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Ethan Kross, Author of Chatter - Part Two

Published 5/26/2021

Ethan Kross joins me today to talk about the importance of our inner voices. In his new book, Chatter, Ethan outlines how our inner voices affect us and how we can shape them as a helpful tool.

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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
Today, we are once again joined by our guest Ethan Kross. I'm excited to get into this interview with Ethan, but first I want to ask you to do two things. The first one is wherever you are listening to this podcast right now or wherever you prefer to listen to podcasts, go ahead and subscribe to Developer Tea. This is the best way to make sure you don't miss out on future episodes. Secondly, we need reviews. To keep this show running, we need reviews in the major platforms. Most notably, generally speaking, is iTunes. iTunes reviews are kind of the lifeblood of podcast longevity. So if you want to keep Developer Teaaround, it's a free and easy way to invest back into the show. If we've been helpful to you, then we would like to ask that you're helpful to us. So leave a review in iTunes. Thank you so much for listening to this episode. Let's get straight into the interview with Ethan Kross. Speaking of some of the data that is presented in the book, there's one thing I found interesting in the book is that in the latter half, you start talking about these other kind of what coming to the book, I thought of it as software science or software concepts, things like placebo and rituals and seeking out on inspiring experiences, you know, being in nature, all these things, they seem to be, you know, regarded in some way as different for whatever reason from the more concrete, you know, word-oriented things that we've already been discussing. I'd love to talk about this because what I really want to understand coming away from this book is why do those things work so well? And we can talk about each of those in succession as you'd like, and I'm particularly interested in some of the research on rituals and placebo that you've done with people who were not deceived, right? They knew that it was a placebo and it still worked. I'd love to know more about those studies that you participated in or reviewed. Yeah. Well, why don't we start with rituals? So, you know, I think that in general, first of all, you made a comment about, I think, softer content. I think towards the end of the book versus, you know, some of the, I'm guessing you're talking about some of the environmental tools like rituals, lucky charms. You know, these are things that we kind of were very familiar with, but... Well, I think softer because I think there's some kind of cultural definition of that, but I really appreciated that you kind of directly took this on because, you know, you can't really refute the idea that these things work, right? I think that's the most interesting thing about it is that you come... I came with this preconceived notion that all of that is, you know, what they call junk science or whatever, and you said, no, actually, you need to rethink this. And that was probably the most surprising aspect of the book, which is why I wanted to bring it up with you. Yeah. And that was really the goal. It was to take these topics that I think we often take for granted and shed light on the science that underlies them, that explains how they work and demonstrates that in many cases they do. So it takes something like a ritual that, you know, our cultures pass down to us. You can think of a ritual as a kind of chatter fighting cocktail. It is a behavior that can help us manage our chatter through a variety of different pathways. So, you know, first of all, I think it's interesting to consider the fact that many people spontaneously engage in rituals when they're experiencing stress. It's also interesting to observe that cultures prescribe rituals for particularly stressful experiences that we endure, like birth of a child, which is, you know, it's just a source of lots of happy emotions, but it's also a very dangerous time of life when a child is just born historically, as well as like grieving the loss of a loved one. One of the most stressful experiences we can imagine. Roses around the world prescribe rituals for dealing with those kinds of experiences. In more modern times, you could think of sports. Think about the kinds of rituals that athletes engage in when they're under the spotlight, right, before they have to take the big shot. So there is this linkage between rituals and stress. There's work showing that engaging in a ritual, we don't just do it under stress, but it can help lessen that stress. And it does so through a variety of pathways. One thing a ritual does is it can distract us from the stressor that's bothering us. Like rituals are defined as rigid, structured sequences of behaviors. They're often quite elaborate. And performing them often requires us to divert our attention away from the thoughts that are driving our chatter. Roses also have broader meaning, right, they're often connected with religion and spiritual beliefs or beliefs about oneself. And so there can be this transcendent quality to a ritual, right? It has meaning on part of something greater than just me, right? We often perform rituals in communal contexts. And there's work suggesting that when we're engaged in that kind of transcendent experience, it's not just me, right? There's broader meaning to the world in my experience. That has the effect of making our concerns feel a little bit smaller. So it's a way of broadening our perspective. Engaging in a ritual can also provide us with a sense of order and control. So when we're experiencing chatter, we often feel like we don't have control over our thoughts. They're in charge. They're leading us to feel a particular way. What we've learned is that you can compensate for that feeling of a lack of control by imposing order in your surroundings and engaging in a ritual's way