Mindful Leadership in the University

Last year I ran a session on “mindful leadership” at a conference for academic leaders in my university. I decided to write this article as a way to help me prepare for the session.

Academia, like many other sectors, is a complex work environment. Although universities vary in terms of their size and objectives, the average university in Canada and the US must simultaneously serve the interests of undergraduate education, graduate education, professional education, basic research, applied research, public policy research, and basic scholarship. A university receives its operating funds from tuition payments, governments, from research funding agencies, and from private donors. Faculty are at the center of this diverse institution, providing the engine of teaching, research, and service. As a result, faculty members may find themselves occasionally struggling to manage these different interests. This article looks at the challenges that faculty members face, paying particular attention to the leadership role that many faculty play. I then explore the possible ways in which mindfulness practice can have a benefit on faculty well-being and productivity.

Challenges of Leadership in the University Setting

Although most work environments have similar challenges and issues (being pulled in different directions, time management, etc.) this article focuses on the challenges that faculty members face when working at and leading the average, mid-sized university. The specific challenges will vary in terms of what role or roles a person is serving in, but let’s first look at challenges that might be common to most faculty members.

Shifting Tasks

“Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration.” — Donald Knuth

I love this quote from Donald Knuth, a professor of computer science, because it encapsulates the main challenge that so many of us have. We want to be on top of things (teaching, Twitter, emails from students, cutting-edge research) but we also want to be on the bottom: digging deeply into a problem and finding a solution.

The average faculty member has, at a minimum, 2–3 very different kinds of jobs. We’re teachers, researchers/scholars, and we also help to run the university. Within these broadly-defined categories, we divide our teaching time between graduate and undergraduate teaching and mentorship. Research involves investigation, applying for grants, reading, investigation, analysis, writing, dissemination. And running the university can make us managers, chairs, deans, and provosts and as such we’re responsible for hiring research staff, hiring other faculty members, and managing budgets.

These three categories require different sets of skills and shifting between them can be a source of stress. In addition, the act of shifting between them will not always go smoothly and this may result in a loss of effectiveness and productivity as the concerns from one category, task, or role bleed into another. Being mindful of the demands of the current task at hand is crucial.

For example, I find it especially difficult to transition after 2–3 hours of leading a seminar or lecture, and I like to have some time to unwind. But many times, I need to schedule a meeting in the afternoon and find that I have only a short amount of time to go from “lecture mode” into “meeting mode. I am still thinking about my lecture when the meeting begins. Even among leaders that have little or no direct teaching requirements, it is common to have to switch from and to very different topics. One day you might start the day answering emails (with multiple topics), a morning meeting on hiring negotiations, a meeting about undergraduate planning, then an hour with your PhD student on a very specific and complex analysis of data for her dissertation research, followed by phone call from the national news outlet asking about the research of your faculty members. Shifting between these tasks can reduce your effectiveness. The cognitive psychology literature refers to this as “set shifting” or “task-shifting”, and research has supported the idea that there is always a cost to shift (Arrington & Logan 2004; Monsell, 2003). These cost will eventually affect how well you do your job and also how you deal with stress. It’s difficult to turn your full attention to helping your student with an analysis when you are also thinking about your department’s budget.

The primary challenge in this area is to be able to work on the task at hand and to be mindful of distractions. Of course they will occur, but through practice, it may be possible to both minimize their impact and also reduce the stress and anxiety associated with the distractions.

Shared Governance

One aspect of academia that sets it apart from many corporate environments is the notion of “shared governance”. Though this term is common (and has been criticized as being somewhat empty,) the general concept is that a university derives its authority from a governing board, but that faculty are also vested in the institutional decision-making process. This means that most universities have a faculty senate that sets academic policy, dean’s level committees that review budgets and programs, and departmental committees that make decisions about promotion and tenure, hiring, and course assignments.

