Mimesis, Unconscious Imitation

“What happened that night is something I now recognize as disruptive empathy. The cycle of conflict that stems from unchecked mimesis (unconscious imitation)—like that of a debt collector and a debtor, each responding mimetically to the aggression of the other—was derailed. There was an unexpected breaking in of empathy, something that transcended the moment. 

Fear, anxiety, and anger are easily amplified by mimesis. A colleague sends me an email that seems curt or disrespectful, I respond in kind; and passive aggression spreads like wildfire, beyond two people and through an entire organizational culture. 

René Girard uses the example of a handshake gone wrong to illustrate how deep-rooted mimesis is—and how it explains things we usually ascribe to simply being “reactionary.” There’s nothing trivial about a handshake. Say that you extend your hand to me, and I leave you hanging. I don’t imitate your ritual gesture. What happens? You become inhibited and withdraw—probably equally as much, and probably more, than you sensed I did to you. “We suppose that there is nothing more normal, more natural than this reaction, and yet a moment’s reflection will reveal its paradoxical character,” writes Girard. “If I decline to shake your hand, if, in short, I refuse to imitate you, then you are now the one who imitates me, by reproducing my refusal, by copying me instead. Imitation, which usually expresses agreement in this case, now serves to confirm and strengthen disagreement. Once again, in other words, imitation triumphs. Here we see how rigorously, how implacably mutual imitation structures even the simplest human relations.” 

This is how negative mimetic cycles start. We are not condemned to them, though. 

When we make the effort of getting to know people at their core, we reduce the possibility of cheap mimetic interactions. Knowing someone at their core requires sharing and listening to a particular kind of experience: stories of deeply fulfilling action. Knowing and relating to these stories produces empathy and a greater understanding of human behavior. 

A negative mimetic cycle is disrupted when two people, through empathy, stop seeing each other as rivals.”

-Luke Burgis, “Empathy Lessons … from a Hitman.” Arc Digital. June 15, 2021

Entitativity: Thinking and Feeling Together

“Our culture and our institutions tend to fixate on the individual—on his uniqueness, his distinctiveness, his independence from others. In business and education, in public and private life, we emphasize individual competition over joint cooperation. We resist what we consider conformity (at least in its overt, organized form), and we look with suspicion on what we call “groupthink.”

In some measure, this wariness may be justified. Uncritical group thinking can lead to foolish and even disastrous decisions. But the limitations of excessive “cognitive individualism” are becoming increasingly clear as well. Individual cognition is simply not sufficient to meet the challenges of a world in which information is so abundant, expertise is so specialized, and issues are so complex. In this milieu, a single mind laboring on its own is at a distinct disadvantage in solving problems or generating new ideas. Something beyond solo thinking is required—the generation of a state that is entirely natural to us as a species, and yet one that has come to seem quite strange and exotic: the group mind…

…Neither senseless nor supernatural, group thinking is a sophisticated human ability based on a few fundamental mechanisms. First, there’s synchrony: coordinating our actions, including our physical movements, so that they are like the actions of others. Second, there’s shared arousal: participating in a stimulating emotional or physical experience along with others. And third, there’s perspective-taking, in which the group takes turns seeing how the world looks through the eyes of one of its members. The extent to which these mechanisms are activated determines a group’s level of what psychologists call “entitativity”—or, in a catchier formulation, its “groupiness.” A sense of groupiness can be intentionally cultivated. The key lies in creating a certain kind of group experience: real-time encounters in which people act and feel together in close physical proximity.

-Annie Murphy Paul “How Humans Think When They Think As Part of a Group.” Wired. June 15, 2021.

Play Your Own Game

1. Judge less.

At least half the people doing things with money that you disagree with are playing a different game than you are. You probably look just as crazy in their eyes.

2. Figure out what game you’re playing, then play it (and only it).

So few investors do this. Maybe they have a vague idea of their game, but they haven’t clearly defined it. And when they don’t know what game they’re playing, they’re at risk of taking their cues and advice from people playing different games, which can lead to risks they didn’t intend and outcomes they didn’t imagine.

-Morgan Housel, “Play Your Own Game.” Collaborative Fund. May 13, 2021

Zuihitsu: 2021-05

Collecting these little ideas has become a major focus. Here’s this month’s installment.

