How to Make the Mundane Feel Magical (Including Relationships) | Cass Sunstein

Cass Sunstein

Ferris Beuller had that great line, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Turns out, there’s this weird quirk in human nature. Over time, we stop seeing and appreciating even the stuff that was awesome when it first happened, or entered our lives. And, yes, that include not only events and things, but also people.

We end up having so many thing to celebrate, yet we find ourself going through the motions, failing to appreciate the magic that surrounds us. Turns out, there’s a name for this phenomenon, it’s called habituation. And there are things we can do about it. Things that can make our lives so much better, not by having to change anything, but rather by breaking the mixed-blessing spell/curse of habituation. 

My guest today, Cass R. Sunstein, explored this phenomenon in his fascinating new book, Look Again: The Power of Noticing What Was Always There, co-authored with neuroscience professor Tali Sharot.

In our tendency to become desensitized to unchanging parts of our lives, we lose our ability to notice the beauty and meaning that’s been there all along. As Sunstein explains, this “habituation” helps us function without constant distraction – but it can also drain the color from our world. In this eye-opening discussion, we uncover both the power and the peril of habituation. Cass shares how we can cultivate “dishabituation” to see our lives afresh, whether that’s reigniting a relationship, improving our social media habits, or snapping out of dangerous complacency.

Through vivid stories and insights from psychology, Sunstein reveals why we slide into “not noticing” the world around us and how simple shifts can reopen our eyes. It’s a call to action to appreciate what we already have and imagine bold new possibilities. After all, some of life’s most precious gifts may be right in front of our noses – if only we look again.

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photo credit: Ross Lincoln – Harvard University


Episode Transcript:

Cass Sunstein: [00:00:00] People habituate to things that make their lives and the lives of people around them much less good than they should be. And that means that things turn gray. That should be blue and red and green and orange and the celebration in the sky.


Jonathan Fields: [00:00:17] So Ferris Bueller had this great line in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. He said, life moves pretty fast if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it. Turns out there is this weird quirk in human nature. Over time, we stop seeing and appreciating even the stuff that was awesome when it first happened or entered our lives. And yes, that includes not only events and things, but also people. Those people that we say that we love and are the most important to us and make our lives better. We end up having so many things to celebrate, so many relationships to celebrate, yet we find ourselves going through the motions, failing to appreciate the magic that surrounds us. Turns out there’s a name for this phenomenon. It’s called habituation, and there are things that we can do about it. Things that can make our lives so much better. Not by having to change anything or any circumstance or any relationship or rotate our stuff, but rather simply by breaking the mixed blessings. Spell slash curse of habituation. My guest today, Cass Sunstein, explores this phenomenon in his fascinating new book, Look Again The Power of Noticing What Was Always There, co-authored with neuroscience professor Tali Sharot. In our tendency to become desensitized to unchanging parts of our lives, turns out we lose our ability to notice the beauty and meaning that’s been there all along. And as Cass explains, this habituation, it helps us function without constant distraction. There’s good to it, but it can also drain the color from our world. In this eye-opening discussion, we uncover both the power and the peril of habituation, and Cass shares how we can cultivate what he calls dishabituation to see our lives afresh, whether that’s reigniting a relationship, improving our social media habits, or snapping out of dangerous complacency through vivid stories and insights from psychology. Some really fascinating research. Cass shares why we slide into this not noticing state of the world around us, and how relatively simple shifts can really reopen our eyes. It’s a call to action to appreciate what we already have and imagine bold new possibilities, and to wake us up in our own lives. After all, some of life’s most precious gifts may be right in front of our noses. If only we look again.


Jonathan Fields: [00:02:35] And one last thing before we dive into today’s conversation, I want to share a fun new project that I have created for you. It’s a way to feel more alive and less alone. So after taking a years-long hiatus from public writing, I’m back and with a new weekly newsletter and community called Awake at the Wheel. So every Sunday morning in your inbox, you’ll get a new story and insight written by me, along with a journaling and conversation prompt designed to help you feel more alive and less alone. And hey, even if you’re not a journaler, it’ll give you something to think about so that you can step into your week in a more intentional way. And just on a personal level, I am just so excited to get back to writing in a more personal, vulnerable, long-form way. It would mean the world to me if you would support this new project. So go check out the latest stories and insights and see what this week’s writing and conversation prompt is. Now. I think you’ll really like it. I’ll see you over at awake at the wheel. Just click the link in the show notes. Now I’m Jonathan Fields and this is Good Life Project.


[00:03:39] I think a really good starting point for us would be, what are we actually talking about when we’re talking about habituation?


Cass Sunstein: [00:03:45] Habituation is diminishing sensitivity to stimuli. It’s a little complicated. The basic idea is if you go swimming in the ocean and it’s really cold in the first seconds, you’re thinking, brr, it’s terrible. Can I get out now? But after a little while, you might not even notice that it’s cold. And you’ll tell your friends, come on in, the water’s fine. Or if you enter a room and let’s say it’s kind of stinky because someone’s smoking, your olfactory neurons will be firing. And the first 30s, you’ll think, stop the smoking. But after 30 minutes, for most people, they actually won’t even smell the smoke at all. Some people are sensitive, of course, but diminishing sensitivity to bad smells is typical. There’s in many rooms right now in the United States. A little background noise. Maybe it’s an air conditioner, maybe it’s a heater, maybe it’s some machinery. But people are noticing it because it’s constant or changing very slowly. And habituation just means that we are very sensitive to change and not very sensitive to things that stay constant.


Jonathan Fields: [00:04:56] The way we describe it, it sounds like this is a phenomenon that exists in all human beings. It’s not unique to a certain group of people and others. Is that right?


