with Spencer Greenberg
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Episode 197: How can Stoicism improve your life? (with Bill Irvine)

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February 15, 2024

Why is Stoicism important and useful today? What are the main ideas of Stoicism? How can you tell if you're "living well"? And if you're not living well, then how can you move yourself in that direction? How can we learn to accept and embrace life as it comes without losing our desire to improve ourselves and the world around us? Do people vary in the degree to which Stoic practices might be beneficial for them? What's the relationship between Stoicism and CBT? What do Stoics have to say about the value or disvalue of emotions? Has Stoicism changed much since its inception? What does it mean to be a "reasonable" person? What are some clear signs that a person is a thinker or a feeler? How might we modify social media and/or ourselves so that our cognitive biases can't as easily be weaponized for political or economic ends? It's easy to see cognitive biases in others; but how can we learn to see them in ourselves?

William B. Irvine is emeritus professor of philosophy at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, USA. He is the author of eight books that have been translated into more than twenty languages. His A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy played a key role in the Stoic renaissance that has taken place in recent years. His subsequent Stoic Challenge: A Philosopher's Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer, and More Resilient provides a strategy for dealing, in proper Stoic manner, with the setbacks we experience in daily living. He is currently at work on a book about thinking critically, but with an open mind, in the age of the internet.

Further reading:

JOSH: Hello, and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, the podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, the producer of the podcast, and I'm so glad you've joined us today. In this episode, Spencer speaks with Bill Irvine about psychological strategies of the Stoics and the thinker-feeler divide.

SPENCER: Bill, welcome.

BILL: Oh, pleasure to be here.

SPENCER: So many people struggle to deal with difficult things in their life. And it's really interesting to think about this philosophy that has been around for 1000s of years about how we do exactly this, the ideas of Stoicism. Why don't we start talking about Stoicism? Why is this an important thing for people to know about today?

BILL: Well, Stoicism is many things to many people. The Stoics were known as logicians. They developed the propositional logic that's used in computers. They were also physicists in the sense that they attempted to understand the world. They were also into having a good life, which is a good thing. But the key thing is, they came up with a strategy for how to have a good life and it was based on psychology. And much has changed since the first century AD but human psychology has not changed. So those techniques they came up with are still usable.

SPENCER: Can you, at a high level, tell us about what is the idea that Stoicism teaches about how to live well?

BILL: Okay, Stoicism tells us... They were the preeminent psychologists of their time, and they came up with psychological strategies for living well, which raises the question, "Well, what does it mean to live well? How do we know we are living well?" And for them, it was when you experienced tranquility — which is a dangerous word — but for them, tranquility meant the absence of negative emotions — those are the ones that feel bad, like anger, and envy, and regret — and the presence, in fact, and the abundance of, positive emotions. Those are feelings of delight, feelings of joy. And they came up with psychological strategies that, amazingly enough, are still quite effective after 2000 years.

SPENCER: How would you summarize the philosophy of Stoicism?

BILL: Stoicism has many components. They were interested in physics. They were interested in logic; they were the preeminent logicians of their time, and did much to develop the propositional logic that's used in computers. They also were interested in the notion of living a good life so they were well-rounded for philosophers. They came up with practical stuff you can do to live a better life.

SPENCER: You mentioned that, in terms of what is a good life, it's a life of tranquility which is the absence of negative emotions, the presence of positive emotions like delight and joy. But what was their view on how you get to that tranquil life?

BILL: You get to that tranquil life by using a number of psychological strategies. There are different people who have read them and thought about them that are impressed, for instance, with their discussions of virtue. But I think lots of ancient philosophers talked about virtue, and I think what makes the Stoics special were their psychological insights.

SPENCER: How would you organize some of those insights? We can walk through them one by one. What would you point to first?

BILL: Well, if I'm having a group, a meeting where people are just being introduced to Stoicism, the one I like to introduce first is negative visualization. And that's a technique that you can use where you take a moment out of your busy day to imagine how things could be worse. And not just imagine in general terms, but imagine specific things. For instance, what would it be like to lose your sight? In a group meeting, for instance, I might encourage them to close their eyes and I say, "Okay, imagine that this was all it was going to be for the rest of your life." And then I stretch that out as long as I think I can get away with it, and I say, "Okay, now open your eyes." And they do. And I say, "Well now, isn't that wonderful? You have this ability that you have taken for granted all your life, but imagine if you lost it." You can do that with all sorts of things: losing your friends, losing your job, losing your health. You can go through the list and the thing is that it reactivates your appreciation of whatever it is you imagined yourself losing. That's quite a powerful effect that it has.

SPENCER: I've done this technique before as part of gratitude where, for example, let's say something like having arms, try to feel grateful for having arms and I find it a little bit difficult, but then I imagine not having arms and then remind myself that I do have them and it gives me this surge of gratitude. I wonder, do you think of this as sort of a gratitude technique or do you think about it differently?

BILL: Nope, it's a gratitude technique. Here's the thing: you're living in a dream world if you look at all of the things you can do and can do easily. Even if you're not living the classical successful life, you're still living in a wonderful existence. You can see, you can hear, you can smell. Now there are people who can't; even those people could be worse off. And if you think of it in those terms, most people go through their life thinking of how they could be better off. And they always have the one thing that, 'if I got that, I would finally be happy.' And the Stoic insight was, "You know what? If you can learn how to appreciate the things you already have, you're going to gain satisfaction and do so with a lot less effort on your part."

SPENCER: One thing I think it's powerful to consider is that, in any set of circumstances, there's going to be someone who, if they had those circumstances, would be happier than you, and someone, in those circumstances, who would be less happy than you. So it's not that our situation doesn't have a bearing on our happiness, but that whatever situation we're in, there are different ways to process it and different ways to feel about it.

BILL: Yeah, a Stoic basic strategy is, learn how to be an easily satisfied person; learn how to take whatever you've got and savor it to the extent possible. And people who don't do that are setting themselves up for a life of dissatisfaction. Imagine somebody who's a wine connoisseur and who, as a result, has to have very specific years of a very specific wine in order to be happy and otherwise will be grumpy and upset. Now imagine somebody who, when they need wine, 'Hey, Carlo Rossi, a good jug o' that works just fine,' that's going to be one happy camper, going to be much more easily satisfied. And you know what, if you can be satisfied with a glass of water, that's better still. So that notion of being adaptable, of just taking what you've got, thinking about it, appreciating it, and then you become a satisfied person. So it's the short path to satisfaction.

SPENCER: I think one reason sometimes people push back against this idea is that they worry that, if they learn to be satisfied with whatever they have, they won't push things to be better, they won't strive to improve their life. What do you think about that?