From a leadership perspective, this can mean that as a chair or dean you are always managing personnel, balancing the needs of faculty, students, budgets, senior administrators, and the public image of your university. There may not be a clear answer to the question of “who is the boss?”. Sometimes faculty are asked to assume leadership roles for a set time, and will need to shift from a collegial relationship to a managerial one (then back to a collegial one) for the same people. That is, one day you are colleagues and the next you are his or her supervisor.

The challenge here is to understand that you may be manager, colleague, and friend at the same time. In this case, it’s very helpful to be mindful of how you interact with your colleagues such that your relationship aligns with the appropriate role.

Finding time for research and scholarship

One of the most common complaints or concerns from faculty is that they wish they had more time for research. This is a challenge for faculty as well as leaders. Although a common workload assumes that a faculty member may spend 40% of his or her efforts on research, most faculty report spending most of their time in meetings. However, promotion and tenure is earned primarily through research productivity. Grants are awarded to research productive faculty. That is, most of those meetings are important, but do not lead to promotion and career advancement. This creates a conflict that can cause stress because although 40% is the nominal workload, it may not be enough to be productive. Other aspects of the job, like meetings related to teaching and service, may take up more than their fair share but often feel more immediate.

Academic leaders also need to consider these concerns from a different perspective. For example, as a department chair, I need to balance the needs of faculty to have adequate time for research with the needs of my department to be able to offer the right amount of undergraduate teaching. Being mindful of these concerns and how they come into conflict is an important aspect of university leadership.

Mindfulness and Leadership

I’ve listed three challenges for leaders in an academic setting: switching, shared governance, and finding time for research. There are more, one course, but let’s stick with these. I want to now explain what mindfulness practice is and how it might be cultivated and helpful for academic leaders. That is, how can mindfulness help with these challenges?

The challenge is to create the necessary cognitive space for thinking about research questions and working on research.

What is mindfulness?

A good starting point for this question is a definition that comes from Kabat-Zinn’s work. Mindfulness is an open and receptive attention to, and awareness of what is occurring in the present moment. For example, as I’m writing this article, I am mindful and aware of what I want to say, aware of the sound of the office fan, aware of the time, aware that I am attending to this task and not some other task. I’m also aware that my attention will slip sometimes and I think about some of the challenges I outlined above. Being mindful means acknowledging and being aware but not being critical or judgmental about my occasional wavering. Mindfulness can be defined as a trait or a state. When described as a state, mindfulness is something that is cultivated via mindfulness practice and meditation.

How can mindfulness be practiced?

The best way to practice mindfulness is just to begin right away. Mindfulness can be practiced alone, at home, with a group, or on meditation retreat.

If you are technologically inclined, the Canadian company Interaxon makes a small, portable EEG headband called MUSE that can help develop mindfulness.

The basic practice is one of developing attentional control and awareness by practicing mindfulness meditation. Many people begin with breathing-focused meditation in which you sit (in a chair or on a cushion) close your eyes, relax your shoulders and concentrate on your breath. Your breath is always there, and so you can readily notice how you breath in and out. You notice the moment where your in-breath stops and your out-breath begins. This is a basic and fundamental awareness of what is going on right now. The reason many people start with breathing-focused meditation is that when you notice that your mind begins to wander, you can pull your attention back to your breath. The pulling back is the subtle control that comes from awareness and this is at the heart of the practice.

Benefits of mindfulness to academic leaders

A primary benefit of mindfulness involves learning to be cognitively and emotionally present in the task at hand. This can help with task switching. For example, when you are meeting with a student, being mindful could mean that you bring your attention back to the topic of the meeting (rather than thinking about a paper you have been working on). When you are working on a manuscript, being mindful could mean keeping your attention on the topic of the paragraph and bringing it back from other competing interests. As a researcher and a scientist, there are also benefits as keeping an open mind about collected data and evidence which can help to avoid cognitive pitfalls. In medicine, as well as other fields, this is often taught explicitly as at the “default interventionist” approach in which the decision-maker strives to maintain awareness of her or her assessments and the available evidence in order to avoid heuristic errors (Kahneman, 2011). As a chair or a dean, being fully present could also manifest itself by learning to listen to ideas from many different faculty members and from students who are involved in the shared governance of academia.

