THINKER’S ALMANAC – March 7

Subject:  Stoicism – Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations

Event:  Marcus Aurelius becomes Emperor AD 161 

In The Republic, Plato envisioned a utopia governed by the ideal leader, a “philosopher-king” whose rule was based not on power but on a love of wisdom.

On this day in 161 A.D., Plato’s vision became a reality as 39-year-old Marcus Aurelius became emperor of the Roman Empire. More than just a leader who ruled an empire that made up one-fifth of the world population, Marcus left the world a philosophical work that has survived long after his 20-year reign.

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Bust of Marcus Aurelius in the British Museum (Wikimedia Commons)

Marcus never intended to publish his work, Meditations, yet it has been read by millions and is seen as the first self-help book ever published.  For Marcus, Meditations was simply his own personal journal, a way for him to declutter his mind and organize his thoughts. Even though he was Roman emperor, Marcus did not live a life of luxury; instead, much of his time was spent in the field, facing many challenges: he quelled revolts from within and fought off threats from without.

The philosophy that Marcus practiced was Stoicism.  Its goal was to teach people to face life’s challenges with bravery and with calm.  Rather than looking on the sunny side of life, Stoicism is about contemplating worst-case scenarios in order to prepare ourselves mentally to deal with what Shakespeare called “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Living by Murphy’s Law reassures us that we can cope with anything that fate throws our way.  Rather than reacting emotionally to what is out of our control, we can instead prepare ourselves to focus on what we can control: our reactions, our attitudes, and our thoughts. As the wisdom Marcus recorded in his journal reveals, he believed above all in mind over matter:

-You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.

-Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.

-Our life is what our thoughts make it. (1)

We know today that Marcus’ impulse to write as a form of mental therapy is a method that’s been proven to be effective not just for kings but for everyone.  Specifically, research by social psychologist James W. Pennebaker has revealed that journaling has a whole host of benefits.  In his 1988 study, he randomly assigned students to write either about traumatic experiences or about general topics for four days in a row.  He then surveyed the students six weeks after their writing sessions and found that those who had written about their traumatic experiences had more positive moods and fewer illnesses than those who wrote about general topics (2).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is Stoicism, and what evidence is there that journaling like Marcus Aurelius did in his Meditations is beneficial?

Challenge – A Dozen Books on Wisdom:  Pick a number between zero and thirteen.  Using your number, look up Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, and read from the book that matches your number.  Find a sentence or paragraph you particularly like.  Quote it exactly; then, explain why you like it. 

ALSO ON THIS DAY:

-March 7, 322 B.C.: The Greek philosopher Aristotle died at the age of 62 on this day while living in exile.  He proclaimed the following:  “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

Sources:

1-Holiday, Ryan. Lives of the Stoics: The Art of Living from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius. Portfolio, 2020.

2-Phelan, Hayley. “What’s All This About Journaling?”  The New York Times 10 October 2018.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – March 6

Subject:  Unintended consequences – Schieffelin’s Bardolatry

Event:  Eugene Schieffelin releases 60 starlings in New York’s Central Park, 1890

Nay, I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but Mortimer, and give it to him to keep his anger still in motionHenry IV, Part I, Act I, Scene iii

Normally quoting Shakespeare is a pretty harmless activity.  It might delight some, annoy others; nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine how such an activity might lead to widespread problems.  One exception to this case took place on this day in 1890.  Eugene Schieffelin, a Shakespeare fan and an ornithologist, who was inspired by the Bard, decided to introduce the starling to North America.  With the support of the American Acclimatization Society, a group dedicated to introducing European flora and fauna into North America, Schieffelin released 60 starlings into New York City’s Central Park on Thursday, March 6, 1890 (1).

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Starling (Wikimedia Commons)

Today, the United States is home to an estimated 200 million European starlings, and many wish that Schieffelin would have thought more carefully about the unintended consequences of his actions on that day in 1890.  

Starlings can be such a nuisance that they are one of the few species unprotected by law; their nests, eggs, young and/or adults may be removed or destroyed at any time.  In the field of aviation, starlings are known as “feathered bullets” because their dense bodies and tendency to fly in flocks pose a real danger near airports. They’re also disliked by the agricultural industry where they damage fruit crops and where they steal the grain being fed to cows.  According to scientists, the increase in the non-native population of starlings correlates with the decline in native species (2).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  Why did Eugene Schieffelin release 60 starlings, and what were the unintended consequences of this action?