BILL: Yeah, well, what counts as better? If you get a bigger house, is that better? I don't know. I'm in a house that's too big. It's time for me to downsize. And there's a back corner of my mind that says, "Henry David Thoreau lived in a 10 by 15 foot cabin. Could I live in such a place?" And the answer is, well, right now, I actually spend much of my time in a 10 by 15 section of my house. It's where my computer is. It's where a couch is if I want to lie down. I like a kitchen; I like these other things. But the idea, and what most people buy into is the cultural dream of just having magnificent things. Well, consider this. If you're in ordinary housing, you're having a better, more comfortable existence than Rockefeller did in his mansion. What do you have that he didn't have? Well, you have air conditioning, you have refrigeration, you have indoor heating, you have the internet, you have cell phones, and the list can go on and on. He didn't have any of that. 'Yeah, but everybody looked up to him.' Well, big deal, right? Is that what you want? Is what you want social status? Because that's a tough game to play. And if you lose that game, it can be very painful. So come up with your own game to play where you're not out to impress other people. You're out to seek the things in life that give your life meaning. And if you think about what those are, a lot of them are well within your power to attain.

SPENCER: We talked about two insights or strategies from Stoicism — negative visualization where you imagine specific things that could be worse — and learning to be easily satisfied. What's another one you'd point to?

BILL: Okay, you can also think about how things could have been in the past and how things could be in the future. There's one technique that's interesting, and that is to look at this moment in your life and to think about how it will seem to you ten, 15, 20 years from now. I happen to be 71 years old, and I know that the things I'm doing right now will someday count as 'living in the good old days.' [chuckles] I can still walk, I'm still somewhat athletic, I ride a bicycle, I row a scull, and there will come a day when I can't do those things. So when I look back, these will count as the good old days. The realization that, whatever you've got — if you live long enough — you're going to lose, can help you savor the current moment, savor the things you're doing. What am I doing right now? I'm doing a podcast, which itself is miraculous, and five years ago would have been a sketchy thing to be doing, but I'm doing one right now. Isn't that amazing? And I won't always be able to do them, or people will lose interest in doing them with me, and so it's quite wonderful. Another thing that is along a similar line is to realize that, for everything you do, there will be a last time that you do it. Everything. There will be a last breath you take, a last time you put your head on the pillow. And some people would think that's just a terribly depressing idea to have, to be thinking about the last time, and a Stoic would say just the opposite. If you think there will be a last time, it makes this time that you're doing that all the more alive, all the more meaningful. And these are just insights from 2000 years ago, but human psychology hasn't changed, so they still work.

SPENCER: To that last point about it being depressing to do some of these things, I have noticed there seems to be individual variation in this. For example, I mentioned imagining myself not having arms as a way to increase gratitude for having arms and I've talked to friends about this as a way to enhance gratitude. The feedback I've gotten is that some people like it — they find it actually does enhance it — but other people say it makes them upset, and it actually interferes with their gratitude. And so I wonder, could it be there are just some people, if we're thinking about that there's a last moment you're going to do each thing — the last time you're gonna see your loved ones, the last moment you're going to pet your dog and so on — that that allows them to be more grateful, but maybe for other people, it just has such an emotional impact that maybe it actually just won't work for them.

BILL: Yeah, there are people — I call them congenital Stoics — who just take to this naturally. They grow up as Stoics. And when they find out about Stoicism, they say, "Well, why is that a big deal? I've been doing that all my life." There are other people who resist Stoicism. There are people who get a certain meaning out of life by their ability to feel anxious about things. That's their way of showing that they care, they're anxious. Now, for you to be anxious about somebody else is a waste of energy, emotional energy, time and everything else. If you can do something to help them, that's good. But if all you're doing is being anxious about them, you're not helping them in the least. So you're taking a bad situation — whatever situation they're in — and making it even worse, by making yourself miserable. I have found though that people who tend toward anxiety, it's very difficult for them to abandon those feelings. I would agree that there are people who are congenitally anxious and other people who are congenitally Stoical. It isn't saying that, if you're an anxious sort of person, you can't overcome that. You can. And I guess cognitive behavioral therapy can help very much with that. CBT, as it's also known, has an affinity for Stoic thinking. But other than that, I agree with you, there are people who will simply say, "If I had that thought, it would ruin my day or ruin the next several hours of my day, so I don't want to think that way."

SPENCER: So you don't see this as just techniques that are not well-suited for some people because of their personality? You think it is more something that's an indicator that the person could do internal work to get to the point where the techniques are useful? Or how do you see that?

BILL: I suggest when I'm giving a talk and people are wondering, is it worth trying? And I would say definitely worth trying, giving Stoic techniques a test drive because it's easy to do. If you told me you wanted to become a Zen Buddhist, I would say, "Ah, well, here's our week-long retreat" — I'm exaggerating a bit — and then you might say, "Okay, at the end of that week, will it have taken?" For some people, it takes right away; they get it. For some people, it takes 30 years and they get it. Stoicism is not that way. You can figure out what the techniques are. My standard saying is, in a three-day weekend, you can learn enough about Stoicism and the Stoic techniques to give them a test drive. And by the end of that three-day weekend, on Tuesday morning, you will either know whether it's working for you or not. And it's not expensive. You don't have to go off to a special place to do it. No one needs to know you're doing it so you can do it on the sly. And if it does make a difference, it can make a huge difference in the quality of your life. So it's worth giving it a try.

SPENCER: Yeah, I like the try-it-and-see-if-it-helps-you approach. It seems like a lot of self-help systems sell themselves as, 'I'm the best system. Every other system is inferior.' But my experience has been that different systems work for different people, where some people, they might just be the sort of person where imagining losing their loved one really is so upsetting to them that that's not a technique they should be doing; whereas, other people, they might find that's actually a great way to really feel grateful for their partner and all the wonderful things they have. So yeah, I think that's a nice approach.

BILL: Yeah, different people are different, and people are strange. And guess what, other people think I'm strange so I'm perfectly happy for that to be a shared sentiment. And people are puzzling, too. I find people to be puzzling, and I'm sure they return that as well. But you're wired in a certain way. And some people don't like that terminology, but you are wired neuronally; your neurons are wired into you that determine the way you think. And even worse, those neurons are bathed in this liquid full of hormones and chemicals that can affect how you think, so it's like a really sloppy wet computer. And then because we're wired differently, what seems like the obvious and easy thing to do is going to be different for different people. At the same time, we are capable of profound self-transformation. But to do that, we have to be willing to try new things and experiment. This is an easy experiment to do, and one very much worth doing.

SPENCER: Did you want to tell us about one more psychological strategy of the Stoics?

