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Week 1 round-up

Please check back here on Monday afternoon of week 2 for the weekly round-up of the previous week.
So hello, everyone. And welcome to the Week One catch up session for The Mind is Flat. So Jess has been looking through your comments this week. Jess, what have people been asking you about? So a lot of the discussion, I think understandably, has centred around, what exactly does it mean to say the mind is flat? What does the mind mean? What does flat mean? Maybe some people are potentially disagreeing with the premise of the course and not totally sure about what you’re saying. I thought maybe it might be good to start with, bearing that in mind, kind of dispelling some of the common misconceptions that keep coming up.
Because I think a lot of the people who say, no, the mind isn’t flat, are actually misunderstanding what you mean when you say, the mind is flat. Flat and deep are these words that are kind of ambiguous and we use a lot in everyday life maybe to mean different things than what you intend. So one thing I think that a lot of people were thinking that you meant was that the mind is flat kind of implies that the mind is simple. But I don’t think you’re saying that, are you? You definitely would still imply that the mind is a complex thing. Yes. I mean, these are all very valid things for people to be raising.
And hopefully, some of them will be the dispelled, will become clearer as the course progresses. But yes, I think it’s a very important point to stress, that the flatness of the mind is a very different kind from its simplicity. So in particular, we’ll see as the course progresses that an awful lot of our behaviour seems to be determined by precedent, by looking back and thinking, well, what did I do in a situation like this when I came across it before? Or what do other people do when they’re in situations like this? And we’re either copying ourselves or we’re copying other people, but not copying in a blind way. We’re copying often in a very clever way, very elaborately thinking through.
Well, if I did that then, then I suppose this situation is a bit like it. So if they’re analogous, I should do this in this situation. So it’s a bit like - and we’ll talk a bit about this later on - it’s a bit like case law. So the legal cases are decided in many aspects of the law by looking back at past cases. There aren’t actually any sort of written laws to refer to. But that doesn’t mean that case law is all over the place, and it doesn’t mean it’s simple. It is incredibly complicated because there are many different precedents to refer to.
And I want therefore people not to fear that they’re under attack, as it were, as complex, sophisticated human beings. In fact, your own history as a person and the people that you interact with and the experiences you have make you who you are. It’s your experiences that make you who you are rather than some mysterious inner landscape. Yeah. That makes sense. And that case analogy is really nice. I think I haven’t heard that before because… the case law analogy. Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. The idea is that there aren’t these fundamental laws that govern your behaviour. But that doesn’t mean that it still can’t be very substantive and meaningful.
And the other thing I was going to bring up, which you kind of almost touched on that, is that the mind being flat doesn’t mean that we can’t be intelligent or think about very complex, deep issues or do incredible things with our minds. No. Which I think a few people have been concerned about. Of course. Unfortunately, whatever terminology you want to use, it’s always inevitably subject to a variety of interpretations. And there’s just no avoiding that. But yes, I think that’s also important to stress. People are spectacularly amazingly intelligent. And I think the way to think about that intelligence to some degree is as a remarkable power of improvisation.
So you plop us down in a situation with a problem in front of us or a social situation to negotiate. And off we go, remarkably being able to do this with amazing fluency. And I think the fact that we’re able to solve so many and varied problems so effectively and so creativity is astounding. And no machine can do that. We can design a machine that can play better chess than we can. But we can’t design a machine to deal with the world better than we can. That’s why I think that human intelligence is spectacular. And it doesn’t achieve it by having a super precise and deep theory of the world.
So I suppose just to sort of add one tiny thing to that thought, you could think, well, if the mind is so good at manipulating the world and interacting with other people and so on, it must have theories a bit like scientific theories which explain how the world works and explain how other people work. It must have a kind of intuitive physics and psychology and perhaps many other things which must be much better than the physics and psychology we actually have worked out and written down in textbooks. But I think actually, that’s completely the wrong perspective. That’s the mind is deep perspective. You’re thinking, ah, inside this somewhere there must be a really profound theory. I wonder what it is.
