The Complexities Of Understanding Each Other

How our brain understands things that exist in the real world is a fascinating and complex process.

Take a telephone, for example.

When you just saw that word in print, your brain went right to work translating nine abstract symbols (including the same one repeated three times), the letters we use to write “telephone,” into a concept that means something to you. And for each of you reading this, the process could be a little different. There’s a very good likelihood you’re picturing a phone. The visual cortex of your brain is supplying you with an image that comes from your real-world experience with phones.

But perhaps you’re thinking of the sound a phone makes, in which case the audio center of your brain has come to life and you’re reimagining the actual sound of a phone.

recent study from the Max Planck Institute found there’s a hierarchy of understanding that activates in the brain when we think of things, going from the concrete at the lowest levels to the abstract at higher levels. It can all get quite complex — even for something relatively simple like a phone.

Imagine what a brain must go through to try to understand another person.

Another study from Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany, tried to unpack that question. The research team found, again, that the brain pulls many threads together to try to understand what another person might be going through. It pulls back clues that come through our senses. But, perhaps most importantly, in many cases it attempts to read the other person’s mind. The research team believes it’s this ability that’s central to social understanding.  “It enables us to develop an individual understanding of others that goes beyond the here and now,” explains researcher Julia Wolf. “This plays a crucial role in building and maintaining long-term relationships.”

In both these cases of understanding, our brains rely on our experience in the real world to create an internal realization in our own brains. The richer those experiences are, the more we have to work with when we build those representations in our mind.

This becomes important when we try to understand how we understand each other. The more real-world experience we have with each other, the more successful we will be when it comes to truly getting into someone else’s head. This only comes from sharing the same physical space and giving our brains something to work with. “All strategies have limited reliability; social cognition is only successful by combining them,” says study co-researcher Sabrina Coninx.

I have talked before about the danger of substituting a virtual world for a physical one when it comes to truly building social bonds. We just weren’t built to do this. What we get through our social media channels is a mere trickle of input compared to what we would get through a real flesh-and-blood interaction.

Worse still, it’s not even an unbiased trickle. It’s been filtered through an algorithm that is trying to interpret what we might be interested in. At best it is stripped of context. At worst, it can be totally misleading.

Despite these worrying limitations, more and more of us are relying on this very unreliable signal to build our own internal representations of reality, especially those involving other people.

Why is this so dangerous? It’s The negative impact of social media is twofold. First it strips us of the context we need to truly understand each other, and then it creates an isolation of understanding. We become ideologically balkanized.

Balkanization is the process through which those that don’t agree with each other become formally isolated from each other. It was first used to refer to the drawing of boundaries between regions (originally in the Balkan peninsula) that were ethnically, politically or religiously different from each other.

Balkanization increasingly relies on internal representations of the “other,” avoiding real world contact that may challenge those representations. The result is a breakdown of trust and understanding across those borders. And it’s this breakdown of trust we should be worried about.

Our ability to reach across boundaries to establish mutually beneficial connections is a vital component in understanding the progress of humans. In fact, in his book “The Rational Optimist,” Matt Ridley convincingly argues that this ability to trade with others is the foundation that has made homo sapiens dominant on this planet. But, to successfully trade and prosper, we have to trust each other. “As a broad generalisation, the more people trust each other in a society, the more prosperous that society is, and trust growth seems to precede income growth,” Ridley explains.

As I said, balkanization is a massive breakdown of trust. In every single instance in the history of humankind, a breakdown of trust leads to a society that regresses rather than advances. But if we take every opportunity to build trust and break down the borders of balkanization, we prosper.

Neuroeconomist Paul Zak, who has called the neurotransmitter oxytocin the “trust molecule,” says, “A 15% increase in the proportion of people in a country who think others are trustworthy, raises income per person by 1% per year for every year thereafter.”

We evolved to function in a world that was messy, organic and, most importantly, physical. Our social mechanisms work best when we keep bumping into each other, whether we want to or not. Technology might be wonderful at making the world more efficient, but it doesn’t do a very good job at making it more human.

Moving Beyond Willful Ignorance

This is not the post I thought I’d be writing today. Two weeks ago, when I started to try to understand willful ignorance, I was mad. I suspect I shared that feeling with many of you. I was tired of the deliberate denial of fact that had consequences for all of us. I was frustrated with anti-masking, anti-vaxxing, anti-climate change and, most of all, anti-science. I was ready to go to war with those I saw in the other camp.

And that, I found out, is exactly the problem. Let me explain.

First, to recap. As I talked about two weeks ago, willful ignorance is a decision based on beliefs, so it’s very difficult – if not impossible – to argue, cajole or inform people out of it. And, as I wrote last week, willful ignorance has some very real and damaging consequences. This post was supposed to talk about what we do about that problem. I intended to find ways to isolate the impact of willful ignorance and minimize its downside. In doing so, I was going to suggest putting up even more walls to separate “us” from “them.”

But the more I researched this and thought about it, the more I realized that that was exactly the wrong approach. Because this recent plague of willful ignorance is many things, but – most of all – it’s one more example of how we love to separate “us” from “them.” And both sides, including mine, are equally guilty of doing this. The problem we have to solve here is not so much to change the way that some people process information (or don’t) in a way we may not agree with. What we have to fix is a monumental breakdown of trust.