of doing that because rituals are ordered sequences of behaviors. So I think I just rattled off like four different pathways that science suggests through which science suggests rituals can help us. And I think it's fascinating. I think that's a kind of practice that as a species, we have stumbled on and discovered that it can help us regulate our chatter. And it is those ritualistic practices have also survived a kind of cultural evolution that is they're being passed down from generation to generation. I think for good reason. So that's one soft topic. The science explained. Let me pause there and see if you have any questions about that before I move on to tablecivos. Yeah. I just wanted to kind of mention the idea that I think the preconceived notion walking in is the belief that the ritual itself is the thing that produces, that doing the ritual right or whatever incantation is a part of it is what produces the effect. It's the meaning surrounding it seems or the kind of cultural situation. In other words, if you were to go and participate in somebody else's ritual, it would mean something completely different to you than it does to them. And therefore, we would likely have very different effect on you than a word to them. Is that true? Well, it's partially true in the sense that so there are these different pathways that contribute to ritualistic effects, the benefits of rituals. Some of those pathways are thought to work in what we call a bottom up way that like the sheer act of doing, engaging in this rote set of behaviors over and over, confers a benefit, right? Because you've got to focus on the set of behaviors to do it. That can divert your attention away from what's bothering you. And there's also the structured sequence associated with the ritualistic behavior. So in theory, doing any kind of ritual should have some benefit for those reasons. And indeed, there's some research which shows that you bring people into the lab and you just instruct them to do a random ritual and it benefits them. Now, that's not to say that there aren't ways of enhancing the benefits of rituals. So that when you do a ritual that not only has those elements, I just described, but also taps into your worldview in some way, connects you with your culture, right? There you're getting that another kind of what we might call top down benefit, right? A way of rituals are changing or thinking through a different pathway that can additionally help us. So that's why I think it's, I like to think of these rituals as they're a cocktail. They help us through a variety of different ways. Some rituals that you engage in may not help you through all of those different pathways, others may. And again, just being deliberate about now that you know how a ritual works, think about what kinds of rituals that do you do? Good job. And do they check these different boxes and which ones work better than others and so forth and so on? I think some of my cynical, at my age, it becomes cynical and departed from some of the rituals that I had when I was younger and perhaps have left behind some of that meaningful and useful portions of it. But one ritual that does stick out to me that apparently we share is doing pancake Saturdays. So I thought that was great. A great call out on the book. But yes, so maybe the prescription here, if we had to give one, would be consider some of the rituals that might already be shaped in your life and form them more deliberately. Is that a reasonable way to do it? Yeah, I think, you know, lean into your rituals if you have them. Try out a ritual if you're stressed. Obviously, you don't want to take the rituals to an extreme. And you're doing as rituals all the time. Yeah, I mean, that can be if any tool taken to an extreme can become dysfunctional at some point. The metaphor I like to use is take a tool like a hammer, a hammer can be if used properly is great. It builds homes and lots of other things. But it can also be a source of destruction in the wrong hands or if used unwisely by my six-year-old daughter. So I mean, with any kind of tool, any tool that is out there, you've got to be smart in how you use it. And the other caveat I'd like to give, because I think it's really important, is that rituals just like meditation, it's one kind of tool. And so check out see if it works for you. But say that again. Not a silver bullet once again. Exactly. Maybe it is for some people, but maybe not for others. So I think the challenge, there's a real challenge that both scientists face and I think listeners and readers of the book, which is we've done a fairly good job. A really good job, I think, of identifying specific tools and profiling how they work. Where the science has yet to go and is now going is trying to understand how those tools work together, how they combine for different people in different situations. As a scientist, the fact that we don't yet understand all those complex interactions, that's really exciting to me. Right? There's a lot of work left to be done. But until that work is actually performed, I think the challenge that listeners and readers face is to self-experiment and figure out how the tools come together for them and their own lives. Yeah. Yeah. And speaking of, I'd love to talk now about move on to Pleasibos, which you cover in some very interesting ways, I think. Especially, I believe it was a University of Michigan study about Pleasibos in the hands of people who know that they're Pleasibos. That's right. So, you know, Pleasibos, the Pleasibos research to me has always been fascinating. And so, you know, for listeners who may not be familiar with the concept, what a Pleasibos captures is, is getting people a substance or having them engage in a behavior, could even be a person where there's no active ingredient involved that should make them feel better or improve a kind of physical symptom. But you tell the person that the substance or person or behavior will have a healing effect and no one behold that goes on to have it. So, you know, if I tell you, you