A Modicum of Thought

a weekly pursuit of depth of thought

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The Challenge

The challenge was simple in nature. To combat the inevitability of slow decline, a good friend of mine and I mutually proposed a weekly sharing of just one item of depth discovered that week. In theory, a simple task – really, if life has become so comfortably numb that a single thought over the span of seven days remains elusive – well then, all the more reason we need to double down on honing the mind to explore what is essential, what is invisible to the eye.

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Inverse power

Phew! The last few modicums have been pretty heavy. And while I have reveled in the new post consciousness world, so too have I reached a point where the Modicums were not so … consumable much less filled with Checkov’s guns. So I’m dialing it back a bunch of notches for a bit to write on a couple of quicker ideas that have passed in the thought stream.

This week, I want to touch upon a peculiarity in social dynamics. I’m sure it is a well established dynamic, but I haven’t seen a name for it yet – and so I am calling it the Inverse Power Dynamic. It basically captures a social situation in which the person with all the “power” subservient themselves to those with less. It goes against everything my armchair behavioral economist soul believes to be true, as it runs counter to a normalization to an efficient marketplace, marketplace here being social interactions.

The Interview Sweat

A classic example of this inverse power dynamic is the job interview. In today’s culture, the interviewer has all the power – controlling the schedule, controlling the questions, controlling the upper hand of authority in the interview. The interviewer role is never as stressful as the interviewee. But why? Being an employer, I am keenly aware of just how much power exists in the interviewee – it is just as important to sell to them, to prove to them that the company is worth their investment of their own time and commitment. In fact, the more a potential employee wrestles control of the interview the more I respect them and want to hire them, and thus plenty of incentive for the normalization of the power dynamic. In the end, each party is an interviewer and an interviewee.

And yet, the power dynamic stubbornly rests in the hands of the company. Why?

Professing Vs. Teaching

So the job interview is an example of power dynamic out of whack. Ultimately it should be a balanced interaction, each side having equal power – potential salary is balanced with potential time commitment.

Higher Education, however, is a complete mess – it is a fully upended power dynamic. Students pay extremely large sums of money to a university for education, oftentimes leveraging a decade or more of their future to make a huge payment.

And in return? I’d expect an incredibly customer focused entity (beyond $8 million lazy rivers) on the other end of such a major investment. But, no – you have an entire system that is focused on the authority of the professor and the subjugation of the “lesser” student. A professor judges the quality of the students through grades. Professors have huge egos that demand constant adoration of the students. If a student were to walk late into a class, they can be publicly humiliated in front of their also paying peers. I can rant on all the ways for paragraphs.

Now if I were in arriving late to a class, I’d be like “no.. it doesn’t work this way. I pay your salary; you work for me. I pay handsomely for this class and thus get back to work; stop professing and start teaching us.” Because universities are filled with bushy eyed naive students, they don’t realize the power dynamic is all backwards, and so they acquiesce.

Life is Rife with Improper Imbalance

Once you start looking, you can find these Inverse Power Balances all over. Some are imbalances in the wake of what should be a balanced, symmetric transaction like the interview, some are fully inverted like that of higher education. For example:

  • The Sale of a Business – the process of selling a company is rife with inverse power balance, despite being a balanced transaction
  • Marriage Proposals – yikes, talk about a huge investment of time, money, life. And yet culturally the approach to the decision to marry is laden with imbalances, starting with even the idea of a Proposal rather than (as many of you know was the case for my wife and I) a Stating of Intentions. And today is Valentine’s Day, another day filled with weird power dynamics.

The Big Stuff

And is it a coincidence that these imbalances are so prevalent in the largest transactions one makes in life: higher education, marriage, employment? You’d think that if any transactions were were to be balanced, it would be these ones. This can’t be a coincidence.

Also, the tactics used in the inverse power dynamic situations are unique tactics that are different than typical negotiations (e.g. Mark’s “Hook” bias that is the opposite of anchoring).


From an economist perspective, imbalances should converge to the efficient and balanced mean over time – but these imbalances seem to persist, and persist with a huge amount of lore. So why?