BILL: Yeah, one really good, really useful one, is to do what the Stoic philosopher Seneca referred to as his bedtime meditation. And what you do is, as you're laying your head on the pillow to drift off to sleep, you take a minute or two to think about your day, and to think about what you did and why you did it, and how you could have done it differently. So you go through the day: Were there moments when you could have been kind and you weren't kind? Well, that's something you need to work on. Were there moments where your ego just knocked the rest of your brain out of the way, and just spouted off? Well, your ego is your enemy, as they say, and you've got to work on keeping that in the background. I've been a practicing Stoic for 20 years now and I find that I have two problems with the bedtime meditation. First is that I fall asleep moments after my head hits the pillow — my wife is always amazed by my ability to fall asleep — so to do it at bedtime is a bad idea. And the other thing is that, as I go through my days, I play the role both of the actor and of the spectator. So I find myself watching the way I'm thinking, the way I'm acting, and probing to figure out why am I doing this? What's really behind it? And then again — not necessarily at bedtime, but later in the day — I can reassess. Okay, so am I making progress? Am I backsliding? And what do I need to be doing differently? And it's a really effective thing. It's therapeutic. It's a little bit discouraging because, even after 20 years of Stoic practice, I still do stupid things, things that are pointless from a Stoic point of view. And so what do you do? Well, you keep trying, you keep trying; that's what you do. That's why they call it practice. It's like musicians, how much do they have to practice? Well, forever, because if they stop, they will backslide.

SPENCER: We've talked about these four psychological insights or strategies. What do they have in common? Or to put it another way, what is the Stoic view of a person and how to become better and how to live a good life?

BILL: Okay, Stoic view of a person is, we're divided beings. We have this mind that's capable of rational thought and this would be our frontal cortex, not even all of our brain. And they didn't know this but there's an evolutionary history to our brain. The frontal cortex came last, in the last several tens of 1000s of years. We started out though, with the primitive brain, and the primitive brain is capable — it's your heart and your gut — it's capable of those emotions; it's capable of getting you to behave in a certain way or to form a certain belief. What you've got is an ongoing struggle throughout your entire life of the battle between your head, and your heart and gut for domination, for determination of how you live. They didn't think of it in those terms but that's what they were dealing with. So they came up with these psychological strategies, number one, to keep your heart and gut in check, and better still, to harness them so you could actually accomplish what your prefrontal cortex said was worth having. In my book, "The Stoic Challenge," I describe ways you can do that, describe this process of pretending that there are Stoic gods so when you are set back in life, you treat it as a test, you say, "Ah, those Stoic gods, they're challenging me. And I'm going to show them who's in charge, because I know they want me to get angry and upset and everything else. Well, I'm not going to let them." It's a kind of a device — another psychological device — which can be used with great effectiveness, takes what would otherwise simply be a bummer into a chance for self-growth, which is a wonderful transformation.

SPENCER: I think oftentimes, people think of the rational mind and the gut or heart or intuition as being at odds. On the one hand, you have people that say, "Oh, you should go with your gut. Your gut is wise. You have to always trust your intuition." On the other hand, you have people who say, "No, never trust your gut. You should be trying to be rational at all times." I have always found both of those framings very unhelpful because I think of it as, you've got these two powerful modes of operation; both are incredibly useful. To not use them both to the fullest of their ability seems really ridiculous to me. And so I like the framing that you mentioned about, not just how do you keep your gut in check, but how do you harness it? I'm curious, what do Stoics say about that give-and-take and the interplay between the rational and the intuitive or gut?

BILL: It's a fact of human existence and the sooner you realize that this battle is going on within you, the sooner you can take steps to deal with it appropriately. They weren't against emotions because it's stupid to be against emotions. They're going to be there, whether you want them to be there or not, because they're wired into you, or actually they're 'chemical-ed' into you; you know we're talking about hormones. Now I'm being very fast and loose in my medical discussion here. The goal isn't to extinguish their emotions, since that's an impossible goal to achieve. It's to keep them within bounds and to prevent them from hijacking your head. Here's an analogy for you. During the journey through life, a Stoic says you need to keep your head in the driver's seat and you need to stick your heart and gut in the back seat so your head can hear their comments and maybe sometimes do what they ask. But its hands will always be on the steering wheel; it'll be guiding. So you live with the emotions and there are times when you benefit from the emotions. You know what? If you were emotionless, we have a term for that; you'd be depressed, and no sensible person would want to go through life depressed. So you allow for your emotions, but at the same time, you keep a wary eye on them and what they're up to. They aren't up to you thriving as a human being. They're up to you being able to survive and reproduce on the savannas of Africa because that's when you acquired them. Well, guess what, we're no longer on the savannas of Africa. So what was extremely adaptive back then has become counterproductive in many cases today.


SPENCER: I absolutely agree that there's lots of times when emotions can misfire in the modern environment where they're not productive like, for example, getting excessively angry, punching someone and ending up in jail, or getting excessively anxious and spending all this time worrying over something that's not a big deal and so on. As a worrier myself, I certainly wish I worried a bit less. But that being said, it seems like emotions contain a lot of useful information. If you think of, for example, anxiety as a detector for danger, or you think of anger as a detector for someone who's trying to block what's valuable to you, and motivates you to stand up for yourself and show them that you won't let them block you anymore, I think it's quite useful viewed from that lens. And I'm wondering whether Stoics wrote about the value of emotion and how they thought about what emotions are teaching you, if they did write about that.

BILL: No, they didn't specifically talk about that. And again they were the preeminent psychologists of the first century, AD world. But in the late 20th century, psychologists started coming up with the same thing, the power of framing, for instance, where you decide how to frame something. If somebody insults you, you can frame it as a deep, hurting insult, or you can frame it as a joke. You can do a bunch of different things. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman came up with this notion of fast and slow thinking. Fast thinking is this reflexive kind of thinking, and it can save your life. When you meet somebody, and, without consciously doing so, you read them, you read their face, you read their body position, you read all of this. And sometimes, it allows you to detect somebody who has malicious intent toward you, so it's very valuable. At the same time, the fast thinking can draw wrong conclusions. So when you meet someone new, you form a Stoic impression. Can't help but do that; you do. And sometimes, that impression is right and very useful. But sometimes it's dead wrong and you end up having a bad impression of somebody that, in fact, is this really good person. You can also form stereotypical responses to people where, on the basis of the first thing, you come away with some stereotype and that's dangerous. Slow thinking is when you can reconsider those sorts of events and say, "Yeah, my emotions are pushing me in this direction and sometimes they're right and sometimes I should go along. Is this one of those cases? Or is it one of those cases where I should simply say, 'Emotions, shut up. I'm done with you for this topic because it doesn't make sense.'" Consider when you act on a consumer desire. It's the middle of an afternoon and you notice that you're looking at ads for new cars. You don't consciously set out to do that. You notice that you're doing that and then, before you know it, you realize, "Oh, I'm shopping for a new car. Well, isn't that amazing?" Chances are, you're responding to some ad that some clever company planted in you, possibly on the internet. Is it something you want? Not really. It's a little desire seed that attached itself to you and now it's trying to grow inside of you. And now you, as a rational being, need to say, "Actually, do I want this thing to grow or is it a weed, in which case I should eradicate it."

