Religion from the perspective of game theory

Religion serves many purposes, but I’ve come to believe that one of the most important is helping people cooperate with each other. “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”

Many religions label behaviors that serve the community as “good” and those that are overly self-serving or detrimental to others as “evil”. Individuals are often cast as having a “light side” and a “dark side” or dual influences from “god” and “satan”. Religion helps and encourages people to engage in the former type of behaviors.

Robert Wright realized that we can insightfully describe this using the language of game theory.

Specifically, some situations are “zero-sum” or “win-lose”, meaning that one person’s gain is the other’s loss. For example, if there is only one rabbit to eat, then if I eat it, you go hungry.

Other situations are “non-zero-sum” or “win-win” meaning that cooperation results in gains for both people. For example, if we can only catch rabbits by working together, then cooperation is what allows us both to eat — cooperation leads to abundance.

Humans are equipped to handle both types of situations. If we sense a zero-sum situation, hormones like cortisol flood our body and we become protective, aggressive, and narrow-minded. If we sense a non-zero-sum situation, hormones like oxytocin flood our body and we become generous, caring and creative.

I’ve come to believe that one of the key insights at the core of all successful religions is that nearly every situation can been seen as non-zero-sum. In other words, we can nearly always apply creativity to find win-win solutions (which generate abundance) even if a situation at first seems clearly win-lose. The key hurdle is that our ability to be creative and generous depends on our non-zero-sum hormones being activated. In other words, this is a self-fulfilling prophesy where believing that a situation is win-win is required to put us in the right state of mind and body to figure out what set of actions will make it win-win.

Viewed in this light, many (even most?) religious and spiritual practices are ways of maintaining that community-oriented, win-win mindset. For example, an emphasis on forgiveness helps us return to a cooperative stance with a person who has betrayed our trust. A practice of gratitude inspires us with past examples of generosity and abundance. A weekly gathering helps us stay connected and aware of the community which we all depend on.

It makes sense to me that successful religions became successful in part because they helped communities cooperate and create more win-win solutions leading to abundance, relative to religions which were less effective at promoting cooperation and whose communities thus missed out on valuable opportunities.

The Dalai Lama has often said, “My religion is kindness.”

I’ve come to believe that this has a sound basis in mathematics.

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Tools

“A tool can give you something concrete that you can imagine using, but a tool is not going to give you persistence… it’s not going to tell you which path to take. It’s not going to give you mettle… when everything feels like it’s been destroyed around you, you can’t just pull out a tool… Where do we nourish and foster the creative imagination that permits you to bring into the world something that does not now exist?”

-John Paul Lederach (via On Being)

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Service

“There is a whole section in the bookshop called ‘self-help,’ but there is no section called ‘help others.’ The irony is that success and joy actually come from the service we offer to others. It’s not ‘How can I lose ten pounds?’ — it’s ‘How can I help my friend feel healthy and strong?’ It’s not ‘How can I find my dream job?’ — it’s ‘How can I help someone I care about find their calling?’ It’s the act of service, not the selfish pursuit, that actually helps us solve the same problems we may face in our own lives more effectively.”

-Simon Sinek, Together is Better (p. 131)

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The Non-Doing Paradox

“The flavor and the sheer joy of non-doing are difficult for Americans to grasp because our culture places so much value on doing and on progress. Even our leisure tends to be busy and mindless. The joy of non-doing is that nothing else needs to happen for this moment to be complete. The wisdom in it, and the equanimity that comes out of it, lie in knowing that something else surely will.

“It reeks of paradox. The only way you can do anything of value is to have the effort come out of non-doing and to let go of caring whether it will be of use or not. Otherwise, self-involvement and greediness can sneak in and distort your relationship to the work, or the work itself, so that it is off in some way, biased, impure, and ultimately not completely satisfying, even if it is good.”