Beliefs thrive in a vacuum. In a vacuum, there’s nothing to challenge them. And we have all been forced into a kind of ideological vacuum for the past year and a half. I talked about how our physical world creates a more heterogeneous ideological landscape than our virtual world does. In a normal life, we are constantly rubbing elbows with those of all leanings. And, if we want to function in that life, we have to find a way to get along with them, even if we don’t like them or agree with them. For most of us, that natural and temporary social bonding is something we haven’t had to do much lately.

It’s this lowering of our ideological defence systems that starts to bridge the gaps between us and them. And it also starts pumping oxygen into our ideological vacuums, prying the lids off our air-tight belief systems. It might not have a huge impact, but this doesn’t require a huge impact. A little trust can go a long way.

After World War II, psychologists and sociologists started to pick apart a fundamental question – how did our world go to war with itself? How, in the name of humanity, did the atrocities of the war occur? One of the areas they started to explore with vigour was this fundamental need of humans to sort ourselves into the categories of “us” and “them”.

In the 1970’s, psychologist Henri Tajfel found that we barely need a nudge to start creating in-groups and out-groups. We’ll do it for anything, even something as trivial as which abstract artist, Klee or Kandisky, we prefer. Once sorted on the flimsiest of premises, these groups started showing a strong preference to favour their own group and punish the other. There was no pre-existing animosity between the groups, but in games such as the Banker’s Game, they showed that they would even forego rewards for themselves if it meant depriving the other group of their share.

If we do this for completely arbitrary reasons such as those used by Tajfel, imagine how nasty we can get when the stakes are much higher, such as our own health or the future of the planet.

So, if we naturally sort ourselves into in groups and out groups and our likelihood to consider perspectives other than our own increases the more we’re exposed to those perspectives in a non-hostile environment, how do we start taking down those walls?

Here’s where it gets interesting.

What we need to break down the walls between “us” and “them” is to find another “them” that we can then unite against.

One of the theories about why the US is so polarized now is that with the end of the Cold War, the US lost a common enemy that united “us” in opposition to “them”. Without the USSR, our naturally tendency to categorize ourselves into ingroups and outgroups had no option but to turn inwards. You might think this is hogwash, but before you throw me into the “them” camp, let me tell you about what happened in Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma.

One of the experiments into this ingroup/outgroup phenomenon was conducted by psychologist Muzafer Sherif in the summer of 1954. He and his associates took 22 boys of similar backgrounds (ie they were all white, Protestant and had two parents) to a summer camp at Robbers Cave and randomly divided them into two groups. First, they built team loyalty and then they gradually introduced a competitive environment between the two groups. Predictably, animosity and prejudice soon developed between them.

Sherif and his assistants then introduced a four-day cooling off period and then tried to reduce conflict by mixing the two groups. It didn’t work. In fact, it just made things worse. Things didn’t improve until the two groups were brought together to overcome a common obstacle when the experimenters purposely sabotaged the camp’s water supply. Suddenly, the two groups came together to overcome a bigger challenge. This, by the way, is exactly the same theory behind the process that NASA and Amazon’s Blue Origin uses to build trust in their flight crews.

As I said, when I started this journey, I was squarely in the “us” vs “them” camp. And – to be honest – I’m still fighting my instinct to stay there. But I don’t think that’s the best way forward. I’m hoping that as our world inches towards a better state of normal, everyday life will start to force the camps together and our evolved instincts for cooperation will start to reassert themselves.

I also believe that the past 19 months (and counting) will be a period that sociologists and psychologists will study for years to come, as it’s been an ongoing experiment in human behavior at a scope that may never happen again.

We can certainly hope so.

Why Is Willful Ignorance More Dangerous Now?

In last week’s post, I talked about how the presence of willful ignorance is becoming something we not only have to accept, but also learn how to deal with. In that post, I intimated that the stakes are higher than ever, because willful ignorance can do real damage to our society and our world.

So, if we’ve lived with willful ignorance for our entire history, why is it now especially dangerous? I suspect it’s not so much that willful ignorance has changed, but rather the environment in which we find it.

The world we live in is more complex because it is more connected. But there are two sides to this connection, one in which we’re more connected, and one where we’re further apart than ever before.

Technology Connects Us…

Our world and our society are made of networks. And when it comes to our society, connection creates networks that are more interdependent, leading to complex behaviors and non-linear effects.

We must also realize that our rate of connection is accelerating. The pace of technology has always been governed by Moore’s Law, the tenet that the speed and capability of our computers will double every two years. For almost 60 years, this law has been surprisingly accurate.

What this has meant for our ability to connect digitally is that the number and impact of our connections has also increased exponentially, and it will continue to increase in our future. This creates a much denser and more interconnected network, but it has also created a network that overcomes the naturally self-regulating effects of distance.

For the first time, we can have strong and influential connections with others on the other side of the globe. And, as we forge more connections through technology, we are starting to rely less on our physical connections.

And Drives Us Further Apart

The wear and tear of a life spent bumping into each other in a physical setting tends to smooth out our rougher ideological edges. In face-to-face settings, most of us are willing to moderate our own personal beliefs in order to conform to the rest of the crowd. Exactly 80 years ago, psychologist Solomon Asch showed how willing we were to ignore the evidence of our own eyes in order to conform to the majority opinion of a crowd.