know, take two pills and you'll be better, call me in the morning, right? And if those are sugar pills, they often can lead people to feel better when it comes to many different kinds of psychological and physical ailments, not all, but many. And that includes, like, mild and moderate forms of depression and anxiety, mood problems. And so, what the Pleasibos literature has always suggested to me is, we have the capacity, we have an amazing capacity to use our mind to heal ourselves, in particular when it comes to psychological distress. But we don't have full control over that capacity. We sometimes need to backdoor our way into it because there are safeguards that prevent us from using that capacity whenever we want to. It's very hard to consciously, or perhaps impossible to consciously control that, yes? I would say very hard. I would not say impossible, but very, very hard. And probably for good reason, if you think about it from an evolutionary perspective, so, like, take something like depression, which doesn't feel good, right? It feels bad. We know that negative emotions, like feeling negative emotions, that's not a bad thing. It's a good thing that you can feel something negative that provides us with signal that motivates to respond to our environment in a particular way. To make that point clear, I mean, think about physical pain. We've all had some experience with it, not a pleasant state, or highly motivated to avoid physical pain. Well, every year there are people who are born with a genetic polymorphism that prevents them from experiencing physical pain. And ends up happening to these people on average, is that they die young. They die young because they don't know to pull their hand away from the stove when their hand is in the fire. They don't know to stop scratching the mosquito bite, you know, to the point that they're bleeding and it becomes infected. So negativity, pain, this serves a function. And so, because it's so bad, and that's what makes it so useful, we're highly motivated to avoid it. But if we had the ability to never feel pain, right, if we could just consciously, magically turn the pain off all the time, a lot of people might do that and would be worse off for doing it. So, I think we've evolved in ways that make it difficult for us to consciously reframe our experiences in ways that reduce our pain. But that's not to say there aren't ways of doing it to some degree, which I talk about in the book. Obviously, much of the book is spent focusing on that. And so, placebos are one back door that, into helping us do that, what we've learned is that if you can get a person to truly believe that doing something is going to make them feel better. Knowing that expectation can set off a chain of biochemical reactions in their brain that result in them feeling better, in that bringing them closer to that end state. And probably the most exciting work in this area right now is work on non-deceptive placebos, where essentially what you do is you explain the science to people of how placebos work. So, look, this is a sugar pill. But here's what we've learned about taking sugar pills. If you think this is going to help you feel better, it actually will have that effect, because what it does is it modifies your expectations about how you're going to feel in the future. And the brain is a type of expectation machine. It is constantly trying to guess how you're going to feel about something down the road so that it can begin to orient you to have that kind of experience. And so that's how the placebo is working. If you educate people about that, what we do is we often find that giving them a placebo, telling them that it's one, still has benefit to them, which I think is encouraging, because these are side effect free ways of helping people feel better. We'll get right back to the interview with Ethan right after we talk about today's sponsor. This episode of Developer Tea is sponsored by Square. Payment acceptance can be one of the most painful parts of building a web app for a business. When implementing checkout, you want it to be simple to build, secure, and slick to use. This new web payment SDK raises the bar in payment acceptance developer experience and provides a best in class interface for merchants and buyers. You can build a customized branded payment experience with the web payments SDK and never miss a sale. Deliver a highly responsive payments flow across WebM mobile that integrates with credit and debit cards, digital wallet, wallets like Apple Pay and Google Pay, ACH, Bing payments, and even gift cards. For more complex transactions, you can even have the customer do a follow-up action, like completing a payment authentication step, filling in a credit line application for more, doing background risk checks on the buyer device. Developers don't need to know if a payment method requires verification and if so, what type? Square hides the complexity from the seller and guides buyers through the necessary steps. Getting started with the new web payment SDK is easy. To include the web payment SDK JavaScript, flag an element on the page where you want the payment form to appear, and then attach hooks for your own custom behavior. You can learn more about integrating with Square's web payments SDK and squ.re-Developer Tea. That's squ.re-slash-Developer Tea. Thanks again to Square for sponsoring today's episode of Developer Tea. I love that. I love the idea that your brain, because of expectation, it prepares you for something. The mechanics of that, I assume, are some kind of at a neurotransmitter level preparation. It's not just a, again, this is where we bring the difficult to understand cloudy nature of this idea. At a very mechanical level, there are neurological changes occurring because of expectation. Is that true? Yes, that's true. Just to highlight how important expectations are. Take a moment to think how you're able to get from point A to point B. Your brain's making guesses, predictions about how far to lift your leg and at what pace to do so. To ensure