Ian Leslie on creating the adversary you want

Baiqu: Welcome to the Browser Interviews, today I'm super lucky to be sitting with Ian Leslie, a writer and author of books on human behaviour. Ian’s first career was in advertising, and he now writes about psychology, culture, technology and business for the New Statesman, the Economist, the Guardian and the Financial Times. If you guys check out Ian's website, he also has a weekly newsletter called The Ruffian which you can sign up to.

Welcome to The Browser.

Ian: Thank you Baiqu, it's very nice to be here.

Baiqu: We were just discussing how we're both sitting in London at the moment, in 29°C or 30°C heat, so I'm very impressed you're wearing a blazer. Thank you for the effort.

Ian: It's the least I could do. It's kind of like, I have a meeting so I'll just throw on a jacket. It's futile, but you know.

Baiqu: We appreciate it, I am sure all the viewers will as well.

If you're ready, we'll just dive into the recommendations.

Ian: Sure. Let's do that.

How to have better, more productive disagreements?

Baiqu: Okay. Question one, what would you recommend if someone wanted to know more about disagreements? You have written about productive conflicts and how to have more dynamic disagreements. And you talk a lot about how that actually helps relationships, professional, personal, and I guess societal. So what should someone pick up if they wanted to know more about that?

Ian: Yeah. I mean, the obvious answer is my book. I'll just briefly say my book is called Conflicted, and it's all about how to have better, more productive, more interesting,  more creative, more honest disagreements, and the benefits of doing that.

But if I had to pick one book that really influenced my thinking on it at quite a deep level, I would say, it's a book called The Enigma of Reason by Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier. It makes a really kind of radical and mind-blowing argument, which really fed into my thinking about disagreement and debate. What they argue is that we have this tool called reason, which is meant to be the greatest gift that was ever bestowed upon humanity and a triumph of evolution. And yet it works really quite badly, it's a faulty tool, or it seems to be. We have these biases, in particular, we have this confirmation bias where we only notice the things that agree with what we already believe, and we kind of disregard things that question those beliefs.

And what they say is that the only reason we see this as a flaw is that we think about reasoning the wrong way. We think about reasoning as something that happens in the individual brain, when actually reasoning is something that happens between people. Reasoning was evolved to work in groups, and in groups, it makes quite a lot of sense if everybody's motivated to put their point of view forward, because then you get lots of arguments and points of view thrown into the mix to get this kind of Darwinian process. Generation and variation and selection where all the strongest arguments survive, and the weakest arguments get knocked out. Now, of course it doesn't always work like that, and we can think of plenty of conditions under which it doesn't work as well as that, but that's how it's "supposed" to work.

So this idea that reasoning and thinking is inherently interactive, or it should be, was really striking for me. And they're a part of a wider school of interactionists, the other school of thought is the intellectualists. So you've got the interactionists saying, hey you know, thinking is something we do in groups. And the intellectualists are like leave me alone, I want to be alone in my study and just to think things through. I'm kind of in this interactionist school, right? So obviously it was really pertinent to my book, and pointing out that you can really throw yourself into a disagreement and it can get quite heated and emotional and that's fine. Because it's kind of motivating you to do all the thinking and to find better reasons, better arguments. In a group that will actually work really well, as long as you all keep some sense of a shared goal.

Um, so anyway, there's more to it than that, but it's a really kind of deep and profound book about how we think and how we reason.

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How not to take disagreements personally

Baiqu: Yes and I think in your book you give a few guidelines or tips on how we can do this in our own lives. And one of the things that you just mentioned is, I think often people avoid arguments because they don't want to ruin their relationship with the other person. Or people take things personally, probably more in a non-work environment, but also in work environments. So how do you divorce the emotional consequences of having a heated argument?

Ian: Yeah, it's a great question.