  1. Small talk is the tax that God extracted for the privilege of human speech.
  2. It is a different skill to communicate an idea than to understand it.
  3. If someone says there was too much, then something about it was unappealing.
  4. Why not? is a terrible reason.
  5. Remember the creative power of paring back.
  6. Narrow intelligence is not on a continuum with general intelligence.
  7. Intelligence is embodied and cannot be located in the brain.
  8. “Psychedelics are illegal not because a loving government is concerned that you may jump out of a third-story window. Psychedelics are illegal because they dissolve opinion structures and culturally laid down models of behaviour and information processing. They open you up to the possibility that everything you know is wrong.”—Terence McKenna
  9. The days of top-down cultural consensus are over.
  10. You are what you think about all day long.—Ralph Waldo Emerson, paraphrased
  11. “When the time is right” means “not now.”
  12. Trust is not transferable.
  13. You only have to be lucky once.
  14. Consensus does not function in spaces of true diversity.
  15. Leadership tends to reenforce accountability and rights.
  16. Business cards are for selling something. Have one? What are you selling?
  17. The iron law of institutions: people care more about their own power within an institution than the total power of that institution.
  18. Elitism can only happen in the context of relationships. If you are better, you need a comparison class.
  19. You were interrupted. What were you going to say?
  20. What did you mean by that?
  21. Any study of Internet culture is basically a study of crazy people.
  22. “Be careful who you pretend to be, because you are who you pretend to be”.—attributed to Kurt Vonnegut
  23. No thaw is forever.
  24. It’s not an apology if it comes with an excuse. It is not a compliment if it comes with a request.
  25. In all things — except love — start with the exit strategy. Prepare for the ending. Almost anything is easier to get into than out of.
  26. The foundation of maturity: Just because it’s not your fault doesn’t mean it’s not your responsibility.
  27. Be strict with yourself and forgiving of others. The reverse is hell for everyone.
  28. Your best response to an insult is “You’re probably right.” Often they are.
  29. If you can avoid seeking approval of others, your power is limitless.
  30. Contemplating the weaknesses of others is easy; contemplating the weaknesses in yourself is hard, but it pays a much higher reward.
  31. Write down one thing you are grateful for each day.
  32. Ignore what others may be thinking of you, because they aren’t.
  33. Always say less than necessary.
  34. Don’t treat people as bad as they are. Treat them as good as you are.
  35. Bad things can happen fast, but almost all good things happen slowly.
  36. If you meet a jerk, overlook them. If you meet jerks everywhere everyday, look deeper into yourself.
  37. All the greatest gains in life — in wealth, relationships, or knowledge —come from the magic of compounding interest — amplifying small steady gains.
  38. You don’t marry a person, you marry a family.
  39. Always give credit, take blame.
  40. Epitaph: when I die, a few people will be sorry, and a couple of people will remember me for several days.
  41. Repair what you helped break. Collective freedom is impossible without interpersonal repair.
  42. You turn yourself into the weapon when you strike someone else—in the end, another way to erase yourself—and so you do that last.—Alexander Chee
  43. In conclusion, there is no conclusion. Things will go on as they always have, getting weirder all the time.—Robert Anton Wilson
  44. Kindness is going soft where the world would make you hard.
  45. Learn a brute force method, acquire intuition as to how to speed it up, and apply it until you get stuck then figure out a new insight.
  46. Try harder to reinvest our environments with the meaning that belligerent materialism has sucked out of them.—Alan Moore
  47. Gell-Mann Amnesia, believing news articles outside expertise even after noticing errors in reporting in one’s area of expertise.
  48. Enjoy yourself. The alternative is to kill yourself. The first option is better, always.
  49. I won’t miss the circus around here, but I might miss some of the clowns.—Former Rep. Steve Stivers (R-OH)
  50. Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.—Mark Twain
  51. It is better to be generally paranoid than to be bureaucratically prepared.
  52. Amateurs talk strategy and professionals talk logistics.
  53. Real success is succeeding, then bombing on a new idea or approach.
  54. Is it performance or is it actual?
  55. The more incompetent one feels, the more eager he is to fight.—Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  56. It is not more surprising to be born twice than once; everything in nature is resurrection.—Voltaire
  57. Caution can also be a risk.
  58. What you resist, persists. —Carl Jung
  59. Help wanted. No complainers, know-it-alls, whiners, sloths, manipulators, roamers, hiders, shirkers, liars, haters, clock watchers, controllers, passive aggressors, pukers, or splitters. Pukers are people that tell other people their troubles and then go about their day. Splitters are people that like to create division and sides.
  60. You can’t use reason to argue someone out of a position that they did not arrive at by reason.
  61. Even the best ideas get brushed aside by real-world data, don’t take it personally.
  62. I can’t stand it. I know you planned it.
  63. Have the right enemies.
  64. Consider the possibility that a visceral defense of the physical, and an accompanying dismissal of the virtual as inferior or escapist, is a result of superuser privileges.
  65. Change your perspective, change yourself.
  66. Everyone and every thing has a story to share, if we are willing and able to hear it.