Challenge – Unintended Benefits:  As Scheffelin’s starlings show us, our actions sometimes result in negative unintended consequences.  Sometimes, however, our actions can result in positive unintended consequences — also known as serendipity.  Do some research on the role of serendipity in discovery and invention, such as when Percey Spencer realized that emissions from the radar equipment he was working with had melted a chocolate bar in his pocket.  For Spencer, serendipity led to a patent filed on October 8, 1945, for the Radarange — what we now know as the microwave oven.

ALSO ON THIS DAY:

-March 6, 1475:  Today is the birthday of Michelangelo, who said, “A man paints with his brains and not with his hands.”

-March 6, 1947: Today is the birthday Dick Fosbury.  He won the Gold Medal in the high jump at the 1972 Olympics, but he is best known for the Fosbury Flop, his then unorthodox, status-quo-busting method of flinging himself backward over the bar. Reflecting on his innovative thinking, he said the following: 

I adapted an antiquated style and modernized it to something that was efficient. I didn’t know anyone else in the world would be able to use it and I never imagined it would revolutionize the event.

Sources:

1-Zielinski, Sarah. “The Invasive Species We Can Blame On Shakespeare.” Smithsonian Magazine 4 Oct. 2011.

2-O’Brien.  “The birds of Shakespeare cause US trouble.” BBC News 24 April 2014.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – March 5

Subject:  Availability Bias – The Letter “K”

Event:  Daniel Hahneman is born, 1934

Imagine that you are driving a friend to the airport. As you drive, your passenger begins talking about her fear of flying; she says, for example, that she had nightmares last night about dying in a fiery crash.  Now she is doing everything she can to muster the courage to go through with her plans to fly.  What might you say to reason with her? 

You might begin by gently explaining to her that what she is doing right now, riding in a car, is far more dangerous than flying.  While more than 40,000 Americans are killed each year in car accidents, fewer than 1,000 die in airplane accidents.  Her fear of flying, therefore, is based more on the false perception of danger rather than the actual facts.

To further calm your passenger, you might recommend that she read a book called Thinking Fast and Slow by Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman, who was born on this day in 1934. In his book, Kahneman explores the way that humans think and specifically explains two separate operating systems we use to think:  System 1 and System 2.  

System 1 is our default mode of thinking.  It’s fast, intuitive, and emotional. System 2 is our slower, more deliberate mode of thinking; it requires more attention and energy because instead of being automatic, it uses logic and reason to draw its conclusions.  

Even though the speed and effortlessness of System 1 have their advantages, it can often lead us to take mental shortcuts that steer us in the wrong direction.  Kahneman reviews a number of these errors, which are called cognitive biases.

Your friend’s fear of flying, for example, resulted from a cognitive bias called availability bias (also known as the availability heuristic). This bias stems from our preference for System 1 thinking; when we recall information, we rely on details that come easily from our memory.  The information that comes to mind, therefore, is not necessarily the most accurate; instead, it is the most easily accessible.  Because your friend probably has seen more news stories on plane crashes than car accidents, she has formed an inaccurate perception of the frequency of aircraft accidents.  

To experience the availability bias for yourself, consider the following question about words:

Is the letter K more likely to appear as the first letter in a word OR as the third letter?

Despite the fact that there are three times as many words in English with K as the third letter, most people falsely perceive that there are more words that begin with K.  The reason for this is the availability bias: when we try to think of words, it’s much easier to access words based on their beginning letter; as a result, we confuse the ease of access with the reality.

It’s not easy to avoid the availability bias.  We like taking the kind of mental shortcuts that allow us to make quick decisions.  System 1 is our default mode of thinking, and we like to avoid the kind of mental effort needed for System 2 thinking.  The best thing to do is to be aware of the fact that just because something comes to mind easily, does not mean that that thing is true.  Perception is not reality.  We are influenced by those things that we see and hear most frequently and those things that are most vivid and emotion-packed.  Knowing this is the nudge we need to put forth the extra effort needed to make the shift from System 1 to System 2. 

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is the availability bias, and how does it relate to System 1 and System 2 thinking; Why does the availability bias lead people to get the “K” problem wrong?

Challenge – Boatload of Biases:  The availability bias is just one of hundreds of cognitive biases.  Take a look at Wikipedia’s “List of Cognitive Biases,” where you will find over one hundred different examples.  Select one, and write a PSA explaining what it is and how it can be avoided to think more clearly and cogently.

Sources: 

1-Kahneman, Daniel.  Thinking, Fast and Slow.  New York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.