I mean, and it's not easy to do. We're sort of tuned to see open disagreement as a threat to us, as a person, so it kind of becomes wrapped up in our identity even when we're disagreeing about something that has nothing to do with identity.  So you will get these kinds of neurological signals of "oh this person's attacking me," now I want to fight back and suddenly it's happening to the other person as well, and the whole thing kind of turns into a zero sum game. You are each trying to win, and fend off a threat essentially. And when that happens, no light will come of the disagreement, because you're not really disagreeing about the thing anymore. You're just stuck in a kind of status battle.

So how do you get over that? Well, I think creating a culture, whether that's just between you two in the conversation, or whether that's in a workplace where it's expected that people will openly disagree and that's okay. It is remarkable how once you accept that principle, and it becomes widely known, people actually get used to it. That people become liberated by it.

I was talking to somebody the other day about this, and she kind of she'd come from one workplace where nobody really had their disagreements out in the open. They just all nodded along in the meeting, "yeah, that's a very good idea. Absolutely. We must." And then she knew that the moment she left the door, they would all be saying to each other in the corridors or on WhatsApp, "what a lot of nonsense, we must stop this." But now she's moved to a place where it's completely different. Where the moment you put an argument forth, you will get lots of objections from people in the room, including from people who are very junior, even if you're very senior. At first that's intensely uncomfortable, because you're saying here's my point of view, here's what I think, and everyone else is like I think that's wrong, I disagree. But after the first meeting or two, you realise that's the way they do things here, and it becomes incredibly liberating and relaxing. Because she's like "it's all out there, I don't have to kind of leave the room thinking, oh my goodness, what are they going to? What do they really think? I can see the opposition to what I'm saying. Some of them I'll take a board, some of them I'll ignore, but it's all visible."

So I think it's about trying to create that culture, which you can do by the way. It applies to a marriage or a relationship as much as it does to a workplace, where it's okay to have your disagreements out in the open. And if we get into the habit of it, it actually strengthens the relationship.

Baiqu: Yeah. It's interesting that you say that if both people, or if a group of people have an understanding of this culture, then it makes it easier. I think you see cultural differences in how people have debates and conflicts. I generally feel like Dutch people, for example, are a lot more direct with each other and they can just say things and I think to an English person, would sound quite blunt. But they have this understanding this is just how we express our opinion.

Ian: Yeah, yeah. I talked to a French journalist as I was writing the book and I sort of mentioned that obviously we have this prohibition against discussing religion or politics at the dinner table. And she said, "what ?" She's Parisians. "For us that's the whole point of having dinner, is you get into an argument about religion or politics. You know, you sit down for a few minutes, you're all polite, but everybody's waiting for somebody to kind of throw a bomb into the middle of the table. And the moment they do, we all get into it." So yeah, it's a completely different culture of argumentation.

How to address vaccine hesitancy

Baiqu: I think I've heard you talk about the inspiration of this book coming post-Brexit, when you were looking around at how people are having these kind of arguments online and offline. And we've talked about how we can depersonalise conflict within our work area and in our personal lives, but what about on the societal level?I guess now in COVID times, there are also discussions around vaccines, vaccine hesitancy and all of that. So yeah, what are your thoughts on the wider ways that we debate with each other and disagree with each other?

Ian: Well, I think there are plenty of things that we can do at the individual level, which is only part of the answer. But often when we're disagreeing with someone, we're essentially asserting ourselves over them. We're saying look, I'm a smarter person than you and here's what you need to know. And I see a lot of that in the responses to the vaccine hesitance, there's a kind of sense that you're clearly just stupid or deluded and let me explain this to you.

If you take the attitude, first of all, don't think that you're so smart. You've probably believed a dozen false things about this pandemic over the last year. Second of all, it's just tactically ridiculous. If you do this, you just push people back. You know, the more you tell somebody that they're wrong directly, the more likely they are to dig in and become ever more entrenched in their view. So it can actually be counterproductive, and you get a backfire effect.

So there's plenty of stuff like that, that you can do at the individual level. You can just have a think about how you're always creating the adversary you want. Whatever you say will have an effect on the way that person responds, as well as what they think, and you need to be aware of that. So that's the kind of big theme of the book.

