Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Which world do you live in?

Most readers of this blog are likely to be familiar with the Stimulus-Belief-Response model. The first component, Stimulus, is defined as any data that we choose to pay attention to. We then process that data by applying a Belief to it, which then leads to a Response - either an action we take or a feeling we have.

So it would appear that the stimulus is where all our mental activity of belief-processing starts. Over time, I’ve seen that the kind of stimuli you feed your mind has a large influence on your mental activity, and by extension, your responses, which in turn determine the results you create in your life. I especially remember an interesting conversation I had many years ago with a friend of mine in Detroit. He had just mentioned that he was completely terrified by crime levels in downtown, and as we talked, it turned out that he had been avidly watching the 6 o’clock TV news every day, especially focusing on the crime reports, and had convinced himself that setting foot anywhere in downtown was a prescription for instant grievous bodily harm. Now I had been living in the same metropolitan area for a number of years, blissfully unaware of this sinister reputation, but managing just fine - and the difference seemed to revolve around my complete lack of appetite for anything on TV, let alone the evening news.

I have also been astonished every time I encounter a sphere of human activity I have been hitherto oblivious to. A few months ago, we were looking into healthier flooring options, and almost drowned in a dizzying ocean of hardwood, engineered wood, laminates, ceramic tiles, travertine, etc – each with dozens of manufacturers, hundreds of variations, and thousands of combinations. That is probably true of everything to do with house construction – just look at a Home Depot. More recently, I wanted to get my kids into biking – and barely scratched the surface of that sport and all it entails. Tennis? Same thing. Ditto with occupations and disciplines of learning. Health? Fuhgeddaboutit.

So I thought it would be interesting to quantify to some degree the gap between what we know and what is knowable.

I first thought of cataloging all the fields of human endeavor, and then measuring how much data each of those fields generated. I couldn’t even get a coherent system of classification going, let alone a catalog. So I tried a spatial basis – how about counting countries, then cities & towns, then quantifying the activity in each city. Struck out there too. Finally I settled on people. After all pretty much all our stimuli come to us through people. Even if it’s a natural disaster happening on the other side of the world, it’s communicated to us through people. So here’s the system I came up with – not perfect by any means, but good enough for a first shot.

First, we define a countable stimulus as something a person does at the rate of one per minute.
There are 6.5 Billion people on earth. Let’s say they average 16 waking hours a day, which is 16 x 60 = 960 minutes. If each person is doing something notable (or at least noticeable) once per minute, that means we are creating over 6 Trillion stimuli a day.

Now, on the receiving side: let’s say I’m super-perceptive, and I take in one stimulus every second. If I’m also awake 16 hours a day, that’s 16x60x60 = 57600 stimuli I’m taking in every day.

So by this very crude calculation, my ‘world’ consists of merely one-millionth of one percent of the information being created every day. If we were to factor in all the information that has been created every day since the dawn of time, that already-miniscule fraction would diminish even further to a infinitesimally small number.

What does this mean?

The vast majority of us walk around thinking that the beliefs we hold are the truth, ie, they apply to everybody, or everywhere, or all the time. And those beliefs are likely shaped by the information and experiences we’ve had in our lives. What if we had other information?

Try on these potential belief-changing scenarios:
- If we were to see enough people suffering through cancer or dropping dead from heart attacks, or very healthy old people who had consistently taken care of their health, might we easily change certain diet or exercise habits that currently appear hard to change?
- If we were to see the horrors of war first-hand, would we be as quick to raise our hand in anger? Or alternatively, might we believe in pre-emptive strikes more than we do now?
- If we were to actually, physically see Third-World factories churning out the goods we buy and experience their social & environmental effects first-hand, would we be so eager to shop the big-box stores for the lowest prices?
- If you grew up in India or a similarly traditional Eastern country with a strong social framework, what might your outlook be on the importance of personal chemistry in relationships?
- If you were to shadow Teflon & Iris for a week, would your work ethic standards change in any way?
- The next time you get cut off on the road, and raise your fist (or finger) in response… if you were to see the other driver’s day leading up to that point, would your response change?

Finally, let me share my favorite story for illustrating the cognitive change that a simple piece of information can make (it's from one of Stephen Covey’s books). Imagine you’re on the subway train, heading home from a long workday. You’re reading the paper and getting relaxed for the evening ahead, when a man and three young boys board the train at a stop, and proceed to disturb the peace. The boys are being loud and rambunctious, but the father is gazing off into space, seemingly oblivious to the din they are creating. You are clearly annoyed by them and also irritated by his insensitivity. So, in what you feel is a very mature and restrained manner, you touch the man’s elbow and ask him “Sir, would you mind restraining your boys? They are being quite a disturbance”. The man shakes himself out of his reverie, looks around, and says slowly “Yeah, I guess I should. They are probably as lost as I am. You see, we just came from the hospital - their mother died.”

What difference did that last piece of information make to your mood and your actions? Would your annoyance and irritation disappear in a flash, to be replaced by concern and sympathy? How much work was it to change your state? How do you feel about having adopted those judgments earlier, before you got this information?



1 comment:

  1. Sree, that was great! Thank you.

    Seems that you could chart what we know versus what is knowable using two concentric circles one of which would not be visible on the page.

    I was thinking about your "dad with his kids on the subway" scenario and it occurred to me that, since we can't know what's actually going on, we could begin by always making up the most supportive scenario possible.

    For example, if someone were to race up behind you as you're driving and then begin riding your bumper, you could always start with the assertion that he must be desperately trying to get to the hospital. You might speed up, you might pull over and let him pass you, but you wouldn't slow down to annoy him or extend the finger of friendship.

    Since the odds of our actually knowing what's going on are so abysmally small, why not start out by giving everyone we encounter the benefit of the doubt.



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