in Fear Itself: “Fear is fundamental because life is fundamental. If we die, everything else becomes irrelevant.”

What we fear and the strength of our reaction depend on our genes, life experiences, and the specific situation. You may react instinctively at first, but if the situation is one that you’ve experienced before (since our brain is continuously being “rewired” with life experiences), the final reaction may be to calm down.

We don’t like uncertainty or the unknown. We need to categorize, classify, organize, and structure the world. Categorizing ideas and objects helps us to recognize, differentiate and understand. It simplifies life. To understand and control our environment helps us to deal with the future … Finding and recognizing connections between things and events in our environment helps us to learn what does and does not work. Patterns also give us comfort, making our need to find them even more important.

Our brain is wired to perceive before it thinks—to use emotions before reason.

Reputation matters. Do we behave differently when we are watched or when our identities are made public? It pays to be nice when others are watching… A real world setting showed that people nearly trebled the amount of money they put in the psychology department coffee room box when they were watched by a pair of eyes on a poster, compared with a poster with an image of flowers.

So why do smart people do things that interfere with getting the output they’re entitled to? It gets into the habits, and character and temperament, and it really gets into behaving in a rational manner. Not getting in your own way;

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