Reprogramming the Source Code
Beliefs and mental shortcuts are like software that helps us make sense of the world. What should we do when those lines of code are outdated or malicious?
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Believe it or not, we used to drive places—places that might be 10, 20, 50 miles away or more—without cell phones.
I am of an age that I remember this (I learned to drive 6 or 7 years before I got my first cell phone) and am shocked that it's even legal for someone to get behind the wheel without a way to contact emergency services.
Unless you're in the very small portion of my readership under the age of 30, I'm sure you remember the wildly reckless act of leaving the house without a communication device in your pocket. It's really a wonder we survived at all.
The other day, I got a notification that my daughter's debit card had been declined for insufficient funds. This happens from time to time when she forgets to transfer money or loses track of the balance. While having a card declined is enough to send me running out of a store in embarrassment, she doesn't seem to worry about it. After all, it's always a result of faulty accounting rather than an issue of not having enough money.
Anyhow, I checked in with her (via text, of course) to just double-check that everything was okay. I can instantly add money to her card if necessary (because technology). Everything was fine, she was just going too fast at the checkout and forgot that she planned to use cash. I told her that any time I see that notification, my mind immediately conjures up the image of her at some run-down gas station in the middle of a town with one stoplight—no money, no ride, and no way to call home.
She replied: “OMG haha”
My reflexive fear is, of course, ludicrous. It's an artifact of a time before Apple Pay. Before texting. Before cell phones. My imagination, though, hasn't caught up with the circumstances on the ground. My mind automatically makes connections between anachronistic scenarios of certain teenage doom and a notification on the phone that's really a computer with the power to tell me exactly where she is and what she's trying to spend money on.
That automatic connection is a heuristic.
A heuristic is a mental shortcut or a line of code that allows our brains to process information faster and with less energy expenditure. Heuristics are key to efficient thinking—which can be key to survival.
Instead of needing to actively think about all the different scenarios that could result in a particular phone notification about my child, my brain zeroes in on a heuristic that assumes "lack of funds" equals "in mortal danger." Pretty nifty, right?
What's that? This heuristic causes me undue anxiety about a remote, nearly impossible course of events, you say?
I've had a cell phone for over 20 years now. I've had a child for close to 16 years now. I've had a smartphone since 2009. And I've had a child with a smartphone for like 6 years.
And yet, for some reason, my brain hasn't gotten around to reprogramming this anxiety-inducing line of code. It's stuck in a time when a teenager could easily be penniless, stranded at a run-down gas station in a town with one stoplight.
Heuristics like this one are part of a system.
We might even call it an operating system. And this particular system we might label as The Parental System. The Parental System includes all those "helpful" lines of code that set the psychological and cultural conditions in which I'm less likely to allow my kid to be abducted from a run-down gas station in a town with one stoplight. It's the same wetware that fills my body with a jolt of adrenaline if I see her too close to the edge of a cliff or, you know, if I see her climb into a car with a teenage driver.
The Parental System works as intended—which is to say that I'm supposed to worry. I'm supposed to imagine the unimaginable. I'm supposed to see that notification and immediately make sure she has everything she needs while she's at a neon-lit big box store in the middle of a suburban strip mall with a group of friends.
Worry is effective and efficient. Because, at one point, worrying kept her alive.
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Beliefs can work like heuristics, too.
What we believe about the world and how it works—often in the form of religion, but also ethics, politics, etc.—acts as source code for interpreting what's happening around us. However, beliefs have a dual function, according to anthropologist Clifford Geertz. Heuristics are primarily models of reality—they form based on our observation or education of how things are. Beliefs, on the other hand, are both models of reality and models for reality.
Beliefs, then, are like algorithms. We make and remake the world according to the rules coded into our beliefs.
The Parental System doesn't (normally) change the reality in front of me. Worrying that my kid is marooned out of cell phone range with no money doesn't make it true. But the fervent belief that I must know where she is at all times will create a reality in which I hover over her either physically or digitally. My worry, as a physiological response, doesn't change her or her experience. My beliefs, over time, do.
Beliefs create in us a "certain set of dispositions," according to Geertz. It's not just what we believe but how that belief leads to "tendencies, capacities, propensities, skills, habits, liabilities, [and] pronenesses." Believing that my kid is always in mortal danger makes me prone to constant worry. It puts me in the habit of persistently checking on her. It creates the tendency for me to always assume the worst.
Further, the more my fervent belief creates a reality in which I'm a helicopter parent who can sense danger at every turn, the more I feel that my belief is a model of reality, too.
It's an ouroboric self-reinforcing system.
"Systems can feel as though they have no history but have appeared from the ether to persist perpetually," writes artist and researcher Georgina Voss about systems, complexity, and technology. Beliefs form just such an ahistorical system. Systems of belief make and model reality in a way that obscures their origins (and often, their purpose).
For example, consider the concept of work-life balance. To paraphrase Geertz again, work-life balance both creates a set of tendencies in those who believe in it and "however obliquely, inarticulately, or unsystematically," creates a sense of moral order. That is, an idea of 'this is how things should be.'