-Jon Kabat-Zinn
(Wherever You Go, There You Are, p.38-39)

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Lawyers

One observation from Radical Honesty by Brad Blanton has stuck with me. He writes:

“More lawyers have come to me for therapy than have members of any other profession, and it’s not coincidence, since so much of their training is to learn to live by rules. One important rule they try to live by is that the proper way to be angry is to have a fight using the rules. They often try to do this in their private lives, with complete lack of success. Perpetual arguing to convince others of the rightness of your case doesn’t work worth a damn in personal relationships, and we all know it but can’t seem to stop.” (p.21)

I thought this was fascinating. You’d expect lawyers and the legal system to be a reasonable place to look for ideas about how to resolve conflicts. Indeed I have repeatedly done so in the past, in both home and work settings. But if I’m being honest, Blanton got it right — my attempts tended to fail miserably, leaving me confused and deflated.

It’s only recently that I’ve come to understand that resolving conflicts has absolutely nothing to do with arguing a case. Quite the opposite, it is a creative process of collaboratively inventing new solutions that have the potential to meet everyone’s needs.

The courts are built on punishments, blame, winners, and losers. Conflict resolution is built on a search for opportunity and shared goals.

The two have essentially nothing in common except that they are both methods of dealing with a dispute.

I think it’s telling that our legal system evolved directly from the methods used by kings and patriarchs to issue decisions. We merely replaced the sovereign with a set of laws, interpreted by judges and juries. We the people hold the power to create the laws (at least in theory), but we remain subjects of those laws and juries, just as we used to be subjects of the king. If we do not follow the rules, we are judged and punished by an outside arbiter. The rule of law.

There are many reasons why this doesn’t work well anymore, at least in normal life. For one thing, we want to be free, autonomous adults — not subjects to an outside authority (not even one called “fairness” or “justice”). For another, the technique of punishment focuses our minds on fear, scarcity, and self-protection, all of which work against any quest for peace and reconciliation.

Of course, fighting it out in a courtroom is preferable to fighting it out on a battlefield. And trial by jury is certainly preferable to the whims of the monarch. But do we really need to be fighting at all?

Could we be using some of that energy instead on inventing new ways of living together and helping each other such that people feel less compelled to commit crimes in the future?

This is the direction known as restorative justice and it is clearly on to something.

Perhaps the spouses of lawyers have known it all along.

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Dialog

A friend was recently telling me about a frustrating encounter they had had with a relative.

“I was trying to have an open-minded discussion but it became clear that their political beliefs were simply whatever the NRA endorsed. How was I supposed to engage with that? It left no room for debate.”

I suspect a lot of people have found themselves in a situation similar to this. We’d like to be able to talk with people on the other side of the political spectrum but cannot seem to find a bridge. I tried to bring to mind what I’ve learned about nonviolent communication. What question could be asked that would invite connection rather than judgement and conflict? Something that would reflect our genuine curiosity? Something that would honor the fact that everyone is the expert of their own experience?

How about this:

“Why is the NRA so important to you?”

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Being

“We spend our lives rushing around hardly pausing
to breathe” my friend said. “Are we
human beings or human doings?”

I wondered the same as I sat
at a committee meeting listening
as the debate circled back for the third
or fourth time.

And yesterday at the department of motor vehicles
as a representative reached for a form,
assisting the gentleman twenty six ticker spots
ahead of me

And as I drove home, stopping behind
a woman cautiously awaiting an opportunity
to turn left

While a crane leisurely hoisted a beam
into its place on a new overpass, then meandered back
to the pile where a few thousand more
were ready

And this morning as I sat at the window
watching the birds in the soft morning light
as a light snow fell around them.

I think I am both.

A human being
impatient
And a human doing
nothing.

(inspired in part by “The Present” by Billy Collins,
from The Rain in Portugal)

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Language of control

“Life-alienating communication both stems from and supports hierarchical or domination societies, where large populations are controlled by a small number of individuals to those individuals own benefit. It would be in the interest of kings, czars, nobles, and so forth that the masses be educated in a way that renders them slavelike in mentality. The language of wrongness, should, and have to is perfectly suited for this purpose: the more people are trained to think in terms of moralistic judgments that imply wrongness and badness, the more they are being trained to look outside themselves — to outside authorities — for the definition of what constitutes right, wrong, good, and bad. When we are in contact with our feelings and needs, we humans no longer make good slaves and underlings.”

-Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication (p.23)

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Community

The building blocks of community, as outlined by Peter Block (in his book Community: The Structure of Belonging) and summarized for the Enlivening Edge community conversations:

  • Invitation rather than mandate
  • Possibility rather than problem-solving
  • Ownership rather than blame
  • Dissent rather than resignation and lip service
  • Commitment rather than barter
  • Gifts rather than deficiencies

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To be

In the entire history of the world, not one person has ever chosen to be born. It’s simply not a power we have. We’re a planet composed of people who found ourselves here and are doing our best to make the most of it.

All this is obvious, yet it’s just so existentially strange.

I suppose the uneasiness many people feel about birth control has to do with this. Deciding to have or not have children really is a way of playing god.

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Beyond right and wrong

Dear Williams College Presidential Search Committee,

As you know, one of the challenges facing higher education right now is the paradox of wanting to create a diverse and welcoming environment yet not knowing what to do with the diverse set of people who disagree with that aim (whether full-on white supremacists or those who just dislike affirmative action).

I believe that many college leaders have been far too heavy-handed in dealing with this challenge — and therefore not as effective as they could be. For example, Williams’ outgoing president has repeatedly said that tolerance and respect for diverse views is “the one thing that’s not up for debate.” The grave downside to this approach is that it misses out on the critical educational opportunities that come from debate and conversation. If it’s just “not ok” to have racist beliefs, what is the racist community member to do? Stay silent and stay racist? Act out with racist graffiti as we have seen? If the debate is allowed to happen, I believe that the thoughtful community at Williams will have the opportunity to test their ideas, learn how to have difficult conversations, learn to empathize with “the other”… and perhaps break out of this polarizing cycle that the nation and world is caught up in.

Note that the leader can (and hopefully will) still firmly support diversity efforts. The trick is to do it in a way that invites conversation rather than denounces it. I have seen this done effectively by some leaders. For example, notice in this community letter how the author avoids any moralistic language but rather invites the reader to consider the consequences for community members of color.

There was a lovely article in a recent alumni magazine about a Williams professor who grew up as a white supremacist. He came to Williams and learned a more full history of the South and came to understand the problems (both moral and logical) with white supremacy. He now passes this on to students in a simple way. He doesn’t explicitly condemn racism — he doesn’t need to. He simply shows students primary documents that make the conclusion obvious.

This led me to wonder whether the Williams of today should offer admission to a student who was openly white supremacist? It may be an interesting question to ask candidates.

If yes, does that violate community standards? If no, how could we have modern successes of the type in the story? I hope Williams’ next president will be able to grapple with the subtleties and tensions in this sort of question and will not resort to a firm yes or no.

Indeed I have come to realize that overcoming hatred and division is not a matter of right and wrong, inclusion or exclusion. Rather it is a process of having difficult conversations and learning how to empathize with marginalized communities and those doing the marginalizing. Only then can we truly move forward together. My hope is that the Williams leaders of tomorrow will be able to grasp these subtleties and will not resort to moralistic thinking which simply deepens the divide between “us” and “them.”

Best,
Robin Stewart

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Four questions

“Maya Angelou suggests there are four questions that we’re all unconsciously asking each other all the time: […]

1. Do you see me?
2. Do you care that I’m here?
3. Am I enough for you?
4. [Am I] special to you?”

-Katherine Schafler (via Thrive Global)

As we interact with others, we can be mindful to demonstrate — through our attention and body language — that the answer to each question is YES.

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Placebo

“Here you have this wonderful, wonderful drug: placebo — that because of the way it was studied in the medical world, anybody who was trying to assess the efficacy of a drug was upset when it didn’t outperform the placebo. However, that placebo was curing a lot of people, so it’s a very, very powerful medication.”