But then there's the wider structural issues of, why is so much of our discourse carried out in technology and media formats, that are almost designed for toxic disagreements. I mean quite literally in some ways, they're designed to spread outrage and anger, they give us very little space in which to make a fully rich contextual case. So you end up just sucked into these futile ridiculous arguments on Twitter or on Facebook. And although social media is only part of the ecosystem, it has a distorting effect on the whole public discourse. So that's not a problem we're going to solve right now, but it's something that we all need to be thinking about.

How to sound smart in a conversation

Baiqu: Yeah I like that. That "you create the adversary you want," and not to assume that you're smarter than the other person.

So that's an interesting segue to our next question, which is, what would you recommend if you wanted to come across as being smart in a conversation?

Ian: Ah right. So I would say that's completely the wrong objective. You should never consciously try to come across as smart in a conversation. I know that we all do that from time to time. If you're with somebody you want to impress, you want to sound smart. But if you can possibly avoid it, don't do it. Wanting to sound smart is the enemy of good thinking, of good conversation.It often means that you're not focusing on the other person, you're not really listening to what they have to say. You're going to end up just trying too hard to sound smart and actually just sound annoying, or sound quite stupid. I don't think that's the point of a conversation generally speaking. You shouldn't be trying to sound smart, you should be trying to make the other person feel smart and interesting. That's probably your primary objective. And also, you should be thinking, how can we create the conditions for a conversation that is smart, rather than how can I be smart? Those are two very different objects.

Best Amazon purchase

Baiqu: Creating the conditions for a smart conversation, that's very good, thank you. And the next question is, seeing as we've all been stuck at home for a while now. What would you say was your best online or Amazon purchase since the start of the pandemic?

Ian: I would say this is a very boring answer, but it's this thing (a folding laptop stand). So I was having some sort of neck pains and of course it's related to the fact that I doing what I'm doing now, which is looking down at a screen, which puts a lot of pressure here (back of the neck).

Your head's very heavy, my head's massive, so it's even worse. What you need to be doing is, your screen should be eye level. And this is a very neat way of just snapping it out, and you can put the laptop on it. Now that we can go back to cafes and so on, it's even more useful because you see that it folds up nicely. You throw it in your bag and you can go off and just set up your workstation wherever.

And it's just been really good for my health, I mean, it's good for my physical health. And it means I'm not worrying about that kind of thing when I'm typing. So I recommend it. Boring, but very useful to your physical health.

Baiqu: This is a very good recommendation. It's funny how much these daily things that you use can improve your livelihood. Like you said, it's very simple, maybe it's a bit boring, but it makes a huge difference.

Ian: Absolutely. Boring little gadgets, like a meat thermometer in the kitchen. When I'm cooking chicken or whatever, I'm not worrying about, if it's done yet. I'll just stick the thing in, and that's changed my life, it's changed my cooking life. It's fantastic. So yeah, we could have a whole other series about useful gadgets.

How to cure an existential crisis

Baiqu: That'd be really good.

Okay. Next question, and getting a little bit more philosophical. What would you recommend as the best cure to an existential crisis?

Ian: I mean, it's good to have an existential crisis. The first thing, it's not a cure, but it's good to remember when you're in one, that a crisis has a kind of function.

If you're really suffering in a painful crisis, that's not good. Go seek help. But if we're talking about those moments that you go through where you just like, I dunno what I'm doing, what's the point, this is all rubbish. It sort of takes the edge off it if you think, this is a natural, psychological, evolutionary, designed stage we go through. Because it helps us think through and ruminate and question everything that we're doing. It's not very comfortable to be in, but it is kind of necessary. So just that slight meta awareness of what's happening I think is quite useful.

Then the best things to do, and this is not an original answer, but it often involves physical activity. Leaving your headphones at home, so your attention isn't absorbed by a podcast or something else and just letting your mind wander. Letting your mind wandering in combination with some sort of gentle physical exercise is probably the best thing to do during one of these moments.

Baiqu: I like your attitude about the kind of things that I think we normally try to avoid, like with arguments and also with having a mini existential crisis. To just be comfortable with the fact that it might be good for us, or that it will pass and maybe it's a necessary part of our growth.