Rather than thinking, no, that’s not how the mind works at all. The mind is improvising based on its enormous base of experience. So it’s based on examples. It’s not based on deep theory. And I think it’s also important to emphasise that experience fact. You said, it’s improvising based on an enormous amount of experience and knowledge and memories and things. It’s not like we’re just… sometimes I think when you talk about, oh, we’re just making things up on the spot and I think it’s easy to interpret that as like, oh, we’re not using any of our knowledge. We’re just doing whatever the hell we want. Yes.
But actually what you really mean is you’re improvising given a lot of experience and patterns and learned things which does make it a lot more complex. And I think the other thing definitely to emphasise is that, as we’re kind of alluding to here, the mind is flat picture needn’t be a negative one. It needn’t be sort of saying, oh, we’re useless. We’ve got these flat minds. Actually, the idea is we’re kind of managing to navigate all of these difficult scenarios and answer all of these difficult questions without these fundamental depths. And that’s actually an incredibly impressive thing.
And I think that it makes - I don’t know whether you’d agree with this - but it makes us sort of more malleable. And we can change more easily and things, which I think is a positive. No, I do think that’s right. Yeah, I think that sort of sense that we’re, to some degree at least, authors of our own destinies is a very positive aspect to this perspective. Because I think if you think that you have deep personality traits, for example, which make you the way you are, it may feel that those are completely unchangeable and just govern your entire life and always will.
And if you think instead that you’re an improviser, and you’re improvising in a way that stays in character, you don’t drift off in all kinds of random directions. You’re playing a role, and you’re playing the role you’ve played in the past. But as time goes by, you can change. You can lay down new experiences. And with effort and conscious attention, you can start to behave in a different way. And that will lay down new experiences which you can build on in the future. And indeed, people do become different people to some degree. So I think that’s a sort of positive, yeah, a positive element to this view.
You’re not sort of enslaved by some mysterious inner forces that you don’t understand. Yeah. One other thing I was going to bring up, which I think you’ve kind of addressed - but a few people were saying - one of the main points you make this week is that our decisions seem to be a lot more influenced by context and environment than we realised. And so when we think that we’re considering these fundamental preferences, actually we might just be sort of making something up on the spot. And one response that a lot of people have made to that is, but often there are situations where our decisions do seem to be very well thought out.
And we spend a lot of time thinking through them and weighing out the pros and cons and thinking about what we really care about. And in these cases, it really does feel less like we’re making things up, and more like we’re basing these decisions on something much deeper. So could you explain a bit how those decisions that seem much less like they’re being made up and much more like we are consulting something more fundamental, and we are really thinking it through - could you explain a bit how those are compatible with the mind is flat perspective still? Yes. Well, yes. I mean, I think we should be sceptical about our own experience in making difficult decisions.
So, when you’re deciding something difficult, like whether to buy a house or whether to have children, one might spend a lot of time thinking about this. But whether that thinking is really the driving force behind the decision you finally make is by no means obvious. And I’m not saying it’s irrelevant. But I think those decisions are very difficult to rationalise because the different factors just are so utterly unrelated to each other.
If you’re thinking about houses, which is a relatively important but not a vast life and death matter, you’ve got all kinds of complications about paying mortgages and having a certain amount of space and being near to your work and all kinds of things which you’ve no real idea how to add together. And I think that we therefore go through a lot of rehearsing of different reasons. But whether or not those reasons actually… Are the reasons. …add up to an argument that drives us forward, I think often people are… we’re all driven by rather sort of ultimately very simple factors.
For example, people often choose jobs - because of course you can’t possibly know what a job’s going to be like before you do it - so they choose them on the basis of things like, somebody I know does it and likes it. Or it sounds prestigious, or it’s in the family - all sorts of other things - whether it’ll involve helping people. And there will be some decisive factor which might actually more or less wipe out all the other factors. And all kinds of other things that might push against that will be agonised over and thought about. But ultimately, they won’t really matter.
So I think in a world where there are many different forces at work, usually the most important one just bursts through and kind of eliminates everything else. But which one does the bursting through may be very contextually driven. So depending on who you spend your time talking to, you might end up coming to different decisions. So I think the biggest decisions we make are often the ones where you have the least clue how to make them really. And not because we’re daft but because those decisions are intrinsically imponderable challenges that are just extremely difficult to make sense of.