For the vast majority of our history, physical proximity has forced social conformity upon us. It leavens out our own belief structure in order to keep the peace with those closest to us, fulfilling one of our strongest evolutionary urges.

But, thanks to technology, that’s also changing. We are spending more time physically separated but technically connected. Our social conformity mechanisms are being short-circuited by filter bubbles where everyone seems to share our beliefs. This creates something called an availability bias:  the things we see coming through our social media feeds forms our view of what the world must be like, even though statistically it is not representative of reality.

It gives the willfully ignorant the illusion that everyone agrees with them — or, at least, enough people agree with them that it overcomes the urge to conform to the majority opinion.

Ignorance in a Chaotic World

These two things make our world increasingly fragile and subject to what chaos theorists call the Butterfly Effect, where seemingly small things can make massive differences.

It’s this unique nature of our world, which is connected in ways it never has been before, that creates at least three reasons why willful ignorance is now more dangerous than ever:

One: The impact of ignorance can be quickly amplified through social media, causing a Butterfly Effect cascade. Case in point, the falsehood that the U.S. election results weren’t valid, leading to the Capitol insurrection of Jan. 6.

The mechanics of social media that led to this issue are many, and I have cataloged most of them in previous columns: the nastiness that comes from arm’s-length discourse, a rewiring of our morality, and the impact of filter bubbles on our collective thresholds governing anti-social behaviors.

Secondly, and what is probably a bigger cause for concern, the willfully ignorant are very easily consolidated into a power base for politicians willing to play to their beliefs. The far right — and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the far left — has learned this to devastating impact. All you have to do is abandon your predilection for telling the truth so you can help them rationalize their deliberate denial of facts. Do this and you have tribal support that is almost impossible to shake.

The move of populist politicians to use the willfully ignorant as a launch pad for their own purposes further amplifies the Butterfly Effect, ensuring that the previously unimaginable will continue to be the new state of normal.

Finally, there is the third factor: our expanding impact on the physical world. It’s not just our degree of connection that technology is changing exponentially. It’s also the degree of impact we have on our physical world.

For almost our entire time on earth, the world has made us. We have evolved to survive in our physical environment, where we have been subject to the whims of nature.

But now, increasingly, we humans are shaping the nature of the world we live in. Our footprint has an ever-increasing impact on our environment, and that footprint is also increasing exponentially, thanks to technology.

The earth and our ability to survive on it are — unfortunately — now dependent on our stewardship. And that stewardship is particularly susceptible to the impact of willful ignorance. In the area of climate change alone, willful ignorance could — and has — led to events with massive consequences. A recent study estimates that climate change is directly responsible for 5 million deaths a year.

For all these reasons, willful ignorance is now something that can have life and death consequences.

Re-engineering the Workplace

What happens when over 60,000 Microsoft employees are forced to work from home because of a pandemic? Funny you should ask. Microsoft just came out with a large scale study that looks at exactly that question. The good news is that employees feel more included and supported by their managers than ever. But there is bad news as well:

“Our results show that firm-wide remote work caused the collaboration network of workers to become more static and siloed, with fewer bridges between disparate parts. Furthermore, there was a decrease in synchronous communication and an increase in asynchronous communication. Together, these effects may make it harder for employees to acquire and share new information across the network.”

To me, none of this is surprising. On a much smaller scale, we experienced exactly this when we experimented with a virtual workplace a decade ago. In fact, this virtually echoes the pros and cons of a virtual workplace that I have talked about in other previous posts, particularly the two (one, two) that dealt with the concept of “burstiness” – those magical moments of collaborative creativity experienced when a room full of people get “on a roll.”

What this study does do, however, is provide empirical evidence to back up my hunches. There is nothing like a global pandemic to allow the recruitment of a massive sample to study the impact of working from home.

In many, many aspects of our society, COVID was a game changer. It forcefully pushed us along the adoption curve, mandating widescale adoption of technologies that we probably would have been much happier to simply dabble in. The virtual workplace was one of these, but there were others.

Yet this example in particular, because of the breadth of its impact, gives us an insightful glimpse into one particular trend: we are increasingly swapping the ability to physically be together for a virtual connection mediated through technology. The first of these is a huge part of our evolved social strategies that are hundreds of thousands of years in the making. The second is barely a couple of decades old. There are bound to be consequences, both intended and unintended.

In today’s post, I want to take another angle to look at the pros and cons of a virtual workplace – by exploring how music has been made over the past several decades.

Supertramp and Studio Serendipity

My brother-in-law is a walking encyclopedia of music trivia. He put me on to this particular tidbit from one of my favorite bands of the 70’s and 80’s – Supertramp.

The band was in the studio working on their Breakfast in America album. In the corner of the studio, someone was playing a handheld video game during a break in the recording: Mattel’s Football. The game had a distinctive double beep on your fourth down. Roger Hodgson heard this and now that same sound can be heard at the 3:24 mark of The Logical Song, just after the lyric “d-d-digital”.

This is just one example of what I would call “Studio Serendipity.” For every band, every album, every song that was recorded collaboratively in the studio, there are examples like this of creativity that just sprang from people being together. It is an example of that “burstiness” I was talking about in my previous posts.

Billie Eilish and the Virtual Studio

But for this serendipity to even happen, you had to get into a recording studio. And the barriers to doing that were significant. You had to get a record deal – or – if you were going independent, save up enough money to rent a studio.