SPENCER: For listeners who might be interested in learning more about this idea of fast and slow thinking, you can check out Kahneman's wonderful book, "Thinking Fast and Slow." I will just note a couple of things. I believe that that idea actually came from Stanovich and West. Kahneman helped popularize it, but I just wanted to flag that I don't think he invented the concept. The last topic I wanted to jump in on before we move on to another subject is a little bit more about the history of Stoicism. Who are some of the big figures in it and where did these ideas come from?

BILL: Okay, Stoicism originated with a Greek — this was 300 BCE — named Zeno of Citium. There were a whole bunch of Zenos around at that time, so it's easy to get confused. He ended up in Athens and started encountering these philosophers and realized that they had different schools and decided that he wanted to be a philosopher. So he created his own school of philosophy. They met in the stoa, the painted porch, stoa poikile which, by the way, is still in Athens and you can see it there but it's in utter ruins and, unless somebody says, "There it is," you're gonna say, "Wow, that just looks like a ruined field to me." So they met there; that's how they got their name. To create this school, he mixed together different philosophies that he had been exposed to and made a blend of philosophies, picking and choosing. It's the way somebody who wanted to teach martial arts might come up with a new kind of martial arts that blended together currently existing kinds. You might say, "Well, that makes it seem like a commercial undertaking." Well, philosophy back then was. You had schools; it was how you made your living, and you had to have people who were willing to come and listen to you. You did that by creating a product that was useful for them. Stoicism was designed to be useful, and was designed to appeal to normal individuals. It wasn't this academic pie in the sky kind of thing. It was practical advice and I think that's why it had the lasting power. Now we know very little of the Greek Stoics because their writings have mostly been lost. But fortunately, in the first century AD, the Romans — actually a bit before that — but in the first century AD, the Romans took the philosophy and put their own spin on it. We have the four great Roman Stoics who were: Seneca — whom I mentioned earlier — Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and the fourth, less-known Stoic is Musonius Rufus, who was actually the teacher of Epictitus. When people say, "I want to read the actual Stoics," they would be reading those four. They're very accessible — if you had an abstract philosophy class in college, well, this is nothing like that — very accessible with lots of personal takeaways that you can put to work in your own life.

SPENCER: What book do you think is best to start on Stoicism, for someone who finds these ideas appealing, and they want to really apply them to their own life, not just understand at a theoretical level?

BILL: Okay, you want to read Epictetus's notes or manual. They're actually notes written by one of his students. He actually has written other things as well. But this is a great, short, little thing, "The Enchiridion of Epictetus." And in it, the basic ideas are described. One of them is this dichotomy of control. There are things you can control and things you can't control. And if you spend your time thinking about things you can't control, you're wasting your time, because you can't control them. Focus your attention on things you can control. And there are any number of books now; I just checked because I was doing a different podcast. When I wrote "A Guide to the Good Life" — which, by the way, I would recommend as a good introductory book to Stoic philosophy — when I wrote it, that would be in the early 2000s, there were a handful of books written for general audiences about Stoicism. I just checked this number the other day; you can do searches on Amazon. At this time, books written for popular audiences on Stoicism are coming out at the rate of three per day.

SPENCER: What?! [laughs]

BILL: Yes, I know, I know. You do an advanced search on Amazon and you ask for books written in English, published this year that have either 'Stoicism' or 'Stoic' in their title, and you've come up with this incredible rate. Now, most of those are self-published and there's nothing wrong with that, but it is a sign that we have this huge resurgence of interest in Stoicism. It was nearly dormant by the end of the 20th century, and now it seems to be going strong.

SPENCER: Final question on Stoicism: have there been new ideas added to it since these ancient ideas? Is there a modern tradition that's developing on top of it or is it really still the same as it was?

BILL: People are divided into two different categories. There are people who really just study the ancient Stoics and try to get a deeper understanding of what exactly they thought about a variety of things. It's almost reverential, that they had the truth so what we need to do is look back at them very carefully, and we can find out what the truth is. Then there are people like myself; I consider myself a 21st century Stoic. What I do is, I take the parts of their philosophy that would be of most interest to people in the 21st century, and then I try to take and adapt their philosophy to our times. One example I just mentioned was the dichotomy of control. One thing I did is, I said, "Well, actually, you're better off thinking of it as a trichotomy." A dichotomy of control: there are things we can control and things we can't control and we should focus our attention on the things we can control. In my trichotomy, I said, "But of the things we can't control, they actually come in two different types: there are things we have absolutely no control over, like whether the sun rises tomorrow. There are things we have some but not complete control over, like whether, if we're going to play a tennis game, how hard we practice, and the strategy we use. And then there are some things we have absolute control over, like the values we choose to live by." So I added that middle ground and I think I have good reasons for doing it, just practical reasons. But I've gotten some feedback from the traditional Stoic people who said, "You're messing with it." Well, you know, Seneca admits to messing with it and Seneca is currently my favorite Stoic, so I get to mess with it, too. And it's still within the sense of Stoicism. It's a different spin, and it makes it more useful to modern individuals than it would otherwise be.

SPENCER: Yeah, it seems like if you think of Stoicism as a historical idea, and you studied it in a historical context, it makes sense to me to just view it as a static body of writing. But if you think about it as a psychological system designed to be useful, then we should use modern psychological insights and try to continually improve it just the way that martial arts has been improved over centuries through combining techniques, adapting techniques, and so on. Yeah, that makes perfect sense to me.

BILL: Yeah, some people treat it like a religion; I treat it like a tool. And if you can take a tool and improve the tool, then that's exactly what you should do. Religion, if somebody comes out and says, "Okay, this Christianity thing, I've got a new spin on it." I guess there are actually a lot of people who do that, in a sense, but if they say, "The fifth commandment, we need to change that," you aren't going to get very far.

SPENCER: Switching topics now. What is the thinker-feeler divide?