-Ellen Langer (via On Being)

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Innovating by hunch

“We’re told to get an idea, build a team, then go out and make your idea real. But the people who succeed — what they have at the beginning is not really an idea. It’s more like a sense that there’s something broken. A hunch. […] The only thing that you can guarantee is… that you’re going to be learning by mistakes.”

-Luis Perez-Breva,
as quoted in MIT News (July/August 2017, p.10)

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Zentangle

I randomly stumbled onto the world of Zentangling a few weeks ago when browsing the local library. It’s a meditative type of drawing where you follow a loose set of repetitive instructions to create art, from doodle-like scribbles to rich textures and designs.

Trying it out, two thoughts came to mind.

First, it reminded me that there are many ways to meditate (besides deep breathing in lotus pose, which gets boring after a while)! Many types of art, music, exercise, rest, caretaking, dialog, and ritual can be meditative.

Second, it reminded me of sketching user interfaces. Since software tends to deal with significant amounts of data, when you sketch interfaces by hand you end up needing to draw the same basic component many times. Perhaps there are many items on the screen (as in a long list or data visualization) or perhaps you are drawing the same screen many times to test changes in state or different variations on an idea. Either way, I sometimes get impatient or wonder if it is really a good use of my time. Zentangling was a reminder that it’s indeed ok to spend some time on repetitive tasks, to relax into it, and to enjoy the beautiful results that inevitably come when you put care into your work.

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Budgeting

The word “budget” tends to make me cringe. I think that’s because budgets have mostly been something that I was subject to as an employee or volunteer. They were yet another tool (and symbol) of power and yet another grounds for politics and resentment. At best, they were something I simply didn’t have to worry about when there was generally enough money to go around.

But budgeting can be a source of great creativity and can hold deep meaning if framed as an answer to the question: How can we best use the resources we have in service of our organization’s purpose? The answers are profound in that they reflect our deeper priorities and beliefs about what seems possible and what is most worth pursuing. And there is always creativity to be applied in finding ways to make progress — both with and without significant funding.

What’s preventing the budgeting process from reaching its full potential? I think one of the more interesting impediments may actually be the widespread use of grids of numbers — i.e., spreadsheets — as the medium for the task. Focusing on raw numbers and arithmetic emphasizes scarcity — literally the zero-sum nature of allocating money. If our goal is to be generative and in touch with our deeper aspirations, we need budgeting tools that emphasize instead the infinite possibilities for how the money can be spent and the flexibility with which we can adjust the plan in response to new information and ideas.

The numbers still have to add up, of course. But computers can do the math faster than we can blink. Software can alert us to any problems and mismatches — and even better, it can support us in exploring the space of possibilities. It just might help us take budgeting to the next stage of its evolution.

As you might have guessed, I have some ideas for such a tool. Let me know if you are interested in contributing in some way to its creation. For starters: how would you like to evolve the way your organization does budgeting?

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Why don’t organizational best practices get adopted?

Five years ago I wrote (with more than a little frustration): “I’ve read quite a few books related to organizational psychology and culture. All of these books use scientific evidence to support ideas that in many ways fly in the face of conventional wisdom. What’s surprised me most is that many of the clear best practices have still not been widely adopted, sometimes decades after first publication. Culture and habits are difficult to change.”

But why? Why is it so difficult to adopt practices that clearly work? When I pose this type of question to innocent bystanders, they tend to chuckle and tell me how idealistic I am. (A visiting Congolese elder once replied, “You have a pure heart.”) The implication, I suppose, is that human nature is self-centered, ignorant, and lazy. But I’m not the only one who questions that assumption. Certainly in my own life I’ve found some types of change to be very hard. But I’ve also worked very hard to make the changes that were important to me, and I’ve seen others do the same.

One explanation for change resistance I eventually honed is what I call “the Pope’s dilemma.” It goes as follows. Suppose you are the head of the catholic church. Your institution has for decades discriminated against LGBT members. You now realize that there is an avalanche of evidence showing that homosexuality is not a “choice” and your past policies and behaviors have caused incalculable suffering amongst the very congregants you hoped to serve. To make a change implies acknowledging the terrible mistakes of the past. How do you do this in a graceful way that does not upset the very credibility of the institution?