Cognitive and clinical psychological research has generally supported the idea that both trait mindfulness and mindfulness meditation are associated with improved performance on several cognitive tasks that underlie the aforementioned challenges to academic leaders. For example, studies have shown benefits to attention (Jha, Krompinger, & Baime, 2007), working memory (Jha, Stanley, Kiyonaga, Wong, & Gelfand, 2010), cognitive flexibility (Greenberg, Reiner, & Meiran, 2012), and affect (Chambers, Lo, & Allen, 2007; Jha et al., 2010). And there have been noted benefits to emotional well-being and behaviour in the workplace as well. This work has shown benefits like stress reduction (Grossman et al., 2004), a reduction to emotional exhaustion (Hulsheger, Alberts, Feinholdt, & Lang, 2013), and increased job satisfaction (Hulsheger et al., 2013).

Given these associated benefits, mindfulness meditation has the potential to facilitate academic leadership by reducing some of what can hurt good leadership (stress, switching costs, cognitive fatigue) and facilitating what might help (improvements in attentional control, better engagement with others).

Conclusions

As I mentioned at the outset, this article was written to help me organize my thoughts and ideas. This is an informal article, not a scientific one. Mindfulness is not a panacea or a secret weapon. Mindfulness will not make you a better leader or a better scientist. Mindful leaders may not always be the best leaders.

But the practice of mindfulness and the cultivation of a mindless state has been shown to reduce stress and improve some basic cognitive tasks that contribute to effective leadership. I find mindfulness meditation to be an important part of my day and an important part of by role as a professor, a teacher, a scientist, and an academic leader.

References

Arrington, C. M., & Logan, G. D. (2004). The Cost of a Voluntary Task Switch. Psychological Science, 15, 610–615.

Chambers, R., Lo, B. C. Y., & Allen, N. B. (2007). The Impact of Intensive Mindfulness Training on Attentional Control, Cognitive Style, and Affect. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 32, 303–322.

Greenberg J., Reiner K., Meiran N. (2012). “Mind the Trap”: mindfulness practice reduces cognitive rigidity. PLoS ONE 7(5): e36206.

Grossman, P., Niemann, L., Schmidt, S., & Walach, H. (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits: A meta-analysis. Journal of psychosomatic research, 57(1), 35–43.

Hülsheger, U. R., Alberts, H. J. E. M., Feinholdt, A., Lang, J. W. B. (2013) Benefits of mindfulness at work: The role of mindfulness in emotion regulation, emotional exhaustion, and job satisfaction. Journal of Applied Psychology, 98,310–325.

Jha, A. P., Krompinger, J., & Baime, M. J. (2007). Mindfulness training modifies subsystems of attention. Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience, 7, 109–119. Jha, A. P., Stanley, E. A., Kiyonaga, A., Wong, L., & Gelfand, L. (2010). Examining the protective effects of mindfulness training on working memory capacity and affective experience. Emotion, 10, 54–64.

Kahneman, (2011). Thinking, fast and slow, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Monsell, S. (2003). Task switching. Trends in cognitive sciences, 7(3), 134–140.

Does This Project Bring Me Joy?

 

I think I have too many research projects going on.

It’s great to be busy, but I’m officially overwhelmed in this area. As a university professor, some of my job is well defined and other parts not so much. My workload is divided into 40% research, 40% teaching, and 20% service. Within each of these, I have some say as to what I can take on. I can teach different classes and volunteer to serve on various committees. But the research component is mine. This is what I really do. This is supposed to be my passion.

So why do I feel overwhelmed in that area? I think I have too many projects going on. And I don’t mean that I have too many studies or am writing too many papers. I’m most certainly not doing that. I mean I have too many different kinds of projects. There are several projects on psychology and aging, projects on the brain electrophysiology and category learning, a project on meditation and wellbeing in lawyers, a project on patient compliance, a projects on distraction from smartphones, plus 4-5 other ideas in development, and at least 10 projects that are most charitable described as “half baked ideas that I had on the way home from a conference”.