BILL: I have turned my writing attention away from Stoicism now and toward being reasonable, what it means to be reasonable. There's a sense in which I still am within the Stoic framework because the Stoics were very interested in logic, and they were very interested in the battle between the reasonable part of you and the irrational part of you. I started thinking that our times are tumultuous times. It seems to me, there's just this feeling I have — I'm an old man so I'm supposed to have this feeling anyway — but just that things are going crazy. All sorts of things are happening that are dramatically unlike what I've seen happen in the course of my lifetime. It really feels — to put it in the most dramatic way — like the crazies are taking over and that's a very disturbing feeling to have. So I'm trying to dig deeper into that. I've come up with this analysis of things that the world seems to be divided between thinkers and feelers. Thinkers are the people who are engaged in evidence-based structured thinking. Feelers, they just turn to their heart and gut and whatever their heart and gut tell them is the case, that's what they go with. Thinkers can justify their conclusions and their beliefs because all they have to do is say, "Well, here's the evidence I based it on and here's the way I reached those conclusions." Feelers can't do that for the simple reason that their heart and gut are incapable of reasoning so there is that interesting thing. Feelers also are very willing to outsource their thinking. They think, "Wow, what do I think about this? I don't know. Let me find out what somebody else thinks about it and I will believe whatever they believe," and they tend to turn to fellow feelers who, by the way, are happy to do the job for free. They're happy to tell you what you should think. There's that divide, though it's actually a spectrum; it isn't binary 'you're either a thinker or a feeler.' There's this huge middle ground. And that's what I'm exploring and thinking about these days.

SPENCER: Can you give an example maybe? Ideally maybe an example from one side of the political aisle and an example from the opposite side because I assume you don't think it's all just happening on one side or the other.

BILL: See, the political aisle, it's an interesting thing because now, if you refer to... Well, Republicans aren't what Republicans used to be, and Democrats aren't what Democrats used to be. It's a mistake to equate conservatives with Republicans because many Republican views are now quite radical in historical terms. It's like there's a turnabout going on. Politics is one place that you find this; it's a dramatic place where you find it, and it seems to be getting worse. I'm not going to pick on any particular individuals but there are people who, if you ask them, "Why do you think that?" how would they respond? It's one good test. A thinker will say, "Well, because I've looked at the statistics, and they say this, and here's how I've analyzed that, and here's how I drew my conclusion." A feeler on the other hand, if you ask, "Well, why do you think that?" might just say, "'Cuz I know it's right," or might get angry at you for asking why. If you get angry at someone who challenges one of your beliefs, it's a sign that you don't know why you believe what you believe. Because if you did, you could just calmly, coolly say, "Well, here's why." If you get angry instead, it's because you suspect, 'I don't really know why I believe that. I can't really justify it. So I wish this person would just go away.'

SPENCER: I agree that that sometimes is what's going on when people get angry when someone challenges their beliefs. But I think another thing that can be happening is that they can feel like the person who says that they're just calmly challenging their belief might actually have ill will towards them or people like them. An example might be like a trans person where someone says, "Well, what's the evidence that trans people really exist and it's not all just made up?" On the one hand, the person saying that might just think, "I'm just questioning the evidence," but the trans person might say, "Well, you're treating me like I'm an idiot, and like I don't know what I actually feel and you're invalidating me," and so on.

BILL: Okay, at that point, an interesting thing is, we lapse back into Stoicism. There are some people who are hypersensitive, and Stoics said, "That's something that you're going to be very unhappy in life unless you can shake that." And the Stoics also said, "It's possible to shake that by going into a personal training where you make a point of exposing yourself to things that make you uncomfortable so that you can avoid getting uncomfortable in those situations." Here's something that a thinker will do, by the way, that's another telling thing: a true thinker will go out of his or her way to figure out what the other side has to say instead of treating the other side and their thoughts as forbidden. A true thinker will say, "Let's see what they got" — I call this 'stress-testing of belief' — and in the stress test, you won't simply find an idiot on the other side of the debate. You'll find the best, most thoughtful person that you can on the other side of the debate, and you'll listen very carefully to what they say. It's an interesting process. I strongly encourage people to undertake it because what you'll often find is, they actually have an interesting perspective on things. So neither of you has the complete truth. Each of you has a perspective, or has access to information that the other lacks. By having the conversation, by having that contact, both of you can go away with your mind changed. Now because of the internet, people have just decided in this social media, the proper way to respond to any challenge of your beliefs is to get angry and to rant in behavior. And that eliminates the possibility of thoughtful conversations, which is tragic, because they are very useful if you're in pursuit of the truth. If all you want to do is preserve whatever your beliefs are, ah, it's the last thing you want to do. But shouldn't you be out to optimize your mind, to fill it to the extent possible with true and useful beliefs? If that's your goal, then you want to find out what the other side has to say. Not what the idiots on the other side have to say, but what thoughtful people have to say on the other side. And if you say, "Well, there are no thoughtful people on the other side," hey, guess what, that's a sign that your head has been hijacked by your heart and gut. So for instance, it's interesting to do... Abortion is now a highly debated topic; it has been for a long time. Guess what, there are thoughtful people on both sides, and it's fascinating and it's educating to listen to what they say, because you'll come away with a more nuanced view on the topic. You'll say, "Is it right or is it wrong?" "Well, it depends," and then you'll start spelling out the cases where it depends.

SPENCER: So if we think about the abortion topic, what is the feeler way of dealing with it on pro-abortion, anti-abortion, and I'd be curious to contrast that with a thinker way of dealing with the topic.

BILL: Okay, a feeler, one thing is the importance. You can tell you're dealing with a feeler if they want to show you pictures of aborted fetuses. A thinker, on the other hand, is going to have some kind of moral principle that it's going to be based on. Probably not a religious principle but some other principle like a classic argument is, "Well, is it capable of feeling pain? Is it capable of existing on its own?" But it's really interesting. I would regard myself as somewhere in the middle on this debate because I'll tell you, there are cases where I am highly confident that abortion is morally permissible. Right now, I'm talking about moral permissibility, not legal permissibility. Because morality and the law are two separate things.The law is whatever politicians say it is, and they might not be moral people; whereas morality has some sort of higher principles behind it. There are times when I would say abortion is absolutely morally permissible and that's in cases of, for example, an ectopic pregnancy where the fetus is a goner and the only question is whether the fetus, when it dies, takes out the mother with it. So if what you value is life, you're gonna say, "Well, in those cases, get rid of the fetus because otherwise, the mother, a second life, is gone." The fetus is a goner in those cases. They are rare but they are real cases. At the other extreme, do I think abortion should always be allowed? Well, no, because you drift across this interesting line of, well, what about infanticide? Infanticide used to be commonplace. They would wait until the baby was born and then kill the baby, or set the baby out to perish just out alone. Most people would say, "Well, that's terrible." And then you start backing up, okay, what about a baby that could be born alive, and so on? It turns from an absolute thing — that I'm either pro-life or pro-choice — to this really nuanced middle position. It depends very much on the circumstances, 'here are some of the things we should take into consideration.' Nuance is gone from many popular conversations, and that's a shame because the truth, whatever it is, is going to be nuanced. We live in a complex world.

