May 12, 2022
 min read

Mind Macros 16: Thinking in bets, rhythms of focus, and technological distractions

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. Reference group theory

“Sociologists refer to ‘reference group theory’: the idea that in forming our self-identity, we compare ourselves to those in our peer group. Our cognitions, perceptions, attitudes and conceptions of ourselves are all tied in with those to whom we liken or contrast ourselves. Driven as we are to form these self-evaluations, the groups with which we choose to identify will dictate whether we decide we’re doing well or falling short, and are thus a vital component of our feelings of well-being.

​"In other words, it is not what we own that satisfies us but rather what we have in relation to what we feel is possible and attainable for ourselves. That is the tension that causes dissatisfaction. Luxuries beyond that horizon (a billionaire’s fleet of private jets) are not likely to seriously interest us.” — From Happy by Derren Brown

According to reference group theory, we measure our self-worth against others. Brown is correct that these people can be part of our peer group, but the opposite is also true. Many people compare themselves to celebrities, influencers, and models, peer groups to which they do not belong. These comparisons shape the way they feel about their lives. What fulfills them is not what they have but what they have in comparison to their reference group. The theory depicts how these groups shape an individual’s thoughts and behaviors, as well as their social norms.

People say they want to be Elon Musk, but they don’t. What they want is his wealth. They do not want his 100-hour work weeks, responsibilities, failing relationships, and lack of leisure time. They cherry-pick the positive elements while discarding the negative ones. But, life doesn’t work that way. You have to be willing to swap like for like. If you don't know the truth about someone's life, it's easy to fall into this trap of desire. The imagined reality is always much sweeter than the real thing. Even so, $280 billion is too much wealth for most people; that much money is not appealing. Most people just want a $20,000 pay raise or the highest salary in their office. Because of this, people tend to form reference groups based on those closest to them, the lives they observe unfolding daily. Luke Burgis illustrates this in his book Wanting:

“We’re more threatened by people who want the same things as us than by those who don’t. Ask yourself, honestly: whom are you more jealous of? Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world? Or someone in your field, maybe even in your office, who is as competent as you are and works the same amount of hours you do but who has a better title and makes an extra $10,000 per year? It’s probably the second person.”

In Fooled by Randomness, Nassim Taleb writes:

“Psychologists have shown that most people prefer to make $70,000 when others around them are making $60,000 than to make $80,000 when others around them are making $90,000.”

The majority of people just want to earn more than their peers. This makes sense if their reference group is those around them. They don’t care about competing with those making $80,000 in the next neighborhood over; they only care about being the richest in their neighborhood.

2. Technological distractions cause twice the knock to your IQ than smoking Cannabis

“A small study commissioned by Hewlett-Packard looked at the IQ of some of their workers in two situations. At first they tested their IQ when they were not being distracted or interrupted. Then they tested their IQ when they were receiving emails and phone calls. The study found that 'technological distraction'—just getting emails and calls—caused a drop in the workers’ IQ by an average of ten points.

​"To give you a sense of how big that is: in the short term, that’s twice the knock to your IQ that you get when you smoke cannabis. So this suggests, in terms of being able to get your work done, you’d be better off getting stoned at your desk than checking your texts and Facebook messages a lot.” — From Stolen Focus by Johann Hari

The study is from 2005, before the rise of social media. Phone calls and emails were the distractions measured, which occur much less frequently than app notifications.

Although it’s true that the results from a single small study are not conclusive, many more studies have reached similar conclusions despite not directly measuring IQ.

For example, one study from the University of Utah suggests that continuous distraction has similar effects on the brain to a night of lost sleep. And that ‘persistent distractions’ when driving have as adverse an effect on your attention as driving drunk:

“The cognitive neuroscientist Dr. David Strayer at the University of Utah conducted detailed research where he got people to use driving simulators and tracked how safe their driving was when they were distracted by technology—something as simple as their phone receiving texts. It turned out their level of impairment was 'very similar' to if they were drunk.