But haven't people always concerned themselves with balancing work life and home life? No, they didn't. For much of human history, there was no distinction between work and life. The vast majority of people didn't "go to work." They simply worked. In her book Work: The First 1,000 Years, Andrea Komlosy puts it this way:
The term ‘work’ encompasses both market-oriented and subsistence activities; it includes human activity for the sake of naked survival and also the satisfaction of desires for luxury or status, as well as activities for the sake of cultural representation or demonstrations of power and faith. The separation of workplace and home—of working hours and free time—remained the exception for most of human history, only becoming widespread during the Industrial Revolution…
Fast forward to post-WWII.
The Industrial Revolution has reached its culmination—the economy stands on the brink of the shift to a mass manufacturing and service-based consumer economy. And there's a new regime in the social organization of the white middle-class family—the breadwinner and the housewife. Not only is there a separation between work and life, but there's a clear distinction between women's work and men's work.
This is when we learned to believe the men go to the office and the women stay at home (even if that was still a relative rarity).1 The more we believed, the more it became true. The more it became true, the more we believed.
Then, something interrupted the system. Feminism. Also, the proliferation of consumer goods, rising prices, and the need for two-income households.
Women wanted to work outside the home.
But what about the work they did (unpaid) inside the home? Who would do the cooking and the cleaning in this strange new world?
Women would still do it, silly. Thanks to work-life balance.
If a woman believed in work-life balance, then her internal algorithms could make her function as if she could work full-time in the office and still get her housework done after hours. The belief in work-life balance created a reality in which women could—duh—do both kinds of work. Maybe even should do both kinds of work.
Work-life balance was never work-leisure balance.
Or work-fun balance. Or hell, even work-family balance. Leisure, fun, and even family require a completely different operating system. In what she described as a "cultural cover-up," Arlie Russell Hochschild describes how work-life balance gave rise to the "supermom." Advertisements, concern-trolling evening news segments, and countless pages of "helpful tips" in women's magazines created and reinforced our belief in the supermom.
Millions of mothers donned the cape and put in "the second shift"—she believed she could, so she did.
Work-life balance, as a system of belief, seems timeless. Or, at the least, something with a long history. But it went from a fairly novel idea to sacrosanct common sense in less than 30 years. The more tips and tricks for achieving work-life balance permeated our culture, the more our cultural reality came to be built on the premise that work-life balance was possible.
And if work-life balance is possible, then we don't need to build a reality that addresses the problems that led to the need for work-life balance as an idea. That is, we don't stop to ask why we feel compelled to make enough money to afford all the consumer goods our economy depends on us buying. We don't stop to ask why childcare is both so expensive as a service and underpaid as a profession. We don't stop to question why time studies tend to lump unpaid work into leisure time—giving the false impression that people are working less than they are.
Granted, these are issues with the systems around work, family, and consumption. I can tell you about them. You can learn to spot them. But you and I aren't in a position to enact a revolutionary set of policy proposals to change the structure of the economy. If you are, call me.
So what does this mean for your daily working life?
First, any time we notice beliefs, heuristics, or other kinds of mental shortcuts, we can pause and assess.
Having jumped to a conclusion, be it emotional, psychological, or logical, we can ask whether that conclusion is actually justified. Maybe we're relying on old information, as in the case of worrying that my daughter is stranded somewhere. Maybe we're missing key information that's obscured by a powerful belief, as in the case of work-life balance. And maybe our model of reality needs a significant update.
Second, we can interrupt the mental shortcut by moving the information from our fast-thinking system to our slow-thinking system.
Heuristics and beliefs improve our efficiency—but, shocker, doing things efficiently isn't always better. For example, a belief in work-life balance leads to a belief in "supermom" (or "superparent"). Solving for efficiency means the person striving to be a superparent will try to do everything, ask for no help, and grind themselves into the ground. But by looking at life and work consciously (as opposed to reflexively), one can quickly see trade-offs, identify opportunities to negotiate help, and prioritize the remaining responsibilities.
It doesn’t necessarily change the workload, but it does help us think more creatively about it.
Finally, we can offer a new model of reality for others.
As workers who want to do things differently and who want things to be different, we can take care of ourselves and influence others to rethink work, too. I don't mean that we all need to turn our lives into public service announcements. Boring. But we can be that friend, coworker, mentor, or parent who asks a question that no one else thinks to ask. We can be the voice of reason in a meeting. We can model conscious thinking about things most other people use mental shortcuts for.
But instead of replacing one belief or mental shortcut with another belief or mental shortcut, we offer a new feedback loop. A feedback loop is the "basic operating unit of a system," writes Donella Meadows. Instead of allowing beliefs about work-life balance, growth at all costs, or productivity to go unchallenged, we ask questions. We get feedback of a different sort: logistics, emotions, values, relationships, and other forms of squishier data. That feedback, that information, can help us shift the system. It helps us change beliefs. It helps us reprogram mental shortcuts.
Our system of beliefs about work is as outdated as my worry about my kid being stranded at a run-down gas station in town with one stoplight. It's time to start reprogramming.
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They (maybe you, too?) didn't realize that those beliefs kept overriding their efforts to change how they work. Nor did they realize that those beliefs were being constantly reinforced by virtually inescapable cultural, political, and economic narratives.
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The whiteness of this regime was key to its moral authority. This family structure helped to emphasize the virtue of white middle-class families—and contrast that virtue to Black and immigrant families who were often unable to conform to this standard.