Add to this many projects with students that may not quite be in my wheelhouse, but are close and that I’m supervising. And I’ll admit, I have difficulty keeping these things straight. I’m interested in things. But when I look at the list of things, I confess I have a tough time seeing a theme sometimes. And that’s a problem as it means I’m not really fully immersed in any one project. I cease to be an independent and curious scientist and become a mediocre project manager.

Put another way, sometimes I’m not really sure what I do anymore…

So what should I do about this, other than complain on my blog? I have to tidy up my research.

A Research Purge

There is a very popular book called “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up“. I have not read this book, but I have read about this book (and let’s be honest that’s sometimes the best we can do). The essence of the approach is that you should not be hanging on to things that are not bringing you joy. Nostalgia is not joy. Lots of stuff getting in the way is not joy. And so you go though things, one category at a time, and look at each thing and say “does this item spark joy“? If the answer is no, you discard it. I like this idea.

If this works for a home or a room…physical space…then it should work for the mental space of my research projects. So I’m going to try this. I will go through each project and each sub project and say “Does this project bring me joy?” or “Is there joy in trying to discover this?” Honestly, if the answer is “no” or “maybe” why should I work on it? This may mean that I give up on some things and that some possible papers will not get published. But I will not be compelled to carry out research an writing if it is not bringing me joy. Why should I? I suspect I will be more effective as a scientist because I will (hopefully) focus my efforts on several core areas.

The Psychology of the Reset

Why do we like this? Why do people want to cleanse? To reset. To get back to basics? It seems to be a theme in so many pop-psych and self help books. Getting rid of things. A detox or a “digital detox. Getting back to something. I really wonder about this. And although I wonder why we behave this way, I’m not sure that I would not find joy in carrying out a research study on this…I must resist the urge to start another project.

I’m going to pare down. I still need to teach, and supervise, and serve on editorial boards, etc: that’s work. I’m not complaining. I like it. But I want to spend my research time working on projects that will spark joy. Investigating and discovering things that I’m genuinely curious about…curious enough to put in the hours and time to do the research well.

I’d be curious too, to know if others have tried this. Has it worked? Have you become an better scholar and scientists by decluttering your research space?

Thanks for reading and comments are welcome.

Thinking about Vacations

Summer is when most people take a vacation. The weather is usually nice, so there are many options for most people. And of course, children are usually home from school for a few months so families tend to take a vacation during this time. And even people without children probably still have a residual rhythm to the year that was forged during their own childhood and school time. Those early patters leave their mark.

I’m fascinated by how people choose to spend their vacation time. When I was a child, growing up in rural Pennsylvania, we tended to spend most if the summer at home since my mother was a schoolteacher. But we did go away on vacations. They tended to be road trips to stay with family in other areas of the country and we’d take in attractions like the Grand Canyon, the White Mountains in NH or the beach in North Carolina along the way. One year, we visited family in Northern Virginia and spent some time at the Smithsonian Museum. I was 12 and younger siblings were 11 and 8. I remember we had to all wear the same bright yellow Pittsburgh Steelers t-shirt so that my parents would not lose us in the crowds. I remember being embarrassed but don’t remember the crowds.

Crowds are bigger these days

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve really started notice the crowds more. As an example, my famliy and I often spend time on the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario. There is a wonderful national park and fantastic hiking along the Niagara Escarpment. The first year we visited, 2004, the place seemed so remote, so pristine. But ever year, the crowds have steadily increased. So much so that one of the most popular attractions, “the Grotto” has summer restrictions now. It can only be accessed you are given one of the parking passes that are handed out at 7:00am each day. When the passes are gone, the park is closed to anyone without one. The Grotto is magnificent, but hard to enjoy when it’s teeming with people.