For the other side of the argument, let’s talk about Billie Eilish. Together with her brother Finneas, these two embody virtual production. We first heard about Billie in 2015 when they recorded Ocean Eyes in a bedroom in the family’s tiny LA Bungalow and uploaded it to SoundCloud. Billie was 14 at the time. The song went viral overnight and it did lead to a record deal, but their breakout album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, was recorded in that same bedroom.

Digital technology dismantled the vertical hierarchy of record labels and democratized the industry. If that hadn’t happened, we might never have heard of Billie Eilish.

The Best of Both Worlds

Choosing between virtual and physical workplaces is not a binary choice. In the two examples I gave, creativity was a hybrid that came from both solitary inspiration and collaborative improvisation. The first thrives in a virtual workplace and the second works best when we’re physically together. There are benefits to both models, and these benefits are non-exclusive.

A hybrid model can give you the best of both worlds, but you have to take into account a number of things that might be a stretch for the typical HR policies  – things like evolutionary psychology, cognition and attentional focus, non-verbal communication strategies and something that neuroscientist Antonio Damasio calls “somatic markers.”  According to Damasio, we think as much with our bodies as we do with our brains.

Our performance in anything is tied to our physical surroundings. And when we are looking to replace a physical workplace with a virtual substitute, we have to appreciate the significance this has on us subconsciously.

Re-engineering Communication

Take communication, for example. We may feel that we have more ways than ever to communicate with our colleagues, including an entire toolbox of digital platforms. But none of them account for this simple fact: the majority of our communication is non-verbal. We communicate with our eyes, our hands, our bodies, our expression and the tone of our voice. Trying to squeeze all this through the trickle of bandwidth that technology provides, even when we have video available, is just going to produce frustration. It is no substitute for being in the same room together, sharing the same circumstances. It would be like trying to race in a car with an engine where only one cylinder was working.

This is perhaps the single biggest drawback to the virtual workplace – this lack of “somatic” connection – the shared physical bond that underlies some much of how we function. When you boil it down, it is the essential ingredient for “burstiness.” And I just don’t think we have a technological substitute for it – not at this point, anyway.

But the same person who discovered burstiness does have one rather counterintuitive suggestion. If we can’t be in the same room together, perhaps we have to “dumb down” the technology we use. Anita Williams Wooley suggests the good, old-fashioned phone call might truly be the next best thing to being there.

Imagine a Pandemic without Technology

As the writer of a weekly post that tends to look at the intersection between human behavior and technology, the past 18 months have been interesting – and by interesting, I mean a twisted ride through gut-wrenching change unlike anything I have ever seen before.

I can’t even narrow it down to 18 months. Before that, there was plenty more that was “unprecedented” – to berrypick a word from my post from a few weeks back. I have now been writing for MediaPost in one place or another for 17 years. My very first post was on August 19, 2004. That was 829 posts ago. If you add the additional posts I’ve done for my own blog – outofmygord.com – I’ve just ticked over 1,100 on my odometer.  That’s a lot of soul searching about technology. And the last several months have still been in a class by themselves.

Now, part of this might be where my own head is at. Believe it or not, I do sometimes try to write something positive. But as soon as my fingers hit the keyboard, things seem to spiral downwards. Every path I take seems to take me somewhere dark. There has been precious little that has sparked optimism in my soul.

Today, for example, prior to writing this, I took three passes at writing something else. Each quickly took a swerve towards impending doom. I’m getting very tired of this. I can only imagine how you feel, reading it.

So I finally decided to try a thought experiment. “What if,” I wondered, “we had gone through the past 17 months without the technology we take for granted? What if there was no Internet, no computers, no mobile devices? What if we had lived through the Pandemic with only the technology we had – say – a hundred years ago, during the global pandemic of the Spanish Flu starting in 1918? Perhaps the best way to determine the sum total contribution of technology is to do it by process of elimination.”

The Cons

Let’s get the negatives out of the way. First, you might say that technology enabled the flood of misinformation and conspiracy theorizing that has been so top-of-mind for us. Well, yes – and no.

Distrust in authority is nothing new. It’s always been there, at one end of a bell curve that spans the attitudes of our society. And nothing brings the outliers of society into global focus faster than a crisis that affects all of us.

There was public pushback against the very first vaccine ever invented; the smallpox vaccine. Now granted, the early method was to rub puss from a cowpox blister into a cut in your skin and hope for the best. But it worked. Smallpox is now a thing of the past.

And, if we are talking about pushback against public health measures, that’s nothing new either. Exactly the same thing happened during the 1918-1919 Pandemic. Here’s one eerily familiar excerpt from a journal article looking at the issue, “Public-gathering bans also exposed tensions about what constituted essential vs. unessential activities. Those forced to close their facilities complained about those allowed to stay open. For example, in New Orleans, municipal public health authorities closed churches but not stores, prompting a protest from one of the city’s Roman Catholic priests.”

What is different, thanks to technology, is that public resistance is so much more apparent than it’s ever been before. And that resistance is coming with faces and names we know attached. People are posting opinions on social media that they would probably never say to you in a face-to-face setting, especially if they knew you disagreed with them. Our public and private discourse is now held at arms-length by technology. Gone are all the moderating effects that come with sharing the same physical space.

