This is why I don’t play Wack-A-Mole

10 minute read

In 1991, a study was held among college students that showed that college students greatly overestimated how much their fellow students drink. You might think that everybody was just bragging about their drinking behaviour when you hear this, but actually there is a more obvious explanation. Just take a look at the following figure. In this example only 33% of students drinks often, but everybody in this group thinks that this number is actually 50%. The reason for this inconsistency is that the social connections between people are not distributed homogeneous.

Screenshot 2019-05-30 at 13.56.48
The students in this picture overestimate how much their fellow students drink

When we assume that some event, like drinking, takes place in the population on average as often as we see it happening, we can easily get ideas that are very far off from reality.

In network science the specific distribution of social connections between people is very important. If there are too few connections between people, ideas cannot spread. If there are too many connections, people are not able to get out of their existing frame of mind. “Unity without uniformity”, “Diversity without division”, “Out of many, one”. Different cultures came to discover the same important fact: ideas need to spread in a healthy society, and in order for that to happen you need the right amount of in-group and out-group connections between people.

Different distributions of social connections lead to a different capacity of the collective to develop new ideasThe cool thing however, is that a person needs only one or two close friends that are really into an idea, in order to incorporate this idea into their own thinking. In network science this is known as the ‘contamination threshold’ (see “the wisdom and the madness of crowds” to learn more about this concept). It comes down to that the idea of a single person can quickly spread throughout an entire population, if he does net let himself be persuaded by some other idea.

So if our ideas can have this much influence on the people we interact with on a day-to-day basis, we should give a long and hard think about the ideas that are driving our actions.

So what is the process that shapes our ideas and actions? As a child we just follow our every need to gain pleasure or avoid discomfort. ‘I want a cookie and I’ll cry until I get it!’ but also ‘I wont steal a cookie from the jar, because them my mom will punish me’. As we grow older, and we enter the adolescent stage, this behaviour might distil into some generic principles that have proven themselves efficient in avoiding discomfort and following pleasure (e.g. ‘stealing is bad’). Not everybody makes it all the way from there to adulthood though, which is living for an actual set of values, an actual morality. And it is this morality what will give our lives meaning in the long run.

Patricia sure hopes her mommy won’t find out about this. But god, those cookies are delicious…

The real difference between pleasure-inducing principles and full-grown values is that values are unconditional. An adult that hold the value of honesty high will refrain from lying, or correct himself after he realised he has been dishonest, because he knows that it is the right thing to do. A person that has holds the mere principle of honesty high will do the same because he fears the consequences of his lying if he would get caught. Instead of being honest because it’s the right thing to do, he will avoid lying as a means to satisfy some need (or avoid some discomfort) in this very moment.

And let’s be frank. Being stuck in the adolescent stage sucks. Everything you do, every principle you follow to guid your actions throughout the day, is aimed at satisfying one need after the other. Unfortunately our needs pop up like a game of Wack-A-Mole. It is to wack one need in the head, only to realise that another need has popped up: Eating ice-cream *WACK* masturbating *WACK* having a heated discussion on some obscure internet forum *WACK*.

And there is an important reason that chasing one need after the other, that playing this endless game of Wack-a-Mole, is as pointless as they come.

Our brain has evolved in such a way that we should never be permanently depressed or permanently satisfied with our life. Adaptation level theory shows that people from all cultures and social strata pretty much always report a happiness level of 7 out of 10. Working as a supermarket cashier? 7. Saving lives in the hospital surgery rooms? 7. Being the president of the United States? 7. (Alright, maybe a 6. I expect Trumps ego to have finally worked out that there is no higher position in the hierarchy left to feed his ego on…) Working for 1 dollar a year in a shoe factory in Bangladesh? That’s right, 7. Even big life events such as marriage or getting children have very little lasting effect on our self reported life satisfaction, as we can see in the next figure.

Our brain adapts our happiness baseline to our current life situation. And this makes total sense evolutionary. Our emotions are completely useless if we’re always happy (we get eaten) or always sad (if we don’t get happy feelings as reward for good food, sleep or sex why bother doing these things?). Think about it, a content caveman will have a very slim chance of surviving. Instead, his brother who was feeling unsatisfied and collected some extra food for the coming week will stand a better chance. From a happiness perspective, the only thing that we accomplished through science by improving our health and life standards, is that we shifted our suffering from physical to psychological pain. The total amount of suffering that we experience has never really changed though.