Metaphor as Mental Model

“In 2011, Stanford researchers Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky published research that showed how the way we talk about crime changes our ideas about what to do about it. They asked two groups of students to read reports about crime in their area – one using a metaphor of crime as a ‘beast’ that was rampaging through the neighbourhood, and one describing crime as a ‘virus’ that had to be stopped. Their research showed that students shown the ‘virus’ metaphor were more likely to favour policy that looked at the root causes of crime, such as social deprivation, whilst students who read the ‘beast’ metaphor story favoured enforcement policies.”

-Matt Locke, “Data isn’t oil, so what is it?” howtomeasureghosts.substack.com. May 15, 2021

Be careful with choosing analogies and metaphors. It guides thought.

Understanding QAnon’s Connection to American Politics, Religion, and Media Consumption

“A nontrivial 15% of Americans agree with the sweeping QAnon allegation that “the government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation,” while the vast majority of Americans (82%) disagree with this statement. Republicans (23%) are significantly more likely than independents (14%) and Democrats (8%) to agree that the government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation.

Similarly, one in five Americans (20%) agree with the statement “There is a storm coming soon that will sweep away the elites in power and restore the rightful leaders,” while a majority (77%) disagree. Nearly three in ten Republicans (28%), compared to 18% of independents and 14% of Democrats, agree with this secondary QAnon conspiracy theory. Trends among demographic groups are similar to those of the core QAnon conspiracy theory.

Fifteen percent of Americans agree that “Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country,” while the vast majority (85%) disagree. Republicans (28%) are twice as likely as independents (13%) and four times as likely as Democrats (7%) to agree that because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence.”

-PRRI Staff, “Understanding QAnon’s Connection to American Politics, Religion, and Media Consumption.” prri.org. May 27, 2021.

I think the most interesting thing about this polling information is in Table 1, Factors Contributing to QAnon Beliefs:

  • being a White/Hispanic who subscribes to evangelical/Catholic religion
  • being a person of color
  • young, less than 30 years of age
  • no college
  • being Republican/Conservative
  • a media diet of Fox News, far-right networks, and not much else
  • lower income
  • resides in a rural area

When you read the quote above, it’s pretty tempting to just leap to the conclusion that 20% of Americans are morons. But, when you look at the list of factors contributing to QAnon beliefs, it’s pretty clear that these beliefs are partly a reaction to limited opportunity. If you look around and notice that you don’t have any prospects, the political and religious belief systems you subscribe to are waning, and there’s media offering the perspective that it is not your fault, but the fault of evil actors that will soon be overthrown, then it’s an attractive belief system. It gives you hope that your circumstances will change and that you’ll be returned to a better, your rightful, place. It’s certainly easier than looking at yourself in the mirror and thinking: “Perhaps, I’ll have to do something to change my environment or myself.”

On one hand, systemic exploitation is a problem. If you are poor, a person of color and/or live in rural area, your environment acts as a serious constraint on your opportunities. And, if you are struggling to make ends meet in a rural community, is it really possible to just move to a urban area that is more expensive and where you don’t have social connections? So, aspects of this are immutable and are a function of historical trends, systems of exploitation and other factors. If these can be changed, it can only be changed on the timescale of decades or longer.

And, there’s a social dimension. People go to churches, subscribe to political ideologies, and so forth because they want to be accepted as part of a group. A shared belief system binds together groups. One of the most common beliefs people have is that the problems they have are caused by someone else, The Other. It’s evident in every kind of X-ism. You can see it in commonly expressed ideas like:

  • Women: can’t live with them, can’t live without them.
  • Poor people are poor because they don’t like to work.
  • Stereotypical views of ethnic groups, e.g., Shylock as an archetype for Jewish people.
  • Rural people are hillbillies.

And, the funny thing is there is truth to the belief. If someone thinks you are a hillbilly, they tacitly don’t think you are as good as they are or their circle of friends and might exclude you from opportunities. So, you are being oppressed. But, at the same time, there’s also some truth to the stereotypes. If you haven’t had the same educational opportunities, then it is likely you don’t have the same kind of skill sets either.

But, what is to be done? Adopting a belief like QAnon is to hope for a savior. Sadly, this savior is never going to come, but perhaps, the hope for one is enough to get through today, which, for some, might just be enough. It is certainly easier than changing our social milieu, our friends, our church and our sense of self. But, as is frequently the case, the harder path is probably the better path. When what you stand for is dead, there’s no choice but to resurrect yourself as someone different.