SPENCER: Would it be fair to summarize this as saying, on the topic of abortion, from your point of view, feelers on the Left, would be saying things like maybe 'anyone who thinks women shouldn't be allowed to have abortion just want to control women's bodies;' whereas, people on the Right who are feelers might be saying things like, 'abortion is exactly equivalent to murder,' and here's a picture of a fetus. And thinkers on the Left might be making arguments about the benefits to women and the unlikelihood of fetuses in early age being able to feel pain; whereas, thinkers on the Right would be making arguments around, well, maybe in certain circumstances, the fetus actually is developed enough that it could survive on its own, or you might be depriving the fetus of a good future life. Is that a reasonable way to summarize that?

BILL: Let me slightly repackage that. You can't tell whether someone's a thinker or a feeler by looking at their conclusions, because two thinkers can have different conclusions and that can happen because one of them has access to information that the other doesn't. One of them has a different perspective on the information than the other one does. So you can have two people who examine the information, think very carefully about it and draw different conclusions. It isn't by their conclusions that we label them. It's by the process they use to arrive at those conclusions. And if you need a slogan, thinkers rely on their head, feelers rely on their gut and heart. And thinkers will be able to give you the process because they relied on their head. They just say, "Well, here's the evidence I'm basing it on," or, "Here's the principles, the ethical principles that I'm basing it on. Oh, and these are why I think those ethical principles are correct." So somebody who can walk you through that process to their conclusion is a thinker. And somebody who says, "Well, it's just wrong and I know it's wrong. Think about the suffering..." Now a thinker will also think that's one of the things he will take into account. There are lots of directions we could head here so it becomes nuanced. See, here's the thing. We live in a world where conversation has evolved, has transmogrified into extended rants, actually short rants. That's what we're capable of doing. We've lost our ability to have thoughtful conversations. And we treat the people on the other side as enemies, and we get upset by what they do. Well, that's all avoidable. And it's a shame that we've devolved to that because, in a democracy, you need to be able to talk to the other side. You need to be able to arrive at some kind of compromise. Democracy can't exist otherwise. I'm a big fan of democracy, and I regard it as currently being under threat to the greatest extent in my lifetime that it's been under, and I don't want to see it go away. It's useful. Another thing is free speech. A lot of times when people say, "The other side, I don't want to hear what they say. Let's shut them up. Let's de-platform them," or there are other more extreme steps that you could take. And I don't want to see that go away; I think free speech is absolutely crucial if you want to find the truth. Because if you don't, what you're going to do is, whenever somebody comes up with a new idea, you're going to squelch it, you're going to say, "Ah, well, he's thinking different. Let's shut him up." So much of human progress is the result of people being able to come up with outlandish ideas and convince the rest of the world that those ideas are correct.

SPENCER: One thing I wanted to ask about: where do you put values in terms of thinking versus feeling? I guess, if I had to place them in one of them, I think I would place values as part of feeling. Your values, what you fundamentally care about, doesn't seem to me something that you prove logically. It's more like a process of introspection and you realize, oh, yeah, I really care fundamentally about this value and that value. But maybe you disagree with that?

BILL: Yeah. One thing I am very leery of is religious values. God says, "Here's what we should do." Just to get a little bit deeper into that — I could go way deep, but I'll try to avoid it — somebody who does something because it's what God wants them to do, and doesn't do something because it's what God doesn't want them to do is a less moral person than somebody who does something because it's the right thing to do, and doesn't do something else because it's the wrong thing to do. The first person is just interested in, well, am I going to get punished. If I'm going to get punished, I'm not going to do it. Second person, it isn't about whether or not I'm going to get punished; I'm doing what's right to do. So I would regard these non-religious ethics as higher, truer ethics than religious ethics. Having said that, okay, so if we can't just take God's word for what's right and wrong, what can we do? Well, we can do thought experiments. And the classic one is, we can do this thought experiment of, well, suppose you could create the world, what kind of world would you create? Suppose I told you, you had it in your power to create a world either with slaves or without slaves? Here's the catch. When you create the world, you're going to take a part in it; you're going to appear in it, and maybe you'll be a slave, maybe you won't. So do you want a world with slavery in it? And most people would say, "Well, no, I guess I wouldn't want that 'cause I could end up a slave. Let's not do that."

SPENCER: I think most people wouldn't want it anyway, right? I think in the modern era, most people wouldn't want a world with slaves, even if they didn't have a chance of being a slave.

BILL: Okay, the world still has slavery, of course. Your neighborhood has slavery. We just ignore the ongoing slavery. By slavery, I mean sex trafficking, which could be regarded as a form of slavery. But there were people who, for the longest time, turned a blind eye to slavery. Imagine you're on a plantation in Mississippi in 1840. It was all around you, and people getting whipped, people in chains. And yet, the curious thing is, people didn't stop to think, "Gosh, what if that were me? It's luck of the draw that that isn't me, that I'm here sipping tea, watching them work, and they're out working in the hot sun. It's just the luck of the draw." So that kind of thinking of what is the right thing to do, well, I want to create — if I had it in my power — a world where, if who I was was determined by the luck of the draw, it would be a world that I would be very glad to be part of. I wouldn't want to create a world where there's going to be these extreme losers. That's one example of the kind of experiment that you can do. So you can reach ethics in a non-religious manner and reach ethics in a way where you are coming up. You can explain why you believe the things you do.


SPENCER: I definitely think that thought experiments can be really powerful as a way to better understand what's true, and also your own values. But it seems to me that, at the end of the day, values will bottom out in our psychology. For example, I really, really care about the truth. I deeply care about the truth, and I'm willing to suffer sometimes in order to learn the truth. I seem to care about it fundamentally, even more than my happiness, in some cases. Other people just don't seem to care about the truth very much; it just doesn't seem to be one of their core values. Maybe they have other really strong core values about preserving nature, or core values around equality really strongly. There's just many different values you could have. And it seems to me that it's hard to prove that any of these values are better than others. So I've come to think of them as psychological facts about different people. Maybe I'm misinterpreting you but it seems to me that you're suggesting that maybe you can use logic to determine which values are better than others.