If they were easy, if we could sort of get an accountant to add up some numbers and just tell us what to do, that would be great. But we can’t. Yeah. There are often far too many factors for us to sit down and weigh them all reasonably. And often - it sounds a bit like what you’re saying is that - often actually even the biggest decisions, we do end up making based on an intuitive gut feeling or impression about which is the best. And that is often very kind of randomly… and then we might rationalise that gut feeling after the time and be like, oh, well, it was because I thought through all of these different things.
And I decided that it was the best for these reasons. But actually, maybe it was just, you liked someone who was there or… I mean, I think about the biggest decision I’ve ever made, and it’s true for many people, is having children. And I think, well, why did I decide to do that? Uh, it’s a pretty hard question to answer. And I could make something up. But I don’t think I should take it… I mean, I don’t really have a clue myself. I’m very glad I did though. Yeah. Good to add that. Thank goodness.
Yeah, I was thinking when I chose which college to apply to at university, after the fact, I was like, oh, yeah, it was because they did this subject and this thing. And actually, when I think about it now, I think the main reason I chose it was the person I spoke to there was really nice and friendly. And it gave me a really positive impression. And so… (Agreement from Nick) Anyway, yeah. So maybe some of these decisions are less well thought through than we think. I mean, maybe that’s a nice thing. Maybe that suggests that we don’t need to spend as much time worrying about what we do after all. I don’t know.
Yeah. So finally, do you think you can maybe just… we sort of touched on this at the beginning. But just to try and really clarify things before going on to week two, do you think you could just try and give a one or two or three sentence clear description of what exactly you mean by the mind is flat? Yes. So it really is a contrast to the idea that we have, hidden from view, all sorts of fairly stable, worked out beliefs, desires, motivations, theories perhaps of how the world works and that these things generate and cause us to behave as we do and say the things that we do.
So the idea that there’s this stable set of inner mental states that are kind of hidden from view and lurking just out of our view is, I think, an illusion. Instead, the way we actually understand the world is much more improvised than based on these sort of stable things. And so you can get people, and we will make different choices in different situations. We’ll make different arguments in different situations. And if you tried to say, oh, well, taking all those together, let’s put them all together and see what they add up to, the answer will be, well, not really anything, because we’re not really basing our actions on a consistent set of inner beliefs.
But this hopefully will become clearer as the weeks progress. Yeah. And on that note, one thing I think I’d like to finally say, having looked at some of the comments, is that a huge amount of those comments have been discussing whether the mind is really flat or not, what exactly that means, and objecting to the idea, which is obviously natural given that that’s the name of the course. But I’d actually like to suggest people not get too caught up in what flat means and what deep means and whether the mind is flat, because I think that will become clearer as the course goes on.
And there’s also a lot of genuinely very interesting content about psychology and the fallibility of the human mind that you might miss if you spend all of your time worrying about what flat means. So especially if you’re finding it hard to grapple with that idea or finding yourself disagreeing with it, maybe try setting it aside for the moment and just thinking about the specific content. Would you agree with that, Nick? I mean obviously you want people to think about the idea. But… No, I think that’s right. Yes. Try and focus on some of the, particularly, the experimental demonstrations. And see what you think of those and how you’d interpret them.
And of course, I’m a great believer in the flatness of the mind. And I wouldn’t have the title of the course that I do otherwise. But it’s not a course that’s intending to beat you over the head with that idea. Really, it’s trying to get you to think differently, to explore the way minds work, look at some of the experimental evidence. And if you come to a different interpretation, that’s absolutely fine of course. Yes. The main thing is to be excited about thinking about your mind in a new way. Great. Thanks, Nick. Thank you very much, Jess. And we’ll see you all next week.
We covered a lot of ideas this week! Here’s a brief summary to help you get your head around it all.
There’s an intuitive picture of the mind that most of us have, which looks something like the following:
  • In general, we feel like we can “know our own minds”, and that we understand our reasons for doing certain things. We have certain beliefs, preferences, and values, and these guide our behaviour.
