June 30, 2022
 min read

Mind Macros 23: Expressing anger, nonviolent communication, and statistical bias

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Hello, friend.

Welcome to another issue of Mind Macros - I hope you find something of value.

Food for Thought

1.  The priming process (how we are subconsciously influenced)

"Suppose you volunteered to be a subject in the following experiment. First, the experimenter hands you some word problems and tells you to come and get her when you are finished. The word problems are easy: Just unscramble sets of five words and make sentences using four of them. For example, ‘they her bother see usually’ becomes either ‘they usually see her’ or ‘they usually bother her.’

“A few minutes later, when you have finished the test, you go out to the hallway as instructed. The experimenter is there, but she's engaged in a conversation with someone and isn't making eye contact with you. What do you suppose you'll do? Well, if half the sentences you unscrambled contained words related to rudeness (such as bother, brazen, aggressively), you will probably interrupt the experimenter within a minute or two to say, ‘Hey, I'm finished. What should I do now?’ But if you unscrambled sentences in which the rude words were swapped with words related to politeness (‘they her respect see usually’), the odds are you'll just sit there meekly and wait until the experimenter acknowledges you—ten minutes from now.

“And these effects don't even depend on your consciously reading the words; the same effects can occur when the words are presented subliminally, that is, flashed on a screen for just a few hundredths of a second, too fast for your conscious mind to register them. But some part of the mind does see the words, and it sets in motion behaviors that psychologists can measure." — From The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt

Haidt is describing a psychological phenomenon called priming. Advertisers use priming as a manipulation tool, but various types of therapy utilize the method too. Each of us has a default template that runs in certain situations: When I feel X, I do Y, or when they do X, I feel Y. Using priming as a therapy tool can alter these default thought patterns, thereby building new behavioral pathways.

2. The correct way to express anger

"There is always the possibility to address lingering anger or resentment as long as one does it respectfully. 'You make me angry' or 'You are so weird' is neither respectful nor truthful, because the anger and sense of weirdness do not come from the other person, they come from the story we have made up.

“Instead, there is much power in simply stating how one feels as if it were one's own problem: 'I feel this way when you do that thing.' By respectfully avoiding the other person's fear triggers, and making no accusations, the thorny subject can usually be broached some time after the event without an argument ensuing. So we need wait only long enough to consider our phrasing and take responsibility for our feelings. To wait so long that we never bring up our concerns is likely to do both parties a disservice. Expressing our unhappiness in a sensitive way is one of the most productive things we can do in a relationship." — From Happy by Derren Brown

Brown is touching on a communication style called nonviolent communication (NVC). NVC emphasizes communicating with compassion and helps navigate conflicts in our relationships. Psychologist Marshall Rosenberg is credited with the invention of the method, beginning its development in the late 1960s. Let us now explore how to use nonviolent communication in our many relationships.

Practical Advice

1. The art of nonviolent communication

Rosenberg divides nonviolent communication (NVC) into four components in his book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life:

I. Observations: Observing the situation without judgment.

II. Feelings: Expressing your feelings towards the facts of the observed situation.

III. Needs: Identifying the needs of your feelings and explaining their importance.

IV: Requests: Requesting assistance to meet these needs.

Rosenberg ties these four elements together with an example of a mother who is frustrated with her son for leaving socks lying around:

"(Observations) Felix, when I see two balls of soiled socks under the coffee table and another three next to the TV, (Feelings) I feel irritated because (Needs) I am needing more order in the rooms that we share in common. (Request) Would you be willing to put your socks in your room or in the washing machine?"

Notice the absence of the word “you.” We are not blaming the individual but rather expressing how we feel through the use of the word “I.” Many communication books recommend starting with “I” instead of “you.”