BILL: Okay, you've made a very good point there. And there is a connection between feelings and morality that, in fact, the feeling of disgust, the kind of emotional feelings we have, if we lacked them, we wouldn't think in moral terms. An example of that is, okay, I happen to be a vegetarian. And my problem or my virtue — take your pick — is that I made a point of becoming aware of the suffering animals have to experience or typically do — they don't have to, there are actually ways out — but typically have to experience in order to end up on my dinner plate. And I just decided I don't want to be part of that. I don't want to be at the end of the chain. But then there are people who don't think in those terms, who don't care. So if you don't have that basic gut feeling of what it would be like to be experiencing that pain, then it's going to be hard for you to be a moral person. Psychopaths, these people who kill others, just lack this notion that others can feel pain, that others can feel distress; they don't get it the way we get it, the we who aren't in that category get it. Another thing you talked about was your passion for obtaining the truth. Okay, so what does the truth accomplish if you have the truth? Number one, you can never really be sure that you have the truth and that's why it's important for you to have an open mind. But what's the advantage of having the truth? Well, it keeps you in touch with reality. Reality doesn't care what you believe, it doesn't care what you think. It's just going to chug along and do what it's got to do. Now, the upside is reality is always leaving us clues about its nature. But in order to benefit from those clues, we have to study the world around us. We have to study how it works. Now there are people who deny the notion of a reality. They say, "Well, that may be reality for you, but it isn't reality for me." Those people are typically just arguing about the details of reality but, the existence of a reality, a common reality, it's out there. And if you don't believe me, there are all sorts of experiments I can ask you to do, where you will find out pretty quickly, oh, yeah, there are some things, some physical things that are in common to all of us. That's why I pursue the truth because the truth keeps me in touch, keeps me grounded in reality. And by keeping grounded in reality, I have a much better chance of having a good life than if I'm out of touch with reality.

SPENCER: I totally agree. There's so many pragmatic benefits of really being truth-seeking. But I think that I actually care about truth above and beyond that. I think I value it intrinsically for its own sake as well, because there seem to be times where I'm willing to sacrifice other things to get the truth, including some degree of happiness. I'm wondering whether you think you value truth above and beyond just its pragmatic benefits.

BILL: Well, there are a whole bunch of truths. For instance, you can imagine a person — you have too much sense to do this — but just imagine a person who made it his lifetime activity to memorize all of the baseball statistics. I don't even know if that's humanly possible. And suppose he did it correctly. Would he possess the truth? Oh, he would possess an abundant truth about baseball. And then the thing is, I would say, it was a misguided thing because baseball in some deep sense — I hope there are no baseball fans listening — doesn't matter. Baseball is just a game. And so what you need to do is, you need to value some truths more than others. And what's one way of valuing them? Sometimes, they have personal value and, like I say, they keep you in touch with reality. And so you go out of your way to figure out what those truths are, or to do your best. Like I say, you can never be certain that you've got the truth. And that's why you should always be willing to listen to those on the other side. But you do your best to arrive at a close approximation of it. So the pragmatic value is a huge thing unless we get some pleasure out of make-believe — and I understand that — in which case, we're out of touch with reality because it feels good to be out of touch with reality. There's a place for that in human existence, but carry it too far, and then it becomes a hazardous thing to do.

SPENCER: It's an excellent point about there's so many truths you could learn. I definitely don't care about all truths equally. I have some kind of importance weighting for truths. Some obscure fact about some obscure beetle is not important to me; whereas, truths about the basic nature of reality seem much more important in my value system. When I think about this dichotomy that you're presenting — thinkers and feelers — part of me resists this because I think of the optimal thing as both being a thinker and a feeler so that this idea of being able to really be in touch with your emotions and understand them deeply and take them into account and not dismiss them seems important to me, while thinking carefully and evaluating the evidence and trying to update when you get new information and using logic, all those seem really important. Maybe I'm being unfair to your system, but I guess, to me, the thinker plus feeler seems better than either on its own. Am I off-base? What am I missing?

BILL: Yeah. This is one thing I have trouble with. As soon as I say thinkers and feelers, everybody thinks I'm talking in dichotomous terms, you're one or the other, it's binary. But it's a spectrum. And so here was the thing. I'm recently retired, but I spent 40 years teaching college students, teaching them critical thinking and, in the process, I realized it was a wonderful opportunity for me to observe them and how they think, how they form their beliefs. Anyway, what I discovered is that there is a spectrum. So it isn't 'you're either a thinker or you're a feeler.' Most people are midway in the spectrum. At one end, I have what I call lazy feelers; these are people who just don't like to think and they're not going to do it. In the same way as a couch potato doesn't want to exercise, one of these lazy feelers doesn't want to think, and instead, wants to rely on on his heart and gut to form beliefs, because you don't have to think because they're incapable of thinking, or outsource their thinking to other people, let other people think on their behalf. In the middle — and this is the encouraging thing I discovered in my class — there are what I refer to as naive feelers. For these individuals, evidence-based structured thinking of the kind I've been pushing here, doesn't count as a thing. They simply haven't been exposed to it. They've been around people — friends, family, even teachers — who just felt their way to conclusions and they thought that's just how you do it. So in the class, I would open them up, I would say, "Let's think about evidence. Let's think about how it works. Let's think about how to be skeptical of the evidence. Let's think about how to draw conclusions from it." And much to my delight, they could be pulled toward the thinker end of the thinker-feeler spectrum. Now, the other thing was, I found students who were well toward the thinker end of the spectrum but, even in those cases, it was possible for them to think more and better than they did. Because what I found — and you might have noticed this in your conversations with thoughtful people — is they're selective thinkers. You talk to a doctor about a medical question, and the doctor will go deep into thinker mode and talk about the evidence and what the studies have found, and so on, and the conclusions, and then you ask the same doctor about politics and the doctor switches into feeler mode, and basically just starts ranting about the idiots who are up for election or whatever. And you can do politics in a thoughtful way. You can discuss it. But a lot of people will flip — it's like bipolar — they flip from one to the other. The other thing I noticed about thoughtful students is, they seemed to be oblivious of what are known as cognitive biases and these are these built-in mistakes in our thinking process. And as a result, they can think a whole bunch but end up with a wrong conclusion. So the realization that what the world needs is to think more and better. I don't think you will ever become a pure thinker who has no emotions. And even if you could, that would be a dumb thing to do because, like I said before, it would be a sign that you were a depressed individual, you'd be an unmotivated individual. So all through the spectrum, we have feelings playing a role. The question is, can we arrange it so they play an appropriate role, so they play the role that will allow us to have the best life that we can?

SPENCER: For those who want to become better thinkers, what are some tips that you'd have?