After big life events such as marriage, our self reported life satisfaction normalizes back to a baseline value within a few years.

The idea that satisfying all our needs will somehow make us happy is therefore a powerful illusion. Of course, we all need sleep, food and appropriate levels of rest. But the added value of fulfilling the next, and the next, and the next need quickly reduces to zero. The adolescent drive behind our actions, the game of Wack-A-Mole, will never lead to lasting happiness. It will never give us a feeling of living a fulfilling life. This insight is something that every person discovers at some point in their life, on their way to adulthood. It is an insight that will lead us to choose a value-based living over living for quick and easy pleasures as we develop. It is the reason that a person might for example learn to prefer a more expensive sustainable fashion brand over the latest fast fashion from H&M.

“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny”
Mahatma Gandhi

At this point it is important to note that values cannot be forced upon a person. You cannot tell somebody that he should hold your value high, “or else”. This would degenerate the value into a principle because this would make it conditional. No matter how good your values or your intentions are, they need to be voluntarily adopted by the other person.

Some of you might have felt some resistance when you read the above sentence about sustainable fashion. ‘Are you judging me? I can make my own choices, thank you very much.’ And you are right to think that. I cannot possibly tell you what your values should be. Only you can decide that for yourself.

Nature Painting by Edna Carla Stradioto.

It is because of this that I think that ‘leading by example’ is a hugely underestimated concept. When you follow your own values, no matter the direct discomfort that this might introduce into your life on the short-term, you demonstrate that you hold your values high for the simple reason that they are the right thing to do. This might confuse someone who hasn’t grown past the ‘adolescence’ stage. “Why didn’t you take that 100 euros out of the wallet you just found on the street? There is nobody around to punish you for it.” And it is exactly by demonstrating that you are consciously sacrificing direct pleasure for some higher value, you will attract the attention of those adolescents and act as a bridge for them to some higher value. Nietzsche regarded this living for your own highest values as the ultimate human goal and described it in the following words:

“My formula for greatness in a human being, is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary […] but love it.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche

But I should not neglect to mention the following. Just as it is impossible to force values upon another person, it is also impossible to not influence the people around you when you are living in the image of your values. And this is because of the following.

If I have learned one thing from my past two years of daily meditation practice. From reserving some time each and every day to sit on a pillow, just observing my bodily sensations, feelings and thoughts. It is that I learned that we are not the thinker of our thoughts. We do not control what thought will pop up next. And it’s obvious when you stop to think about it. Can you know what your next thought is going to be, without already thinking it? Instead of being constructed by us in a controlled manner, our thoughts arise spontaneously. But exactly which thoughts pops up in every moment is fueled by our direct environment. Maybe we see someone doing a good deed, or we hear someone talking angrily, or perhaps we are just looking at a tree waiving in the wind. But whatever we see all around us is the direct cause for any thought that might pop up into our head next.

Screenshot 2019-06-03 at 22.28.48.png
The Battleground of Morality by Jessica Matier

And I realise I’m cutting corners here a bit, but the only conclusion that I can take from this is the following. We cannot indefinitely observe people around us living strong values without at some point taking these values on as our own. Ideas are contagious. And this is exactly why the network science theory I started this blog about works so well in practice.

Through living good values we can be confident that we are making the world a better place, regardless of the little slip-ups we will make from time to time. We should worry less about the consequences of our behaviour today, and more about the values that drive your behaviour in the years to come!

The only way to make the world a better place is through living better values. And determining what values you hold high is not an easy task. It’s the path of self-development that we all should take. I would go as far as to state that every human being is ethically obliged to practice and cultivate self-love and self-care. But more about that in a later blog.

“No matter how much wealth is generated in the world, the quality of our lives is determined by the quality of our character, and the quality of our character is determined by our relationship to our pain.”
– Mark Manson

3 thoughts on “This is why I don’t play Wack-A-Mole

  1. Interesting and clever as always! thank you Geronimo! we miss you a lot here in Alicante. Best regards


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