  • It could be that historic inertia, suggesting eventually it will balance to the mean.
  • It could be that there are other items of Intrinsic value beyond time and money that are on the balance scales that I’m just not seeing. Help?
  • It could be that there is a cultural contraption that is dedicated to feeding and protecting the imbalance at all costs (think of trade licenses in the business world). This is an emotional argument that wants to spark rebellion, admittedly.

Now if only I had five lives and could invest one lifetime as a behavioral economist. This would be one of my first areas of study.

But instead, I just have to observe the oddity passing by in a river of Modicums without a fishing line to really real it in.

So call to action is simply – Beware! If you feel that a power dynamic is operating against you and you are not in the ability to exert power over the outcome – step back, redraw the Leavian box a bit wider, and there is a good chance the power dynamic is not quite so imbalanced as you may think.

Towers of Hanoi

This Modicum is an expansive one that attempts to close out a number of recent Modicums.

Context is everything when it comes to understanding a mindset, just like the above sentence helps prepare you for this Modicum. We are so subjective to the world view at any given moment, that it is almost humorous to think we can be anything but a mere byproduct of social thinking. In fact, this whole exercise of a Modicum of Thought is questionable: “Really? a modicum of thought that you hope might be original? Join the masses on the internet, for everyone is writing about the same thing.” Is it just coincidence that this post on the inner voice just went viral just a few weeks after dominating my own thoughts? Doubtful. And yet, I can’t point explicitly at any single common source that is the common instigation; it is the contextual upswell of thought in the world we live in; it is Heideggerian In-der-Welt-sein.

So context is everything, and our context is the world revealed after behavioral economists have destroyed the concept of the higher mind. In typical American style, we all view humanity as marching up a staircase, each generation building on the previous. But in a part II follow up to last week’s Modicum, I am beginning to view it in a different light that has been fascinating to see its consistency as I dive into the idea. Ultimately, it has given me a nice pretty ribbon and bow to wrap around three months of thinking. But… it is not what you may think, and to get there I need some visuals and a whole lot of patience from you, dear reader.

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Pascal Was On To Something

Broad sweeping generalizations to explain everything at once are the bane to all good deliberation and advancement, from philosophy to politics to science to well being. But.. my soul craves creating Grand Unified Theorems (GUT) at a biological level akin to the innate need to classify everything we see. So it doesn’t come as a surprise to me that I am searching for underlying perspectives that are – at least through analogy – able to provide understanding to all things of value.

I’ve held on to one such GUT – the Grecian Urn – that I really should capture in words one day. But this past week, I’ve been settling in to a new one that feels pretty cozy, like snuggling under a warm flannel blanket in a Portland winter day. And to understand it, we must begin with Pascal and a famous wager.

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Do Dogs Think?

Alright, yeah – I am back into thinking about consciousness. Ironically, this is as much due to reading The Social Animal as it is due to working my way through Heidegger’s Being and Time. This time, I promise to be short(er).

If you’ve read the last few Modicums, you’ll know that I’m increasingly of the mindset that the lower brain is the key to being human, and not the higher, conscious brain. And you’ll know that I view the lower brain has an extremely powerful Bayesian Estimator. That lower brain is free from language and the voice of the inner mind, and thus consciousness as we know it given our Cartesian world view. Finally, you’ll also know that I think of the inner voice and its stream of consciousness as a leftover farce that has taken over the show. This is a bit hard to swallow, so step through all those previous Modicums to catch up.

So that begs the question, if the Bayesian Estimator is what received much of the new brain cells during the homo genus evolutionary explosion, then perhaps the stream of consciousness portion of the mind may have already been there – and thus, other animals have it too. And thus further, the child-like question arises: Do Dogs Think? (And yes, this incredible photo was taken by Emerson!)

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DNA 2.0

In my heart, travelling beyond the solar system is our future generation’s manifest destiny. I hope that with every generation, we see it as not only our destiny but our obligation to expand beyond the confines of our own solar system.

And I hope that we never lose sight of this end goal for not just the human race, but for the end goal of life itself. I see it as more than just a destiny, but an obligation we owe to the universe for the creation of DNA in the first place.