The Pros

Try as I might, I couldn’t think of another “con” that technology has brought to the past 17 months. The “pro” list, however, is far too long to cover in this post, so I’ll just mention a few that come immediately to mind.

Let’s begin with the counterpoint to the before-mentioned “Con” – the misinformation factor. While misinformation was definitely spread over the past year and a half, so was reliable, factual information. And for those willing to pay attention to it, it enabled us to find out what we needed to in order to practice public health measures at a speed previously unimagined. Without technology, we would have been slower to act and – perhaps – fewer of us would have acted at all. At worst, in this case technology probably nets out to zero.

But technology also enabled the world to keep functioning, even if it was in a different form. Working from home would have been impossible without it. Commercial engines kept chugging along. Business meetings switched to online platforms. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, as of the writing of this, is over 20% higher than it was before the pandemic. In contrast, if you look at stock market performance over the 1918 – 1919 pandemic, the stock market was almost 32% lower at the end of the third wave as it was at the start of the first. Of course, there are other factors to consider, but I suspect we can thank technology for at least some of that.

It’s easy to point to the negatives that technology brings, but if you consider it as a whole, technology is overwhelmingly a blessing.

What was interesting to me in this thought experiment was how apparent it was that technology keeps the cogs of our society functioning more effectively, but if there is a price to be paid, it typically comes at the cost of our social bonds.

Respecting The Perspective Of Generations

We spend most of our time talking to people who are approximately our age. Our social circle naturally forms from those who were born in the same era as us. We just have a lot more in common with them. And that may not be a good thing. I just turned 60, and one of the things I’m spending more time doing is speaking to people in the generation before me and the generation after me.

Each of us become products of the environment where we grew up. It gives us a perspective that shapes the reality we live in, for good or bad. Sometimes that causes frustrations when we interact with those who grew up in a different generation. We just don’t see the world the same way.

And that’s OK. In fact, as I’ve learned from my intergenerational discussions, it can be tremendously valuable. We just have to accept it for what it is.

Take the generation after me — that of my nieces, nephews, and my own children. Armed with determination, energy, and a belief that the world not only should be better but must be better, they are going forward trying to find the shortest point between today and the tomorrow they’re fighting for. For them, there is not a moment to lose.

And they’re right. The sooner we get there, the better it will be for all of us.

As hard as it might be for them to believe, I was once among them. I remember myself having the righteousness of youth, when what was right and what was wrong was so clearly delineated in my own head. I remember being frustrated with my own parents and grandparents, who seemed so stuck in a world no longer relevant or correct. I remember reprimanding them –seldom patiently — when they said something that was no longer acceptable in the more politically correct world of the 1980s.

But — in the blink of an eye — it’s now some 40 years later. And now, it’s my turn to be corrected.

I accept that. I’m unlearning a lot. I believe the world is a better place than the one I grew up in, so I’m willing to do to do the work necessary to change my perspective. The world is a more tolerant, fairer, more equitable place. It’s a long way from being good enough, but I do believe it’s heading in the right direction. And when I’m corrected, I know the generation that follows me is usually right. I am literally changing my mind — and that’s not easy.

But I’m also learning to value the perspective of the generation that came before me — the one I was once so quick to dismiss. I’m working to understand the environment they grew up in and the life experiences that shaped their reality. What was the context that ground the lens they see life through? If we are willing to understand that, it can teach us a lot.

Recently, I’ve been spending a lot of my time talking to a generation born during or just before WWII in Italy. Many of them came from the South of Italy. Most of them were left with nothing after the war. The lives of their parents — their possessions, their livelihood, their communities, everything they knew — was trampled underfoot as the battle spread up the boot of Italy for two long years, from July 1943 to May 1945.   When the dust and debris finally settled, they emigrated, continuing the greatest diaspora in history, because they had no other choice. You don’t leave home until there is no longer a future there to be imagined, no matter how hard you try.

Before we dismiss the perspectives that come from this generation, we have to take a long moment to appreciate the reality that formed their perspective. It is a reality that most of us have never experienced or even imagined. It is a reality that belongs not only to Italians, but almost every immigrant who left the lives they knew behind.

In my conversations with people who came from this reality, attitudes emerge that definitely don’t always fit well in today’s world. They have learned by hard experience that shit can and does happen. Their trust is hard-won. There is a suspicion of people who come from outside the circle of family and friends. There is a puzzlement with the latest cause that is burning up our social media feed. And yes, there is some cultural baggage that might best be left behind.

But there is also a backbone of courage, a long-simmering determination and a pragmatic view of the future that can be admired, and — if we take the time to listen — should be heeded. While the generation after me is rushing into their life in this world, the generation before me is limping out of it. Both perspectives are enlightening and should be considered. I am stuck in the middle. And I’m finding it’s not a bad place to be, as long as I keep looking both ways.

As any navigator can tell you, it’s much easier to pinpoint your location when you have a few different bearings available. This cross-generational view has long been embedded in Iroquois tradition, where it’s known as the Seven Generation principle: “The thickness of your skin shall be seven spans.”

The saying is commonly interpreted as looking forward to create a sustainable future for seven generations. But indigenous activist Vine Deloria Jr. had a different interpretation: that we must honor and protect the seven generations closest to us. Counting ourselves as one of those, we then look back three generations and forward three. We should make our decision based on a approximately 150-year time span, looking 75 years forward and 75 years back.