The Maximum Human Life Span and Conjecture on Step Counts to Get There (15,000 Steps a Day)

“For the study, Timothy Pyrkov, a researcher at a Singapore-based company called Gero, and his colleagues looked at this “pace of aging” in three large cohorts in the U.S., the U.K. and Russia. To evaluate deviations from stable health, they assessed changes in blood cell counts and the daily number of steps taken and analyzed them by age groups.

For both blood cell and step counts, the pattern was the same: as age increased, some factor beyond disease drove a predictable and incremental decline in the body’s ability to return blood cells or gait to a stable level after a disruption. When Pyrkov and his colleagues in Moscow and Buffalo, N.Y., used this predictable pace of decline to determine when resilience would disappear entirely, leading to death, they found a range of 120 to 150 years…

The researchers also found that with age, the body’s response to insults could increasingly range far from a stable normal, requiring more time for recovery. Whitson says that this result makes sense: A healthy young person can produce a rapid physiological response to adjust to fluctuations and restore a personal norm. But in an older person, she says, “everything is just a little bit dampened, a little slower to respond, and you can get overshoots,” such as when an illness brings on big swings in blood pressure.”

-Emily Willingham, “The Maximum Human Life Span Is 150 Years, New Research Estimates
A study counts blood cells and footsteps to predict a hard limit to our longevity
.” Scientific American. May 25, 2021.

Open Questions: How many steps a day are required for optimum fitness and health? Is there also a strength measurement that can be used to add an additional dimension?

The Nature research article is available online. I think the interesting thing about this study is it is another example where step counts are used as a proxy for health. There are recent studies in JAMA, Journal of Sport and Health Science, and others that suggest that increasing step counts lowers overall morbidity and mortality in older adults.

As an N of 1 thought experiment, I checked my daily step count over the last year. I average just over 10,000 steps a day. There are studies that classify step counts in the following way:

  • sedentary category (<5000 steps/day)
  • low active (5000-7499 steps/day),
  • somewhat active (7500-9999 steps/day)
  • active (≥10,000 steps/day)

The same study also makes the following observation: “We also observed that each 1000 steps/day increase in [physical activity] level over the 6-month follow-up was associated with a 0.26-kg (95% CI −0.29 to −0.23) [or just over 0.5 pounds] decrease in weight.”

The math is pretty easy. Let’s suppose 1,000 steps is about half a mile or a kilometer. That’s about ~60-75 calories, depending on intensity, walking or running. Let’s say 6 months is 182 days. So, 60 calories * 182 days = ~11,000 calories. That’s about 3 pounds or a bit over a kilo. Factor in additional urge to eat, and it sounds about right.

So, as a rule of thumb: Increasing step counts by 1,000 will generally reduce your weight by 1 pound a year, as well as your overall risk of morbidity and mortality. There’s probably some point of negative returns. I’ve seen some reports talking about hunter-gatherer groups walking on average around 7 or 8 miles a day, which would roughly be around 14,000 to 16,000 steps / day, which is probably a good benchmark comparison with humanity over an evolutionary time frame rather than comparing our activity with other people in our historical moment. Which I suppose suggests that I, and practically everyone, have some work to do to get our physical activity to an optimum level.

The P-Factor

“‘One of the most interesting origins for much of this aberrant thought comes out of harsh and inconsistent and unpredictable early environments,’ Caspi tells me. ‘Those kinds of experiences that set up the anticipation of bad things happening, or they set up the anticipation of being rejected, they set up the anticipation of being violated, they set up anticipation of constantly being threatened, and things going wrong. Things, you know, being unalterable. And thereby spiraling out of control. So I think a lot of it is about what those early experiences do – they distort our expectations about the future. And that’s why they’re so consequential.’…

…The p-factor might turn out to be nothing more than a statistical artefact. But if there’s some value in its conception, it’s in raising the possibility that targeted measures in childhood – prevention of abuse, effective treatment of mental disorders in parents, and cognitive behavioral therapy lessons in schools – could reduce the prevalence of the most severe mental disorders that diversify and disable throughout a person’s life…”

—Alex Riley, “The seed of suffering.” Aeon. May 14, 2021.

I buy the notion the mental illness has a progression, where our childhood lays the groundwork and our sensitivities combined with later environments can lead to different sequela that emerge from common origins, with inflammation serving as a useful metaphor.

Summer Dresses for People That Wear Bras

Probably the best thing about the Internet is it enables you to get a glimpse of what life is like for people different from you. I rarely have an occasion to contemplate having to wear clothing that isn’t functional in the way I want it to be functional, such as having my breasts spill out, if I happened to have breasts that could spill. The idea of having working pockets in something I am wearing is a given. But, apparently, I live, unknowingly, in a fashion utopia.

Also TrollXChromosomes can be interesting in the same way, if you use Reddit.