BILL: Well, one thing is to think about — watch yourself go through the day — do you actually switch from thinker mode to feeler mode? Are you a feeler with respect to politics? Right now in Ohio where I live, we're coming up on an election where we're voting on a proposition, and I try to stay in thinker mode when I do that. What does that mean? Well, the first thing I do is, I read the proposition we're voting on. There are lawn signs all around about what I should vote for. I try to ignore them, and try to analyze it, start at the basis, and read what it says. Next step, read both sides, what they have to say about it, and be very careful in choosing my sources because there's going to be idiots on both sides. So we're going to avoid that and we're going to find thoughtful people on both sides. What do they have to say? And then, as a result of this process, come up with the conclusion. And if somebody challenges the conclusion, I can say, "Well, here's why I think what I do." Okay, that's one example. Another thing is, I've now made it my business to learn a lot more about cognitive biases and I've realized the extent to which I'm susceptible to confirmation bias, which is this tendency to look for evidence that confirms whatever it is we believe, and avoid evidence that challenges what we believe. And you talk to a person before who would get angry if her views were challenged; that person is deeply under the influence of confirmation bias because she's insecure about what she believes. She only wants evidence that she's right, and wants to silence evidence that she's mistaken. And it's dangerous, because you can get boxed in. What if you are mistaken? A lot of the lazy feelers are in exactly that box. They can't be talked out of a mistaken belief because they just will shut it out. In fact, it'll even backfire. You try to talk them out of a belief and they'll dig in their heels and they'll say, "Well, he's not going to talk me out of it. I'm going to believe it even more." So, difficult situation.

SPENCER: Before we wrap up, I'm curious to hear how you think this modern social media environment has interacted with what you're calling the thinker-feeler divide.

BILL: Well, you pick the year. The internet started out this wonderful source of information where you could find all sorts of great stuff and it was pretty reliable. But then that information has been polluted by people who put up all sorts of lies. You have confirmation bias being strengthened because, when you do a search on a search engine, it won't tell you the truth; it will tell you what you want to hear. Because that's how Google makes its money, by telling you things you want to hear so you will keep coming back, so you can be exposed to ads that might plant belief seeds in your mind. It's this insidious process. I feel like I'm engaged in a conspiracy theory here. But it's the truth. And the other thing that social media has done, you might have known, you might have had relatives who would spout out a conspiracy theory over Thanksgiving dinner, and everybody at the table would just go quiet and kind of roll their eyes and wait till that person was done and that would be the end of the thing. But now, if you have strange ideas, social media allows you to find people who share those ideas around the globe. And when you find each other, you can form tribes, you can coordinate actions. And by having other people who believe what you do, it reinforces that belief. And the internet, social media gives those people a megaphone with which to spread those beliefs. And so now, we're just awash in conspiracy theories. And it's not going to get better because artificial intelligence is only going to make things worse. What we're going to get is, what used to be a simple rant can now be expressed as a thoughtfully written document for a truly mistaken idea. AI doesn't care whether what you ask it to do is true or false; it just does its best job to give you what you want.

SPENCER: What do you see as some potential solutions, or at least steps in the right direction to help combat this in the internet age?

BILL: Well, I'm working on a book. I'm a teacher, alright? How do I teach? I can teach in the classroom; I'm now retired so I don't do that anymore. But I'm attempting to reach a broader audience and show them ways that they can become more thoughtful. And I'm encouraging people in this book, showing people what it is to think your way to a conclusion, and showing them what it is to evaluate evidence. I encourage them to think more and point out our tendency to be bimodal in our thinking, where we switch from thinker to feeler to thinker to feeler, and realize that we're doing that. And then once we realize that we're doing that, maybe keep our mind more involved in a variety of topics, including politics, teaching people how to think better. I explore the various cognitive biases and describe the trouble they're gonna give you if you fall victim to them, and how to avoid them. One of the things is to know they're out there, and then you realize. For instance, now, when I do a Google search, I make a point of doing paired searches. If I did a Google search on the abortion debate, I would break it into two searches: one, arguments for abortion or for the morality of abortion, followed by a second search, arguments against, and I would read both sets. Just try it once as an experiment; it's really instructive. You'll realize it's a more complicated thing than I imagined that it was. So how am I approaching this? I think the root problem of the current political divide and all of the civil animosity and the lack of conversation, the root is that people feel instead of think. So the idea is, if I can encourage people to think more and better, show them how it's done, and give them actual exercises that they can go through in order to arrive at that stage, that's what I need to be doing right now in my writing. The world needs that right now.

SPENCER: Last question for you: a challenge with this kind of work is that people might learn about cognitive biases like confirmation bias, for example. And they might say, "Oh, yeah, I see that the other people have that." But they don't necessarily see themselves. Or even if they are aware that they might suffer from it at times, they don't actually catch themselves doing it in the moment. How do you think about becoming better thinkers given that, even though we become aware of cognitive bias, it doesn't mean that we're going to necessarily actually do better in the heat of the moment?

BILL: Yeah, my standard answer to that is, if you think you're too smart to avoid confirmation bias, that's a sure symptom that you've fallen victim to it. It's so insidious. And that's true of the other cognitive biases. A true thinker in the sense I have in mind is going to be a humble individual, is going to be an individual who admits, "Hey, I don't know everything. Much of what I think I know, is probably mistaken, or incomplete, or my beliefs are not sufficiently nuanced. And I know for a fact that I'm susceptible to these cognitive biases, and that means I have to take extra care to avoid falling victim to them." In other words, it's a humble position, where you realize, I'm a functioning human being, and that means that I've got a head but I've also got a heart and a gut. And they're always kind of battling it out to see who takes control. And I've got to take that into account in my life. I don't want to kill off my heart and gut because life wouldn't probably be worth living. And at the same time, I don't want them to hijack my mind, because they're going to lead me to some very dark places.

SPENCER: Bill, thanks for coming on the podcast.

BILL: Oh, thank you for inviting me. It's been fun.


JOSH: A listener asks: "What do you like most and least about other people?"

SPENCER: Well, when it comes to friends, there's a few things that I tend to look for in a friendship. One: someone who loves ideas, loves exploring ideas, especially in kind of an analytical way, because that's one of my favorite types of conversation to have, the kind of conversation that I have on this podcast as well. Another thing I look for in friends is kindness and altruism. It's very important to me that my friends are deeply kind people. A third thing that I look for in friends — and this is one that I've come to care about or explicitly notice more recently, like in the last few years — is I don't mind if someone has challenges or mental health challenges. That to me is totally fine in a friend. But what I do care about is whether someone lets their own challenges harm the people around them. And so I've become more aware of this and trying to vet people more carefully that they're not the sort of person that lets their own challenges harm those around them. As an example, someone who, when they're dealing with something difficult, they treat their friends badly; that, to me, is not okay, even though they're going through a difficult thing. So I would say those are the three big things I look for: that extreme intellectual curiosity and loving of analysis, deep kindness, and not letting their own challenges harm the people around them.




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