IMG_20160801_204000278
A quiet evening on the Bruce Peninsula, looking out over Georgian Bay

The traffic at the big American parks (Yosemite, Smokey mountains, Yellowstone) is legendary and a growing problem, In some parks, campgrounds are so popular that some entrepreneurs have set up permit bots to buy the site permits when they are available and resell.

Personal preference

So what makes some people crave a vacation in a crowded area and others choose solitude? Some people plan for big crowed locations like Disney, Las Vegas, or a music festival like Coachella or Osheaga. And of course, some events are crowded by nature, such as a ball game. I tend to want to avoid crowds (an ideal vacation is winter camping…crowds are low).

Maybe it comes down to what you want to get away from or back to? I work at a large research university and teach classes up to 200 students. With 30,000 students enrolled at Western, I find that I’m always in a crowd. I suppose the last thing I want to do to recharge is be in another crowd. But if you tend to work in a less crowded place, maybe the fun of being in a bigger crowd on the beach or a park is what you enjoy.

Vacations are needed

Regardless of whether you like a crowd, a beach, the city, or solitude, we all need some time to get out of our comfort zone (or sometimes time to get back into it). Project:Time Off tracks research on vacations and the general message is that we’re not doing it enough. I I hope you are able to get away for a few days. Unplug. Reconnect with your friends or family. Or head to a big crowded festival if that’s your thing (I won’t see you there…). Either way, enjoy your vacation!

 

 

 

Taming My Distracted Mind

There is mounting evidence that digital devices, screens, smartphones are a real roadblock to productivity. The very tools that are supposed to make us more productive might be robbing us of that ability.

The Modern Worker

I’m a psychology professor at a large research institution. This means that although I do spend some time teaching in a large lecture hall, mostly I’m in my office writing, reading, doing email, attending meetings, and planning…that is, spending my time like many other modern workers. I’ve been at this for a while and I can still recall a time when not everyone had an email address, when research articles had to be printed, when submitting my work to a journal meant actually mailing four identical copies of the manuscript to the publisher. But nearly all of that is now done on line. I sit at my desk to do email, to read, to analyze data, to access research papers, to grade assignments, comment on student work …everything. And lately this has expanded to me writing and managing email at home, at breakfast on my phone, reading email in a faculty meeting on my phone, in bed on my phone…in the bathroom on my phone. An really…why am I doing my work in the bathroom?

What’s more, everything is being carried out on a device or a browser that is also used for recreation media consumption and social media. I read news, play games, and watch baseball games on my laptop. I watch sports on my laptop and tweet about the game at the the same time.

What this means is that my workstation is essentially also a playstation.

A Tired Mind

Lately I’m finding that a week of desk/computer work leaves my mind feeling like mush. Much more cognitive fatigue that there used to be. I’m less able to focus on my work. I can’t read the whole way through a paper. I’ll start and email and write two lines and then my attention wanders. It did not used to be this way, and it’s not just because I’m getting older (I’m a few weeks shy of 47). I think my work habits have begun to tire me out.

Meditation does help in this regard…I can meditate for 10–15 minutes with little difficulty. And running helps too: I can run for an hour without getting bored and feel refreshed (not tired)

But the minute I’m at my desk I slide right back into the habit of having 10 browser tabs open…each one vying for my attention.  No matter what I try, the second I sit down at my university office or home office to write, I lose my ability to concentrate on my work. It starts with email, and then 10 minutes of local news, maybe twitter….some more email. And back and forth and them I’m still working on the same email.

Some remedies

I’ve started taking steps this week to create some “digital distance” at work. Small habits to try to improve my work experience. None of this is scientific: I’m just trying to retrain. And I’m not so much interested in being more productive…just less tired.