Ian: Yeah that's right. It's a little like physical exercise. I don't enjoy lifting weights or going for a long run particularly, but I know it's good for me. And ultimately you kind of think, well if I don't do it, it's going to get worse. And often a crisis is a way of saying, you know what, something in my life is not working out right. So let's just at least take some time to focus on that, rather than pretend everything's fine.

Favourite book, hobby, and daily habit

Baiqu: Yeah, it is a signal that you need to pay attention to something.

Cool. Last question. Can you recommend three things? One book, one hobby, and a daily habit that you practice.

Ian: I have to say, I actually thought I was going to have to recommend one of these three things, so I'm going to make this up.

So a book... so many to mention. Maybe I'll recommend two books. So this one's really heavy in every sense, but it's great. It's called On Politics by Alan Ryan. He's a professor of political theory and he just goes through the history of political ideas from Plato to, I don't know, mid 20th century. There is a chapter on every great thinker, whether that's Hobbs or Rousseau, or Mill or Marx. Now it sounds like a really dull book, but he is such a good writer and he is so erudite. I'm sort of in awe of his ability to take this immense knowledge and erudition that he has, about all these thinkers and condense it all into something that's incredibly readable, and witty and interesting. So I never felt like I was eating my greens, but I did feel like I was getting really good grounding in political thought.

And once you read this, it kind of put so much of what's happening in the current moment in perspective. You start to see the same patterns, the same arguments about the role of government, about how we live together, about tolerance, all these things. If you get anxious or depressed about what's going on, feeling the kind of richness of the historical debate behind it, I think is a great way of alleviating that.

Anything by Emmanuel Carrère. He is a French writer, nonfiction, with a very literary, witty, funny, interesting style. I just read a book of his called Limonov, which is about post Soviet Union Russia, tracking this extraordinary character Limonov, who was a, or I think still is, I think he's still around, a writer and a poet and a political activist who traversed the political spectrum from left to right. Absolutely mad. And he writes a kind of account of this guy, and it's thrilling and it's a great way to learn about Russia at the same time or what's been happening in the last 30 years in Russia. But anything by Carrère, just read it because it's brilliant.

Alright hobby? I don't have hobbies, I don't believe in hobbies. I think it's a horrible word, depressing word. But you know, I love listening to music, that's not a hobby. I love the Beatles. Everybody should listen to the Beatles more. They're an underrated band, and I think they still have a message for all of us. I'm not sure what it is, but I think it's a good one.

What was the other one. Habit? What's a good habit to have. I don't know. Can you give me an example? Have you got a good habit that you would recommend?

Baiqu: Yes so I have a daily morning ritual, which I find very helpful. I do the same thing every morning and it just kind of starts my day right. It's very simple, I get up, and after many years of my mom telling me to do this, I now drink a warm cup of water with lemon juice.

Ian: My mum's been telling me to do that as well.

Baiqu: Yeah, she's been trying to push this on me for like 20 years and I finally took her up on it, and I have to say it has been great for my digestive system.

Ian: Interesting. Well, I don't think I can better that. I mean the thing I've been reflecting on is that reading books is a habit that you can easily fall out of. And I've talked to people during the pandemic, you know, have you been reading? And a lot of people have said, I just haven't been reading much, I've sort of fallen out of a habit for one. Which is odd because we've got more time. But I do think it's a habit and it's a kind of rhythm that you're in or you're out of.

Sometimes I fall out of it and I remind myself. I just think if you fall out of it, you know, make a conscious effort to get back into it. Because there's really few better ways to spend your time than reading a book with a mug of warm water with a lemon slice in it.

Baiqu: Well, thank you so much for speaking with me. It's been such a pleasure and an eye-opener too.

Ian: Thank you Baiqu, I really enjoyed it, very nice to talk to you. Good luck to you and The Browser, and all who sail in her.

Ian Leslie: http://ian-leslie.com/


Conflicted by Ian Leslie

The Enigma of Reason by Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier:

Laptop stand

On Politics by Alan Ryan

Limonov: The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia.

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