​"It’s worth dwelling on that. Persistent distractions have as bad an effect on your attention on the road as consuming so much alcohol that you got drunk. The distraction all around us isn’t just annoying, it’s deadly: around one in five car accidents is now due to a distracted driver." — From Stolen Focus by Johann Hari​

Practical Advice

1. Thinking in bets

“No matter how far we get from the familiarity of betting at a poker table or in a casino, our decisions are always bets. We routinely decide among alternatives, put resources at risk, assess the likelihood of different outcomes, and consider what it is that we value. Every decision commits us to some course of action that, by definition, eliminates acting on other alternatives. Not placing a bet on something is, itself, a bet.

"Choosing to go to the movies means that we are choosing to not do all the other things with our time that we might do during that two hours. If we accept a job offer, we are also choosing to foreclose all other alternatives: we aren’t sticking with our current job, or negotiating to get a better deal in our current job, or getting or taking other offers, or changing careers, or taking some time away from work. There is always opportunity cost in choosing one path over others.” — From Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke

Every decision we make is a bet. We bet on a positive outcome with our choices in life rather than with chips at a poker table.

When decisions are viewed as bets, the emphasis shifts from trying to always be right to recognizing the role luck plays in life. We can only make the most informed decisions with the limited information we have. I define ‘best’ here as the decision with the highest probability of producing a favorable result (based on the available data).

Typically, people think of decisions this way:

Good decisions lead to good outcomes, and bad decisions equal bad outcomes.

The best decision we can make with our limited perspective may result in a negative outcome. That doesn't mean we made a bad call, only that we forgot the importance of luck in life. Duke explains:

“Unlike in chess, we can’t simply work backward from the quality of the outcome to determine the quality of our beliefs or decisions. This makes learning from outcomes a pretty haphazard process. A negative outcome could be a signal to go in and examine our decision-making. That outcome could also be due to bad luck, unrelated to our decision, in which case treating that outcome as a signal to change future decisions would be a mistake. A good outcome could signal that we made a good decision. It could also mean that we got lucky, in which case we would be making a mistake to use that outcome as a signal to repeat that decision in the future.”

2. Developing a rhythm of focus

“Studies show that peak physical and mental performance requires a rhythm of exerting and renewing energy—and not just for athletes. In fact, one study found that the best-performing athletes, musicians, chess players, and writers all honed their skills in the same way: by practicing in the morning, in three sessions of sixty to ninety minutes, with breaks in between. Meanwhile, those who took fewer or shorter breaks performed less well.” — From Effortless by Greg Mckeown

Studies show that our performance begins to deteriorate after 90 minutes of sustained focus. The most efficient way to study is to work in 90-minute blocks with 15-minute breaks. I imagine working this way as enabling the ‘continuous peak performance’ cheat code. We’re left with the natural ebb and flow of attentional drift without this kind of rhythm.

This idea is often met with some resistance. People experienced with concentrating for long periods reach the end of the 90-minutes and think, “I don’t need a break; I can just keep working.” You may be able to extend the 90-minutes, but you’ll become increasingly more susceptible to distractions. In addition, skipping the breaks reduces your level of cognitive performance.

Methods like the Pomodoro technique are a great place to start if you struggle with focus. The method was developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s and consists of 25 minutes of work, followed by 5 minutes of rest. You can repeat this cycle as often as required and extend the focus sessions with experience. Explore your workflow, but keep in mind that continuous focus blocks should not exceed 90-minutes.

View my highlights from Effortless

Quotes to Ponder

1. Will Durant on the three areas of human behavior:

“Psychology is a theory of human behavior. Philosophy is an ideal of human behavior. History is a record of human behavior.”

2. Arthur Schopenhauer on the insatiable nature of wealth:

“Wealth is like sea water; the more we drink, the thirstier we become; and the same is true of fame.”

​Thank you for reading,

Matthew Vere

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