  1. I’m printing more and screen reading less. This goes for articles, student work, and editing my own work. (don’t worry: I’m recycling the paper by printing on the back of other used paper!)
  2. This is big one: After many years of running everything through a browser and Gmail, I’m switching back to an actual email client (Spark Mail App for mac). That way, when I decide to do email, I’m ONLY doing email and not tempted to read FB, Twitter, news, etc. in another tab. Gmail or Outlook webmail was killing me for that because “hey you already have Chrome open, just leave a tab open for twitter”. So Chrome is closed when I’m responding to email.
  3. My lab and my graduate students are now on Slack (not email) so that when I’m doing project management, research planning, and advising, I can concentrate on that and nothing else. I close can Chrome and email
  4. I’ve turned all the notifications off on my smart phone, except texts/calls from my wife & kids, and their school.
  5. No posting to social media in the morning, because I’ll just be thinking about whether not there are hits. This is another big one. I’ll post something at breakfast or comment and then keep checking.I’ve already completely deactivated Facebook to make this even easier. My students and I are even carrying out a research study on this specific topic (more detail on that later..when the data are in).

I’m curious if others are finding similar things. Do you think that your productivity has waned? Do you think that working all day on a screen is reducing your ability to concentrate? Have you taken steps to correct this or retrain your mind? I’d be interested in hearing.

Le biais de confirmation: The story of the Bilingual Advantage 

The newest salvo in the psychology’s “reproducibility crisis” is not in social psychology, but is hitting the field of psycholinguistics. In this case, the evidence is mounting that the so called “bilingualism advantage” may not be an advantage after all. Worse, it may something like the Mozart Effect for psycholinguistics…That is, an effect that is plausible and desirable enough (and marketable) that we all believe it and ignore reputable counter evidence.

Full disclose, our children have attended a French Immersion school, and as we live in a country with two official languages, I think it’s important to know some of both. But I’m not bilingual myself (6 years of German in high school and university, but I no longer speak it). So I like the idea of a second language. And I like the idea of the bilingual advantage too. I’ve assumed that this advantage is present and measurable, but now I’m not so sure. This controversy is worth paying attention to.

The Bilingual Advantage

The story goes like this. People who speak two languages fluently are constantly switching between them. They have to inhibit one language in order to respond in the other. And because switching and inhibition are two of most well-known and well-studied aspects of the cognitive control system known as the executive functions, it’s assumed that bilinguals would be especially adept at these behaviours. And if they are good and switching and inhibiting within language, they may have a general executive functioning advantage for behaviours as well.

Ellen Bialystok at York University and others have investigated this claim and have produced quite a lot of data in favour of the idea that general executive functioning abilities are superior in bilinguals relative to English speaking persons. The advantages might also persist into old age and the may guard against cognitive decline in aging. Dr. Bialystock’s work is extensive has relied on many different measures and she’s arguably one of the towing figures in psycholinguistics.

Does this work Generalize?

An article in Feb 2016 in The Atlantic has suggested that recent attempts to replicate and generalize some of this work have not been successful. Specifically, the work of  Kenneth Paap, at San Francisco State has argued that there is no general advantage for bilinguals and that any advantages are either very local (confined to language) or are artifacts of small sample size studies with idiosyncratic groups. Systematic attempts to replicate the work have not been successful. Reviews of published studies found evidence of publication bias. And other psychologists have found the same thing. In other words, according to Paap, whatever advantages these groups might have shown in early studies, they can’t really be attributed to bilingualism.

The Battle Lines

By all accounts, this is a showdown of epic proportions. According to the Atlantic article, Paap has thrown the gauntlet down and said  (paraphrased) “Let’s work together, register the studies, collect good data, and get to the bottom of it.” Even a co-author of one of the most well-cited bilingualism advantage papers is now questioning the work. My colleague at Western, J. Bruce Morton, is quoted as saying:

“If people were really committed to getting to the bottom of this, we’d get together, pool our resources, study it, and that would be the end of the issue. The fact that people won’t do that suggest to me that there are those who are profiting from either perpetuating the myth or the criticism.”

But proponents of the advantage are not interested in this, suggesting that the Paap and others are not properly controlling their work and also pointing to their recent work with brain imaging (which gets away from the less than idea executive functioning tasks but also could fall prey to the Seductive allure of Neuroscience…which is another topic for another day).