I eventually learned that this process has a name: reparation. Clearly, most of us are not yet very good at it. The hardest step in the reparation process is to forgive ourselves for the pain we have caused. There are all sorts of mind games we use to avoid thinking about that pain at all costs and to cast doubt on even the clearest of evidence that change is both warranted and possible. Although the suffering caused by outmoded business assumptions is not usually as dire as in the textbook cases of reparation, I do continue to think that this is a major factor holding up the adoption of many beneficial business practices.

But more recently I’ve realized that there is an even deeper answer provided by the theory and practice of next-stage organizations, many of which apply all sorts of best practices — sometimes seemingly effortlessly — while also continuing to invent new ones. Curiously, these companies tend to implement these practices for reasons that have little to do with any experimental evidence showing increases in employee retention, customer satisfaction, or profitability. Rather, they do it because that is the type of world they want to create and live in. A world abundant in generosity, compassion, connection, and wholeness. Next-stage organizations appreciate that those things often turn out to be good for business, but it’s not the motivating factor. These cultures choose generosity regardless of its direct impact on sales.

In other words, these new business practices tend to flow naturally from a certain world view (specifically, the view that has come to be known as “teal”). Conversely, those new business practices tend to react like oil and water against the world view of mainstream business. I can imagine plenty of managers who read these business advice books and want to implement some of their well-reasoned recommendations. And then: the organizational antibodies set in.

  • Some of the ideas seem too risky. (“Maybe it worked for some, but our business is different.”)
  • Some seem too expensive. (“We can’t justify spending money on something so peripheral to the core business.”)
  • Some seem too uncomfortable. (“We don’t talk about emotions at work.”)
  • Changes that do make it through get so watered-down as to be useless, or get little enough buy-in to be irrelevant, or quickly get cast aside when the next crisis or crunch comes along.

And thus we find ourselves in the paradoxical situation where mainstream business fully accepts the value of science and experiment and yet cannot integrate some of the best practices that result from these experiments! Meanwhile, in the emerging world of next-stage organizations, those very same scientific results are viewed as largely irrelevant, and yet the best practices they support are adopted eagerly and authentically!

For me, it was the scientific pursuit of best practices that helped me uncover these paradoxes and the understanding that there are other, perhaps more important ways of discovering best practices. (Are they generous? Compassionate? Do they build relationships? Are they authentic? More broadly, do they promote the type of world you want to live in?)

And, perhaps less importantly, it helped shed some light on why business advice books continue to fly off the shelves with little apparent effect on the day-to-day culture of business.

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Our shared commitment to finding truth

Suppose you and I have fundamentally different views on an issue of the day. (For example, let’s say one of us thinks climate change is caused by human activity and one of us thinks it’s not. Or one of us thinks immigrants improve the economy and one of us thinks they weaken it.) Let us have the grace to put aside for the moment the question of which view (if either) is true. Instead, let us share in our outrage that at least one (and perhaps both) of us is receiving fundamentally misleading information!

We all seek truth, and we all hope to act in a way that leaves the world better for our families and communities. We desperately need each other’s help in finding ways to sort out what is reliable and what is not in this internet age of fake news, corporate spin, echo chambers and political grandstanding. And we all fall victim to confirmation bias every day of the week. The truth is out there — but it is increasingly complex, increasingly context-dependent, and increasingly difficult to untangle from all the surrounding noise. Information is power, so what strategies can we use to seek reliable sources of information? How can we be reliable sources of information? Sources that admit and actively correct their own mistakes?

Suppose one of us has been advocating all our life for greenhouse gas reductions and it turns out that climate change is no big deal and all we have accomplished is to destroy good jobs in the oil and gas industry and upend the surrounding communities. Or suppose one of us has spent our life working to protect the oil and gas economy and it turns out that the resulting greenhouse gases are leading to floods, droughts, famines, war, and destruction all over the world. Or maybe the truth is somewhere in between. We all need each other’s support and compassion if we are to find truth together and grieve and forgive our own culpability in it.