In our culture, we take a much shorter view of things. In doing that, we can often lose our bearings.

Why Our Brains Struggle With The Threat Of Data Privacy

It seems contradictory. We don’t want to share our personal data but, according to a recent study reported on by MediaPost’s Laurie Sullivan, we want the brands we trust to know us when we come shopping. It seems paradoxical.

But it’s not — really.  It ties in with the way we’ve always been thinking.

Again, we just have to understand that we really don’t understand how the data ecosystem works — at least, not on an instant and intuitive level. Our brains have no evolved mechanisms that deal with new concepts like data privacy. So we have borrowed other parts of the brain that do exist. Evolutionary biologists call this “exaption.”

For example, the way we deal with brands seems to be the same way we deal with people — and we have tons of experience doing that. Some people we trust. Most people we don’t. For the people we trust, we have no problem sharing something of our selves. In fact, it’s exactly that sharing that nurtures relationships and helps them grow.

It’s different with people we don’t trust. Not only do we not share with them, we work to avoid them, putting physical distance between us and them. We’d cross to the other side of the street to avoid bumping into them.

In a world that was ordered and regulated by proximity, this worked remarkably well. Keeping our enemies at arm’s length generally kept us safe from harm.

Now, of course, distance doesn’t mean the same thing it used to. We now maneuver in a world of data, where proximity and distance have little impact. But our brains don’t know that.

As I said, the brain doesn’t really know how digital data ecosystems work, so it does its best to substitute concepts it has evolved to handle those it doesn’t understand at an intuitive level.

The proxy for distance the brain seems to use is task focus. If we’re trying to do something, everything related to that thing is “near” and everything not relevant to it is “far. But this is an imperfect proxy at best and an outright misleading one at worst.

For example, we will allow our data to be collected in order to complete the task. The task is “near.” In most cases, the data we share has little to do with the task we’re trying to accomplish. It is labelled by the brain as “far” and therefore poses no immediate threat.

It’s a bait and switch tactic that data harvesters have perfected. Our trust-warning systems are not engaged because there are no proximate signs to trigger them. Any potential breaches of trust happen well after the fact – if they happen at all. Most times, we’re simply not aware of where our data goes or what happens to it. All we know is that allowing that data to be collected takes us one step closer to accomplishing our task.

That’s what sometimes happens when we borrow one evolved trait to deal with a new situation:  The fit is not always perfect. Some aspects work, others don’t.

And that is exactly what is happening when we try to deal with the continual erosion of online trust. In the moment, our brain is trying to apply the same mechanisms it uses to assess trust in a physical world. What we don’t realize is that we’re missing the warning signs our brains have evolved to intuitively look for.

We also drag this evolved luggage with us when we’re dealing with our favorite brands. One of the reasons you trust your closest friends is that they know you inside and out. This intimacy is a product of a physical world. It comes from sharing the same space with people.

In the virtual world, we expect the brands we know and love to have this same knowledge of us. It frustrates us when we are treated like a stranger. Think of how you would react if the people you love the most gave you the same treatment.

This jury-rigging of our personal relationship machinery to do double duty for the way we deal with brands may sound far-fetched, but marketing brands have only been around for a few hundred years. That is just not enough time for us to evolve new mechanisms to deal with them.

Yes, the rational, “slow loop” part of our brains can understand brands, but the “fast loop” has no “brand” or “data privacy” modules. It has no choice but to use the functional parts it does have.

As I mentioned in a previous post, there are multiple studies that indicate that it’s these parts of our brain that fire instantly, setting the stage for all the rationalization that will follow. And, as our own neuro-imaging study showed, it seems that the brain treats brands the same way it treats people.

I’ve been watching this intersection between technology and human behaviour for a long time now. More often than not, I see this tendency of the brain to make split-section decisions in environments where it just doesn’t have the proper equipment to make those decisions. When we stop to think about these things, we believe we understand them. And we do, but we had to stop to think. In the vast majority of cases, that’s just not how the brain works.

Media: The Midpoint of the Stories that Connect Us

I’m in the mood for navel gazing: looking inward.

Take the concept of “media,” for instance. Based on the masthead above this post, it’s what this site — and this editorial section — is all about. I’m supposed to be on the “inside” when it comes to media.

But media is also “inside” — quite literally. The word means “middle layer,” so it’s something in between.

There is a nuance here that’s important. Based on the very definition of the word, it’s something equidistant from both ends. And that introduces a concept we in media must think about: We have to meet our audience halfway. We cannot take a unilateral view of our function.

When we talk about media, we have to understand what gets passed through this “middle layer.” Is it information? Well, then we have to decide what information is. Again, the etymology of the word “inform” shows us that informing someone is to “give form to their mind.” But that mind isn’t a blank slate or a lump of clay to be molded as we want. There is already “form” there. And if, through media, we are meeting them halfway, we have to know something about what that form may be.

We come back to this: Media is the midpoint between what we, the tellers,  believe, and what we want our audience to believe. We are looking for the shortest distance between those two points. And, as self-help author Patti Digh wrote, “The shortest distance between two people is a story.”

We understand the world through stories — so media has become the platform for the telling of stories. Stories assume a common bond between the teller and the listener. It puts media squarely in the middle ground that defines its purpose, the point halfway between us. When we are on the receiving end of a story, our medium of choice is the one closest to us, in terms of our beliefs and our world narrative. These media are built on common ideological ground.