This is, I think, a real scientific controversy. I think we should get to the bottom of it. If the advantage is robust and general, then it’s going to show up in these newer studies. If it’s not, then it becomes an outmoded idea (like so many in psychology and in science). That’s progress. There is the risk that inherent appeal of the advantage will allow it to persist even if the science does not back it it, and that’s problematic.

Cognitive Bias and Guns in America

I posed the following question this week (Oct. of 2015)  to the students in my 3rd year Psychology of Thinking class.

“How many of you think that the US is a dangerous place to visit?”

About 70% of the students raised their hands. This is surprising to me because although I live and work in Canada, and I’m a Canadian citizen, I grew up in the US; my family still lives there and I think it’s very safe place to visit. Most students justified their answer by referring to school shootings, gun violence, and problems with American police. So although none of these students had even actually encountered violence in the US, they were thinking about it because it has been in the news.

Cognitive Bias

This is a clear example of a cognitive bias known as the Availability Heuristic. The idea, originally proposed in the early 1970s by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky is that people generally make judgments and decisions on the basis of relevant memories that they retrieve and that are thus available at the time that the assessment or judgement is made. In other words, when you make a judgment about a likelihood of occurrence, you search your memory and make your decision on the basis of the available evidence. Most of the time, this heuristic produces useful and correct evidence. But in other cases, the available evidence may not correspond exactly to evidence in the world. We typically overestimate the likelihood of shark attacks and random violence because these low probability events are highly salient and available in memory.

Another cognitive bias (also from Kahneman and Tversky) is known as the Representativeness Heuristic. This is the general tendency to treat individuals as representative of the the entire category. For example, if I have a concept of American gun owners as being violent (based on what I’ve read or seen in the news), I might infer that each individual American is a violent gun owner. I’d be making a generalization or a stereotype and this can lead to bias. As with Availability, the Representativeness Heuristic arrises out of the natural tendency of humans to generalize information. Most of the time, this heuristic produces useful and correct evidence. But in other cases, the representative evidence may not correspond exactly to individual evidences in the world.

The Gun Debate in the US

I’ve been thinking about this a great deal as the US engages in yet another debate about gun violence and gun control. It’s been reported widely that the US has the highest rate of private gun ownership in the world, and also has an extraordinary rate of gun violence relative to other counties. These are facts. Of course, we all know that “correlation does not equal causation” but many strong correlations often derive from a causal link.

So why to do we continue to argue about this? One problem that I rarely see being discussed is that many of us have limited experience with guns and/or violence and have to rely on what we know from memory and from external sources and we’re susceptible to cognitive biases as a result.

For example, I’m not a gun owner any more, but many of my friends and family are, and these people are some of the most responsible gun owners I know. They own firearms for sport and also for personal protection and in some cases, even run successful training courses for people to learn about gun safety. From the perspective of a responsible and passionate gun owner, it’s quite true that the problem is not guns but the bad people who use them to kill. After all, if you are safe with guns and all your friends and family are too, then you base your judgements on the available evidence: gun owners are safe and so gun violence is not a problem of guns and their owners, but a problem of criminals with bad intentions.

But what about non gun owners?  Although I do not own a gun, I feel safe at home. My personal freedoms are not infringed and I recognize that illegal guns are the problem. And so I generalize this experience and I may have difficulty understanding why people would need a gun in the first place whether for personal protection or for a vaguely defined “protection from tyranny”. From our perspective it’s far more sensible to focus on reducing the number of guns. After all we don’t have one, we don’t believe we need one, so we generalize to assume that anyone who owns firearms might be suspect or irrationally fearful.

In each case, we are relying on cognitive biases to infer things about others and about guns. These things and inferences may be stifling the debate and interfering with our ability to find a solution

How do we overcome this?

It’s not easy to overcome a bias, because these cognitive heuristics are deeply engrained and indeed arise as a necessary function of how the mind operates. They are adaptive and useful. But occasionally we need to override a bias.