 

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Algorithms as a way to avoid conversation

“My observation is that these algorithms — they don’t show up randomly. They show up when there’s a really difficult conversation that people want to avoid. Like, ‘We don’t know what makes a good teacher, and different people have different opinions about that, so let’s just bypass this conversation by having an algorithm score teachers.’ Or: ‘We don’t know what prison is really for, you know? Let’s have a way of deciding how long to sentence somebody.’ We introduce these ‘silver bullet’ mathematical algorithms because we don’t want to have a conversation.”

-Cathy O’Neil (via 99% Invisible)

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Esteemed discipline

“Valuable collaborators in the evolution of this book have been the people in my [psychotherapy] practice who have worked so unreservedly to develop themselves and their lives. I am obliged not to name them. Perhaps, in another era, entering into psychotherapy will be defined not as remediation for personal failure, but as an esteemed discipline for evolving one’s ability to contribute.”

-Rosamund Stone Zander,
The Art of Possibility (Acknowledgements, p.203)

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Observing a system

“Before you disturb the system in any way, watch how it behaves… Learn its history… If possible, find or make a time graph of actual data from the system — peoples’ memories are not always reliable when it comes to timing… Starting with the behavior of the system forces you to focus on facts, not theories. It keeps you from falling too quickly into your own beliefs or misconceptions, or those of others…

“It’s especially interesting to watch how the various elements in the system do or do not vary together… Every selectman in the state of New Hampshire seems to be positive that growth in a town will lower taxes, but if you plot growth rates against tax rates, you find a scatter as random as the stars in a New Hampshire winter sky. There is no discernible relationship at all.”

-Donella H. Meadows,
Thinking in Systems (2008, p.170-171)

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Confirmation bias II

What keeps coming up for me when I think about recent news is that we are all victims of confirmation bias (yes, including scientists!). In certain contexts, sexism and racism simply appear reasonable to our susceptible brains. I am grateful for the work of experts who have tried to help everyone learn more about these issues and overcome some of these biases — but I caution that very, very few of us are willing to change our minds in an environment of hostility, including subtle academic mockery. It does not work to force or shame people into accepting ideas like equality and diversity.

It is possible to cultivate authentic empathy with those who disagree with us. For example, under what situations would you be drawn towards the ideas of white supremacy? It is easy to call others “evil” and pretend that you are somehow better-than. It is much more difficult, and much more healing, to look deeper into your own vulnerable, human self.

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Visions for possibility

“A vision becomes a framework for possibility when [it] is free-standing — it points neither to a rosier future, nor to a past in need of improvement. It gives over its bounty now. If the vision is ‘peace on earth’, peace comes with its utterance. When ‘the possibility of ideas making a difference’ is spoken, at that moment ideas do make a difference.”

-Rosamund & Ben Zander, 
The Art of Possibility
(p. 169-170)

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Spreadsheet Errors II

I’ve posted about this before, but it continues to amaze me.

“More than 90 percent of corporate spreadsheets contain material errors. The European Spreadsheet Risk Group was set up in 1999 purely for the purpose of addressing issues of spreadsheet integrity. [The] disastrous consequences of uncontrolled use of spreadsheets are always disturbing, and make for somewhat gruesome reading. [I] believe that errors in spreadsheets are a regular occurrence in most organizations.”

-Danielle Stein Fairhurst,
Financial Modeling in Excel (for Dummies) (2017, p.23-26)

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Corporate responsibility

The ultimate business response to the need for sustainability:

Be generous by creating an enterprise that is regenerative by design, giving back to the living systems of which we are a part. More than an action on a checklist, it is a way of being in the world that recognises that we have a responsibility to leave the world in a better state than we found it. It calls for creating enterprises whose core business helps to reconnect nature’s cycles, and that gift as much as they can.”

“The most profound act of corporate responsibility for any company today is to rewrite its corporate by-laws, or articles of association, in order to redefine itself with a living purpose, rooted in regenerative and distributive design, and then to live and work by it.”

-Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics (2017)

 

 

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