According to Rosenberg, the purpose of NVC is to help us communicate our feelings clearly by observing objectively, identifying feelings, and communicating with compassion. Many of the communication problems we face are a consequence of our moralistic judgments:

"One kind of life-alienating communication is the use of moralistic judgments that imply wrongness or badness on the part of people who don't act in harmony with our values. Such judgments are reflected in language: ‘The problem with you is that you're too selfish.’ ‘She's lazy.’ ‘They're prejudiced.’ ‘It's inappropriate.’ Blame, insults, put-downs, labels, criticism, comparisons, and diagnoses are all forms of judgment.

"The Sufi poet Rumi once wrote, ‘Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing, there is a field. I'll meet you there.’

“Life-alienating communication, however, traps us in a world of ideas about rightness and wrongness—a world of judgments. It is a language rich with words that classify and dichotomize people and their actions. When we speak this language, we judge others and their behavior while preoccupying ourselves with who's good, bad, normal, abnormal, responsible, irresponsible, smart, ignorant, etc."

We immediately go on the defensive when someone accuses us. Providing justifications to shield against the barrage of attacks is a default response that merely ignites arguments.

Using Rosenberg's four-part framework, we could broach topics starting with the observation:

The story I'm telling myself is...

We are telling ourselves a story about what has happened and then reacting to this interpretation.

Next, we express our feelings toward the observed facts:

The story I'm telling myself is that you're not helping around the house because you don't respect me, and that makes me feel angry and frustrated.

We then describe our needs:

Right now, I'm struggling under a heavy workload and would greatly appreciate some help easing it.

We conclude with a request:

Would you be willing to do more to help me, such as doing the dishes and tidying the house before I return home from work, please?

Putting that all together, we get:

The story I'm telling myself is that you're not helping around the house because you don't respect me, and that makes me feel angry and frustrated. Right now, I'm struggling under a heavy workload and would greatly appreciate some help easing it. Would you be willing to do more to help me, such as doing the dishes and tidying the house before I return home from work, please?

2. Statistical bias

"Imagine reaching into an urn that contains seventy white balls and thirty red ones, and plucking out ten mystery balls. Perhaps three of the ten balls will be red, and you'll correctly guess how many red balls total were in the urn. Or perhaps you'll happen to grab four red balls, or some other number. Then you'll probably get the total number wrong. This random error is the cost of incomplete knowledge, and as errors go, it's not so bad. Your estimates won't be incorrect on average, and the more you learn, the smaller your error will tend to be. On the other hand, suppose that the white balls are heavier, and sink to the bottom of the urn. Then your sample may be unrepresentative in a consistent direction. That sort of error is called ‘statistical bias.’

“When your method of learning about the world is biased, learning more may not help. Acquiring more data can even consistently worsen a biased prediction. If you're used to holding knowledge and inquiry in high esteem, this is a scary prospect. If we want to be sure that learning more will help us, rather than making us worse off than we were before, we need to discover and correct for biases in our data."

— From Map and Territory by Eliezer Yudkowsky

The term statistical bias encompasses many biases that distort our conclusions, one common example is selection bias. Note that I’m using the word population here in statistical terms:

Population = a group of individual persons, objects, or items from which samples are taken for statistical measurement

Selection bias describes when an analysis is conducted on only a subset of the total data to draw general conclusions about the population. Not using a true representative of the population skews the resulting conclusions. Cherry-picking is a related example. Cherry-picking refers to selecting evidence that supports one's point and suppressing that which does not.

The survivorship bias also falls under the category of statistical biases. Survivorship bias would occur if we walked into a bookshop, noticed the numerous entrepreneurial biographies, and believed the probability of starting a successful business was high. Because only hugely successful entrepreneurs tend to write books (or have them ghostwritten), the much greater number of failed entrepreneurs remains invisible. This distortion of the success rate leads us to believe in an inflated probability that has no basis in reality.

Quotes to Ponder

1. Alexandra Boutopoulou on using adversity to our advantage:

"They tried to bury us, they didn't know we were seeds."

2. Shakespeare on how the interpretations of events give them meaning:

"There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."

Thank you for reading,

Matthew Vere

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