that you're actually walking appropriately and getting to the point where you need to be. That's true, not just for motor behaviors and physical acts, but arguably also for emotional states as well. That's the idea that we're better off if we're constantly at a subconscious level trying to predict how we need to be in the next moment. That's the power of expectations. They are a powerful force in our mind and placebo's harness that pathway to help us feel better. This is one of many tools, as you've said. The readers of this book shouldn't be too focused on any one, but to try, like you said, at a cocktail of these things. Another one that you mentioned or two that you mentioned, I think. I connect them in my head. It's hard for me to separate them. Maybe you can tell me why. One is the idea of being in nature more often. In fact, one of the reasons my wife and I moved from a downtown area out into the middle of, well, it's not really the middle of nowhere, but we have a lot more trees and those kinds of things around us is because I had encountered some of this research and I didn't know exactly once again the mechanisms that are at play, but I know that I feel better than I'm around green things. That's one aspect that you mentioned in the book. The other one is seeking out awe-inspiring experiences. I connect these two, I guess, because very often for me, awe-inspiring experiences happen in some natural environment, but I'm curious about, first of all, can you separate those for me? Also, can you tell me why I'm connecting them? Just to be clear, so connecting awe and knowing that nature helps. Or actually just awe-inspiring experiences, in my mind, about 90% of the time are happening in nature for me at least. Well, so let's break down how awe can help first, and then I'll connect it back to nature. So awe is an emotion we experience when we're in the presence of something vast that we have difficulty explaining. And so nature is filled with awe-inspiring sites for lots of people, like the Grand Canyon, my God, like how did this come to be? Or even something as mundane as a tree that's been standing for hundreds of years or decades and has weather-difficult storms? Pretty amazing, how are tree managers to do that? So nature is filled with artifacts that elicit the feeling of awe, but you don't just get awe from nature. My most recent awe-inspiring experience was watching the Mars Rover land on Mars. I still can't quite fathom how we figured out how to last an SUV-sized object off of one planet and land it on another. I still don't like use using the phrase interplanetary travel. It's strange to me that I'm not talking about a science fiction movie. So it fills me with awe. And what we know about awe is that it can help people manage chatter by broadening their perspective. It's a way of distancing us from the outside in. When we're in the presence of something vast that we have trouble explaining, that makes it really hard for us, it doesn't make it hard for us, that has a way of putting our own concerns in perspective, it leads to what scientists call shrinking of the self. We and our problems feel a whole lot smaller when we're contemplating something vast and indescribable. And that can be useful too for helping us manage our chatter. And it's another free thing that exists, right? Like go for a walk, find your awe-inspiring triggers or think about what gives you awe at home. Is it a great piece of art? Is watching your kids do something amazing like take the first steps? So it's really, I think it's a neat tool. And indeed, one of the things that I have found most awe-inspiring about this whole line of work is how we often can regulate our chatter from the outside in. How there are things that we can do in the world around us to manage these internal conversations. That wasn't intuitive me when I first launched into this business of studying self-talk and chatter. And it's really left to mark. Ethan, I have a couple more questions for you. We're coming close to the end of our time here. One question is kind of a practical one. A lot of this in my head, the way that I originally kind of read the book was in a moment of crisis or in a moment of responding to pain or bad chatter, I can resort back to this book and take some tools from it and solve that issue. But I imagine that you would prefer people see this as something that I can do in a more maintenance way, a preventive way. So I'm curious for you personally, have you developed ongoing habits or I guess scheduling to incorporate some of these things? I don't know, Saturdays are your days to both cook pancakes and find something that inspires awe, right? I don't know what that would look like, but do you have a way of kind of systemizing this for yourself? Yeah, so I have, I think what we're talking about here are the development of chatter habits. That's one theme that emerges from this question. And the way I have systematized this for myself is when I find myself experiencing chatter, so my ability to detect it as a function of knowing this space has improved. So before I fall too far down the rabbit hole, I'm able to detect that I'm descending. And as soon as that happens, I kick in using some of these tools already, then we're not going to do this. Here's what you need to do or well, how are you going to feel about this a week from now when this blows over? Or I call someone who's on my chatter advisory board, we haven't talked about it, but that's another important tool is having specific people you can talk to who are skilled at not just listening empathically. That's important, but it's not enough. You also want people who can help you broaden your perspective. I'll call some of those people. I'll go for that nature walk. I'll do a ritual. So I will very quickly start oscillating between the tools to help me not get stuck. They certainly help me. I'm hopeful that they'll help listeners and readers of the book. The question of has doing this lead me to experience less chatter over time? I haven't kept a tally of that. I