Here are some proposals, but each involves taking the perspective of someone on the other side of this debate.

  1. Those of us on the left of the debate (liberals, proponents of gun regulations) should try to recognize that nearly all gun enthusiasts are safe, law abiding people who are responsible with their guns. Seen through their eyes, the problem is with irresponsible owners. An attempt to place restrictions on their legally guns activates another cognitive bias known as the endowment effect  in which people place high value on that which they already possess, and the prospect of losing this is aversive.
  2. Those on the right (gun owners) should consider the debate from the perspective of non gun owners and might also consider that proposals to regulate firearms are not attempt to seize or ban guns but rather attempts to address one aspect of the problem: the sheer number of guns in the US, all of which could potentially be used for illegal purposes. We’re not trying to ban guns, but rather to regulate the and encourage greater responsibility in their use.

I think these things are important to deal with. The US really does have a problem with gun violence. It’s disproportionally high. Solutions to this problem must recognize the reality of the large number of guns, the perspective of non gun owners, and the perspectives of gun owners. We’re not going to do this by simply arguing for one side. We’re only going to do this by first recognizing these cognitive biases and them attempting to overcome them in ways that search for common ground.

As always: comments are welcome.

The Way the Music Died

I almost never listen to music any more. That’s a sad state of affairs for anyone, but strikes me as a nearly complete disconnect from my former self.

I’m an amateur musician.

I’ve played music since I was about 10 or so..I’m 45 now. First the trombone, then pipe organ lessons at age 12 (two things that failed to endear me to girls), piano, music theory in high school (including a good score on the AP exam), glee club, college choir. Not to mention electric bass beginning around 15 and continuing to this day. Years of playing rock and roll, blues, modern rock (covers and original songs) in bars and clubs.

I used to love listening.

At various times I’ve had decent CD collection, LPs, cassettes, thousands of digital files. I packed up CDs when I moved from Lewisburg to Buffalo. Merged the collection with my wife’s cooler and better collection. We packed it to Champaign-Urbana and then here to London. Ripped the entire thing to MP3, and then again at a better rate. Have consumed walkman, portable CD players, original iPods, iPhones and Android devices. Many of these devices still litter the bottoms of drawers and boxes in our house.

But where did the love go?

But in the last few years I’ve just nearly stopped listening to music. Why? I suppose there were practical reasons. Could not really blast The Pixies when a 2 year old was taking a nap. And I’ve taken on other hobbies, responsibilities, wasting time on FaceBook. And I’ve become a lover of silence and stillness.

But I miss…really miss… the pleasure of just listening to music.

What’s bothering me is that I don’t know what to listen to any more. Heck, I don’t even know what genre (s) of music I like anymore. I think it was the streaming that killed it for me. Streaming is the main way to listen. But just like the mp3 nearly killed CD and LP’s, Streaming has killed digital downloads. There is just so much content on streaming services. I have Google’s Play Unlimited, but we’ve used Grooveshark, Songza, and Spotify and a lot of YouTube.

So I never even know where to begin. Recorded music was once a distinct and quantifiable pleasure for me and now it seems like an infinite stream of background.

There is no investment in this for me. None. It’s always on. It never ends. The recommendations are either too familiar or too foreign. I feel like it’s a lifetime of trying and sampling and no room for commitment. When i do listen, I just around haphazardly. It feels empty. It’s killing my love of music because there is really nothing to love. I fully admit that some of this is my problem. I’m not using the streaming services the way I should. I’m not following people and listening to their recommendations and playlists.

I’m not ready to let it go.

So I’m trying to figure out how to get back into music listening, but that’s so hard to do. I bought a used turntable a few years ago, which is fun. But that means I need to build up my record collection. I’m considering a new/used CD player and starting to build that up again. But that has its downsides too: I don’t really want boxes of CDs taking up space. Perhaps I should just embrace a streaming service and just set aside time for real listening. Do others feel this way? Do you love streaming? Has it enhanced your music listening pleasure or has it detracted.