  • There may also be aspects of our thoughts and behaviour that we don’t fully understand – sometimes we might do something and not quite know why. This suggests that the mind also has ‘hidden depths’ – that there are hidden beliefs, values, and desires that guide our behaviour which require deep reflection, probing, and perhaps complex techniques to elicit. But if we only spent enough time exploring our minds, we would eventually come to fully understand them, and all our reasons for doing what we do.
This course challenges this intuitive image of the mind, and presents an alternative picture, where none of these hidden ‘depths’ exist.
  • The mind is much more improvisational than it might seem. In daily life, when faced with a decision, what we do depends a lot on context: the environment around us, what things we happen to remember, what other people are doing.
  • This doesn’t mean we’re entirely hopeless or just guessing. We can appear to have very stable beliefs and desires, and to behave in very stable ways, because we learn from experience, and try to behave in a way that’s consistent with our past selves.
  • There are no hidden depths: no hidden beliefs, values, or desires. There’s no answer to the question “What do I truly believe?” or “What do I really want?”
What “the mind is flat” doesn’t mean:
  • That the mind is simple. The mind is incredibly complex, and can do some incredibly difficult tasks. In fact, a “deep mind” picture would in some ways be simpler – all the brain would have to do in any given situation would be to consult its deep values to answer a question. Integrating all kinds of complex information about the current situation and what we’ve done in the past is a much more complex, difficult task.
  • That the mind is stupid. As explained above, a flat mind has to do a great deal of incredibly complex processing to make sense of everyday life.
We presented a number of different findings from psychological research which seem to imply a “mind is flat” view:
  • Peoples’ decisions and behaviours are highly sensitive to the way information and questions are presented. For example…
  • Many people have an “illusion of understanding” – we think we understand things much better than we actually do, including our own minds. But just because we’re able to provide reasons and explanations for things when asked, doesn’t mean we necessarily have any depth of understanding.
  • Many studies suggest that people are incredibly good at rationalising – providing reasons for – their behaviour after the fact, but that these explanations often don’t actually support why they actually did what they did.
  • For example, people who choose between two faces, when shown the face they didn’t pick, are still perfectly able to provide reasons for their ‘choice.’ (Choice blindness)
  • The ‘knew it all along’ effect – once you know that something has happened, it’s hard to forget – and tempting to think you ‘knew it all along.’
  • We may not even know our own emotions as well as we think.
  • The ‘common-sense’ view says that we infer the emotions of other people from their behaviour, but that we know our own emotions by introspecting – by looking inside our own minds. But psychologists have begun to challenge this.
  • The ‘two-factor model’ of emotions says that emotions are a combination of a physiological response – increased heart rate, say – and your interpretation of that response – “I guess I must be stressed!”
  • Your expectations matter: when given shots of adrenaline, people who were told it would make them feel aroused reacted much more strongly than those who had the same shot but weren’t told anything.
We talked about the implications of all of this for financial decision-making. Even if you’re not especially excited by finance, the way money works does have a huge impact on the world and each of our lives – and ‘the mind is flat’ perspective has worrying implications for finance.
  • If none of us really has an ‘answer’ to how much we value different things, then how do we decide how things get priced?
  • If I don’t know how much to value something, I might look at how much others seem to value it, maybe adjusting a bit based on my knowledge and experience. But what happens if everyone is doing this?
We spoke to Rory Sutherland about how some of these ideas play out in advertising, and how people value different goods. Rory distinguished between the intrinsic value of a good, and the added value that advertising and marketing provide, allowing people to see a product in a way that makes them value it more. He also pointed out that how much we value something isn’t absolute – it depends on what we’re comparing it to. The point here is that how much we value something depends more on how it’s presented and what we’re comparing it to than any deep ‘preferences’ we have.
We also heard from Henry Stott, chairman of Decision Technology, about the difficulties with understanding why people choose to purchase certain products. Traditional research in this area relies on self-reporting: people telling you why they bought what they did. But these self-reports are actually very unreliable – they change a lot depending on how you ask the question, suggesting that often people don’t fully understand their reasons for buying one thing rather than another at all.
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The Mind is Flat: The Shocking Shallowness of Human Psychology

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