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Thoughts That Won’t Go Away

Honestly, I thought I was done with tearing down scaffolding with last week’s post. It isn’t really that much fun to undermine core beliefs of how you view the world and yourself, and admittedly it’s pretty boring to read about it for others. Ha, maybe I should describe it as a wrecking ball, as that is much more fun to watch and honestly, that’s kind of what it feels like too.

For the past week, I’ve been making a concerted effort to rid myself of some unwanted thought patterns that keep popping into my head – do a bit of rewiring that is. One pattern is a reaction to challenging situations, another is a time consuming habit of mine that I just simply… well, want to take a wrecking ball too.

And once the wrecking ball came out, I began to naturally question, am I defined by my thoughts? and if not by thoughts, then by what? In the end, I have part two of last week’s Modicum.

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The Empty Driver’s Seat

It’s New Years (oh, Happy New Year and New Decade, sort of) and thus I’ve been a bit delinquent on sustained thought in lieu of friends, family, libations and well, skiing. So for this week’s Modicum (or as my eldest daughter calls it, “Adult Homework“), I thought I’d do a quick revisit of two passing comments in previous Modicums that touch upon an idea that is growing in my mind, threatening a flood. Or rather, perhaps the analogy is better suited to a sinkhole than an overflowing spring.

The passing comment was added humorously to the Modicum The Premise of a Big Goal – in which I owned up to having a driver seat view of the death spiral of suburban frenetic mundanity. Driver seat of course to own up to the fact that it was of my own making.

The quick quip has stuck with me for a while – which is always a sign that the lower, more intelligent brain is working away on something but is keeping the child of our conscious mind in the dark.

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Normalizing Danger

So I am standing there, at the top of a 36 foot tall extension ladder reaching over the roofline above the third story of my home. Yeah, modicum of thought be damned, for there are quite mundane gutters to be cleaned.

Sure, as I was climbing up the ladder, I jiggled each foot to ensure a solid and secure perch. The ladder swayed slightly, and the concrete ground took successive notches of increasing steps to smallness in my view downwards. The growing danger in each step was clear and an evident threat.

But here at the top, my arms stretch out over the roof line, and those gutters and shingles aren’t moving a bit. From my new view over the gutters, I am presented with a stable and consistent view, including all that mossy gunk that’s accumulated in the gutters.

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I Feel, Therefore I am Not

First to set some context, I have been in exploring for the better part of the past year three large influencing mindsets on the subject of rational reasoning versus emotional intuition, and subconscious versus conscious thought. These mindsets are exemplified by their source readings:

  1. David BrooksThe Social Animal, which argues that the emotional mind is far more essential and active in the day to day (see also The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail by Jonathan Haidt)
  2. Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Harry Potter and The Methods of Rationality (aka HPMOR), which emphasizes the need for focused purely-rational reasoning, performed using Bayesian principles to arrive at rational thought, overcoming the limitations of the irrational mind.
  3. Daniel Kahneman‘s Thinking Fast And Slow –  Which argues that the brain’s desire for consistency (e.g. Caldiani‘s Consistency in Influence) overwhelms emotion and undermines the argument that the brain is even biologically capable of rational thought in the first place. In this bucket, I also throw in the incredible Phantoms in the Brain by Ramachandran – who got at these issues from a neuroscientific perspective 20 years ago.
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Bubble Markers

My Friday-The-13th modicum this week is on finance – specifically, how to profit from the stock buy back obsession in corporate America.

Financial bubbles by definition occur when rational processes break down, and runaway irrationality takes hold. You’d think we’d get better at this stuff as society ages and technology improves, but we aren’t. We just wrap the irrationality with layers and layers of complexity that just better hides it from a rational thought. Credit default swaps anyone?

It’s a fascinating concept, the idea of the mind wrapping irrational action with layers of complexity to hide its chaoticness. It’s like the lengthy stories patients with phantom limbs go through to justify why they are not able to manipulate the world with their rationally missing limb. Economic bubbles are a groupthink version of this.

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