think chatter is a part of the human condition and I think it is for most of us. I think it's often hard to prevent chatter from occurring, but we can do really good at nipping it in the bud once it is triggered. I don't sweat the same things that I used to sweat, but they're still plenty that I do. Does that answer your question? Yeah, absolutely. I think it does. My hope is to say, I've got this set of tools that obviously being in nature is going to improve my mental state. I think my idea here is that I have some kind of barometer from a mental state. I'm aware that barometer is at any given point in time. It may not prevent chatter, but it may make my response to that chatter more effective. I assume that if I had been in nature, if I was practicing rituals, if I could respond very, my primary response being a distance response, that those would be good things to have available just regularly, rather than just in that fixing moment. I shouldn't go to nature only when I'm feeling anxiety-y. No, no, no, no, no reason to do that by any means. I didn't really talk about it in the book, but there's a long line of work and thinking suggesting that interacting with a nature can be a source of creative insight and may serve some preemptive buffer in role. It's been less well-study, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. I don't think you have to wait. You can certainly try to do these things preemptively and see if they help you as well. Yeah, that's excellent advice. I have two questions for you. They're a little bit different than the questions that I typically ask at the very end, and they should be pretty quick questions as well. The first question is, as you have written this book, you've released the book, is there a question that has come up that has really sparked a newfound direction or interest for you? Well, it's not from since coming out, but certainly it's looking at the toolbox and how the tools work together in daily life. We've been doing a lot of research on this, analyzing some data right now on COVID and how people are using, indeed, combinations of tools to manage their COVID anxiety and its combinations of tools that is predicting them feeling better, not individual ones. It's coming together. That's a place where I'm devoting a lot of energy. I'm also devoting energy to seeing what are the implications of teaching in particular kids, high school kids about this toolbox? Can they learn the material in the context of a curriculum? We have some data suggesting they can. Most importantly, how does knowing about this science influence people's lives? We teach people things in schools that we think are going to provide them with valuable information that they can use in their life. People have made judgments over time about what content is important. We think social studies is important. We think learning about the digestive system is important. I think learning about the mind and how to control it in particular when it comes to managing our emotions is just as important as many other topics. I certainly rely on that information in my everyday life a lot more than I do my understanding of peristalsis and how food gets from one hole to the other. I think you can make a case that this is important information and we're making that case and we're trying to document what effect teaching kids about it has. That's kept me busy. So I feel like maybe I know the answer to this question then, but what do you wish more people would ask you about? What do I wish people would ask me more about? I would love to see a situation where people are more focused on not looking for the magic bullets and trying to understand how the tools work together for themselves and shifting the focus there. I think we're always very often looking for those single solutions. We have solutions. That's incredibly promising. It's uplifting. There's so much we can do to help, but sometimes it's doing a lot of things. I think shifting the focus away from just meditation, just being in the moment. Those are good things, but there are lots of other good things we can do as well. I think that would be nice. That overlaps very well with what it means to be a software engineer. We're always seeking the best language, the best framework, the best way to organize a team where, again, many proverbial silver bullets that we're after and very rarely do those exist. So that's a good reminder. Ethan, thank you so much for your time. What can people do to learn more about the work you do and where can they find the book? They could find info on the book and on me and my lab at my website, www.ethancross.com. That's K-R-O-S-S. www.ethancross.com and more information than they could probably even want. So let's check it out. Thank you so much, Ethan. Thank you for the conversation and your time. Thank you for having me. Thanks so much for listening to this episode of Developer Tea, the second part of my interview with Ethan Kross. Thank you again to today's sponsor, Square, you can head over to squ.re slash Developer Tea. That's squ.re to learn more about integrating with Square's web payments SDK. Thanks so much for listening to this episode. A huge thank you, of course, to Ethan Kross for joining us on today's episode. If you want to talk about this episode and other episodes of this show, as well as pretty much anything that you're going through in your career and your life, there is a group of other engineers like you who are sharing those experiences and their perspectives on the Developer Tea Discord. Head over to developertea.com slash discord to join today. We have a book club that started up recently. We have just a lot of fun conversations. The thing that I like the most about it probably is that every message or almost every message that you see in there is very well thought out. They tend to be longer messages they might expect in something like Slack, for example. Go and check it out. That's developertea.com slash discord. Thanks so much for listening to this episode and until next time, enjoy your tea.