And, if we look at a recent study that helps us understand how the brain builds models of the things around us, we begin to understand the complexity that lies within a story.

This study from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences shows that our brains are constantly categorizing the world around us. And if we’re asked to recognize something, our brains have a hierarchy of concepts that it will activate, depending on the situation. The higher you go in the hierarchy, the more parts of your brain that are activated.

For example, if I asked you to imagine a phone ringing, the same auditory centers in your brain that activate when you actually hear the phone would kick into gear and give you a quick and dirty cognitive representation of the sound. But if I asked you to describe what your phone does for you in your life, many more parts of your brain would activate, and you would step up the hierarchy into increasingly abstract concepts that define your phone’s place in your own world. That is where we find the “story” of our phone.

As psychologist Robert Epstein  says in this essay, we do not process a story like a computer. It is not data that we crunch and analyze. Rather, it’s another type of pattern match, between new information and what we already believe to be true.

As I’ve said many times, we have to understand why there is such a wide gap in how we all interpret the world. And the reason can be found in how we process what we take in through our senses.

The immediate sensory interpretation is essentially a quick and dirty pattern match. There would be no evolutionary purpose to store more information than is necessary to quickly categorize something. And the fidelity of that match is just accurate enough to do the job — nothing more.

For example, if I asked you to draw a can of Coca-Cola from memory, how accurate do you think it would be? The answer, proven over and over again, is that it probably wouldn’t look much like the “real thing.”

That’s coming from one sense, but the rest of your senses are just as faulty. You think you know how Coke smells and tastes and feels as you drink it, but these are low fidelity tags that act in a split second to help us recognize the world around us. They don’t have to be exact representations because that would take too much processing power.

But what’s really important to us is our “story” of Coke. That was clearly shown in one of my favorite neuromarketing studies, done at Baylor University by Read Montague.

He and his team reenacted the famous Pepsi Challenge — a blind taste test pitting Coke against Pepsi. But this time, they scanned the participant’s brains while they were drinking. The researchers found that when Coke drinkers didn’t know what they were drinking, only certain areas of their brains activated, and it didn’t really matter if they were drinking Coke or Pepsi.

But when they knew they were drinking Coke, suddenly many more parts of the brain started lighting up, including the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is usually involved in creating our own personal narratives to help us understand our place in the world.

And while the actual can of Coke doesn’t change from person to person, our Story of Coke can be an individual to us as our own fingerprints.

We in the media are in the business of telling stories. This post is a story. Everything we do is a story. Sometimes they successfully connect with others, and sometimes they don’t. But in order to make effective use of the media we chose as a platform, we must remember we can only take a story halfway. On the other end there is our audience, each of whom has their own narratives that define them. Media is the middle ground where those two things connect.

The Split-Second Timing of Brand Trust

Two weeks ago, I talked about how brand trust can erode so quickly and cause so many issues. I intimated that advertising and branding have become decoupled — and advertising might even erode brand trust, leading to a lasting deficit.

Now I think that may be a little too simplistic. Brand trust is a holistic thing — the sum total of many moving parts. Taking advertising in isolation is misleading. Will one social media ad for a brand lead to broken trust? Probably not. But there may be a cumulative effect that we need to be aware of.

In looking at the Edelman Trust Barometer study closer, a very interesting picture emerges. Essentially, the study shows there is a trust crisis. Edelman calls it information bankruptcy.

The slide in trust is probably not surprising. It’s hard to be trusting when you’re afraid, and if there’s one thing the Edelman Barometer shows, it’s that we are globally fearful. Our collective hearts are in our mouths. And when this happens, we are hardwired to respond by lowering our trust and raising our defenses.

But our traditional sources for trusted information — government and media — have also abdicated their responsibilities to provide it. They have instead stoked our fears and leveraged our divides for their own gains. NGOs have suffered the same fate. So, if you can’t trust the news, your leaders or even your local charity, who can you trust?

Apparently, you can trust a corporation. Edelman shows that businesses are now the most trusted organizations in North America. Media, especially social media, is the least trusted institution. I find this profoundly troubling, but I’ll put that aside for a future post. For now, let’s just accept it at face value.

As I said in that previous column, we want to trust brands more than ever. But we don’t trust advertising. This creates a dilemma for the marketer.

This all brings to mind a study I was involved with a little over 10 years ago. Working with Simon Fraser University, we wanted to know how the brain responded to trusted brands. The initial results were fascinating — but unfortunately, we never got the chance to do the follow-up study we intended.

This was an ERP study (event-related potential), where we looked at how the brain responded when we showed brand images as a stimulus. ERP studies are useful to better understand the immediate response of the brain to something — the fast loop I talk so much about — before the slow loop has a chance to kick in and rationalize things.

We know now that what happens in this fast loop really sets the stage for what comes after. It essentially makes up the mind, and then the slow loop adds rational justification for what has already been decided.

What we found was interesting: The way we respond to our favorite brands is very similar to the way we respond to pictures of our favorite people. The first hint of this occurred in just 150 milliseconds, about one-sixth of a second. The next reinforcement was found at 400 milliseconds. In that time, less than half a second in total, our minds were made up. In fact, the mind was basically made up in about the same time it takes to blink an eye.  Everything that followed was just window dressing.

This is the power of trust. It takes a split second for our brains to recognize a situation where it can let its guard down. This sets in motion a chain of neurological events that primes the brain for cooperation and relationship-building. It primes the oxytocin pump and gets it flowing. And this all happens just that quickly.

On the other side, if a brand isn’t trusted, a very different chain of events occurs just as quickly. The brain starts arming itself for protection. Our amygdala starts gearing up. We become suspicious and anxious.

This platform of brand trust — or lack of it — is built up over time. It is part of our sense-making machinery. Our accumulating experience with the brand either adds to our trust or takes it away.

But we must also realize that if we have strong feelings about a brand, one way or the other, it then becomes a belief. And once this happens, the brain works hard to keep that belief in place. It becomes virtually impossible at that point to change minds. This is largely because of the split-second reactions our study uncovered.

This sets very high stakes for marketers today. More than ever, we want to trust brands. But we also search for evidence that this trust is warranted in a very different way. Brand building is the accumulation of experience over all touch points. Each of those touch points has its own trust profile. Personal experience and word of mouth from those we know is the highest. Advertising on social media is one of the lowest.

The marketer’s goal should be to leverage trust-building for the brand in the most effective way possible. Do it correctly, through the right channels, and you have built trust that’s triggered in an eye blink. Screw it up, and you may never get a second chance.

I’m a Fan of Friction

Here in North America, we are waging a war on friction. We use technology like a universal WD-40, spraying it on everything that rubs, squeaks or grinds. We want to move faster, more efficiently, rushing through our to-do list to get to whatever lies beyond it.

We are the culture of “one-click” ordering. We are the people that devour fast food. We relentlessly use apps to make our lives easier — which is our euphemistic way of saying that we want a life with less friction.

Pre-pandemic, I was definitely on board this bandwagon. I, like many of you, always thought friction was a bad thing. I relentlessly hunted efficiency.

This was especially true when I was still in the working world. I started every day with an impossibly long to-do list, and I was always looking for ways to help me work my way through it faster. I believed at the end of my to-do list was the secret of life.

But in the past 14 months, I’ve discovered that it’s friction that might be the secret of life.

There are bushels of newly budding life coaches telling us to be “mindful” and “live in the moment.” But we somehow believe those moments have to all be idyllic walks through a flower garden with those we love most, as the sun filters softly through the trees overhead.

Sometime “in the moment” is looking for sandpaper at Home Depot. Sometimes it’s dropping our coffee as we rush to catch the bus. And sometimes its realizing that you’re sitting next to someone you really don’t like on that five-hour flight to Boston.

All those things are “in the moment,” and maybe — just maybe — that’s what life is all about. Call it friction if you wish, but it’s all those little things we think are annoying until they’re gone.

Friction has some unique physical properties that we tend to overlook as we try to eliminate it. It is, according to one site, “resistance to motion of one object moving relative to another.” It forces us to slow down our motion, whatever direction that motion may be taking us in. And — according to the same site — scientists believe it “is the result of the electromagnetic attraction between charged particles in two touching surfaces.”

Ah hah, so friction is about attraction and our attempts to overcome that attraction! It is about us fighting our social instincts to bond with each other to keep moving to accomplish … what, exactly? Free up time to spend on Facebook? Spend more time playing a game on our phones? Will those things make us happier?

Here’s the other thing about friction. It generates heat. It warms things up. Here in North America, we call it friction. In Denmark, they call it “hygge.”

Denmark is a pretty happy place. In fact, last year it was the second happiest place on earth, according to the United Nations. And a lot of that can be attributed to what the Danish call “hygge,” which roughly translates as “cozy.”

The Danish live for coziness. And yes, the idyllic picture of hygge is spending time in front of the fire in a candlelit cabin, playing a board game with your closest friends. But hygge comes in many forms.

I personally believe that Denmark is an environment that leads to hygge because Denmark is a place that is not afraid of friction. Allow me to explain.

The ultimate way to avoid friction is to be alone. You can’t have “resistance to motion of one object moving relative to another” when there is no other object.

As we emerge from a pandemic that has necessitated removing the objects around us (people) and replacing them with more efficient, less friction-prone substitutes (technology) — whether it’s in our jobs, our daily routines, our shopping trips or our community obligations — we seem to be finding ways to continue to make the world a more efficient place for ourselves.

This is putting us at the center of an optimized universe and ruthlessly eliminating any points of resistance — a life designed by a Silicon Valley engineer. And, more and more often, we find ourselves alone at the center of that universe.

But that’s not how the Danes do it. They have created an environment that leads to bumping into each other. And hygge — with all its warm fuzziness — might just be a product of that environment.  I suspect that might not be by intention. It just worked out that way. But it does seem to work.

For example, Danes spend a lot of time riding the bus. Or riding a bike. Life in Copenhagen is full of bumping along in a meandering trip together to a destination somewhere in the future. The joy is found in the journey, as noted in this Medium post.

It seems to me that life in Denmark, or other perpetually happy countries like Finland, Switzerland, Iceland and Norway, has a lot to do with slowing down and actually embracing societal friction.

We just have to realize that we as a species evolved in an environment filled with friction. And evolution, in its blind wisdom, has made that friction a key part of how we find meaning and happiness. We find hygge when we slow down enough to notice it.