Cass Sunstein: [00:05:05] It’s basically right. We’ll have a couple of qualifications. The first is I have two Labrador retrievers. They’re in the vicinity and they habituate also. So do cows and horses and cats and rats and unicellular organisms. So habituation is built into living creatures. There are interpersonal variations and people with mental health challenges in particular, something we found that startled us a bit. It’s it’s a unifying characteristic of people who have challenges. Schizophrenics tend not to habituate so good, and people who struggle with depression and anxiety challenges, they tend to habituate more slowly and sometimes not. Not a whole lot.


Jonathan Fields: [00:05:51] Is there a theory or a hypothesis about why that might be the case?


Cass Sunstein: [00:05:56] Yeah, completely. So let’s start from people who do habituate, which is to say most people and most creatures, including horses and dogs and cats and rats and unicellular organisms. The reason for it is we have limited mental space, limited cognitive space. We have to focus on a subset of things. And if things are pretty steady as she goes to free up space for registering, things that are new is in the interest of the individual and the species. So if you see something that’s, let’s say, large and you’ve never seen it before and it has teeth to think, my gosh, that’s, uh, something I ought to tend to is probably in your interest. Or if you see someone who’s really attractive passing by and maybe a potential partner to think, oh, that’s interesting. That’s also in the interest of the individual and certainly in the species. So Darwin, I think, would predict habituation. And it does fit with standard evolutionary accounts. Now, for people who have mental health challenges, resilience is frequently a problem. So if you suffer from anxiety or depression for different reasons, you will have to hit something. Let’s say that stumbling. You will maybe ruminate about it or keep focusing on the likelihood of its repetition. And that’s, you know, there are different sources of mental health challenges. But to define a number of them by reference to, to challenges in habituating to a status quo is fair. That might not be the number one characteristic, but that is a characteristic.


Jonathan Fields: [00:07:38] Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting that you brought up rumination because that was sort of what was spinning through my head at the time, this notion of latching on to a thought and just spinning it and spinning it and spinning it, and even often telling yourself, this isn’t healthy. I want to let this go. I want to stop this spin cycle. But feeling unable to do that. And I was curious what the relationship is between rumination and habituation, because it seems like that, you know, the rumination stops you from being able to drop into that place where your brain just says, oh no, it’s there, but we don’t have to make it, you know, devote so much energy to it.


Cass Sunstein: [00:08:14] You completely. Right. So let’s take two people. Let’s call one John and the other Paul, uh, in deference to the Beatles. And maybe we’ll map on to at least my imagination of what the two respectively were and are like. So let’s say Paul has a setback. That is, the new Beatles record, shockingly, doesn’t do very well. Paul thinks, well, it didn’t do very well. And it’s a. A jolt to the system on, let’s say, the Monday, where he realizes his song didn’t do very well. But Paul being Paul on Tuesday is just fine. Thinking of another song and on Wednesday is cheerful and writing and enjoying his latest romantic partner. Let’s suppose John, by contrast, gets the same jolt on Monday. The song isn’t doing very well, and John feels no more jolt than Paul, but it doesn’t get better. On Tuesday or Wednesday, John keeps thinking, why didn’t that song do well? She said, that’s actually a John song and it’s really good. I think it didn’t do that well, but it is really good. And John keeps thinking, why didn’t that song do better? That’s terrible, and ruminates about that. So the data is consistent with the proposition that people who struggle with depression do ruminate, which, as you say, is completely, um, not a failure to show diminished sensitivity to a stimulus, in this case a career setback. And it is just so that people, as you say, who reluctantly and against their better judgment, keep ruminating are not habituating to the setback. Whereas people who don’t suffer from mental health challenges are more likely to think. That was a couple of days ago, and I thought it was going to bug me for a week, but everything’s fine.


Jonathan Fields: [00:10:06] It’s interesting. Also, you, um, oftentimes when people are in that that sort of spin cycle, one of the things that they may say is the equivalent of this is just exhausting. And it sounds like that also sort of ties in with maybe the hypothesis behind why we habituate, which is almost like a certain your brain and body’s need to preserve energy to not actually have this constant reaction to everything that’s coming your way, and somehow be able to dial down the stuff that is not emergent so that you can function. Does that sound right?


Cass Sunstein: [00:10:38] 100%? Thank you for mentioning that. If you were constantly thinking about things that are, you know, in your life and stable, you’d be sleeping a lot. So take a random person who has, let’s say, a good marriage, a good job, a good dog, a boss who’s kind of mean work that’s a little dull and a neighborhood that’s good. Let’s say that’s how it’s been for the past three years. If the person keeps thinking about all of those things, the good and the less good, the person is just going to be overwhelmed with thoughts about things that should be like background facts. And just as you know, one’s neighborhood might be a background fact, except in the first period, if you were thinking about your neighborhood all the time, either you’d be you’d have neighborhood obsession disorder, or you just be really tired because you’d be thinking about your neighbor over the whole time. So it’s completely right. It’s very important for species to be alert to a surprise signal, and to be relatively inattentive and kind of on automatic pilot with respect to things that aren’t changing. Now, one thing we want to emphasize is that the absence of a surprise signal for constant wonderfulness, or for constant terribleness, is a real problem. But you’re saying what is clearly true, which is that our species has evolved to be inattentive to things that are constant, and there are good reasons for that. The species that didn’t have that might die young, might be less creative, might be sleeping a whole lot.


Jonathan Fields: [00:12:24] Yeah. So there are, you know, and you look at anything that has sort of endured in the species and you have to say there’s got to be some benefit to it. And what you’re saying makes sense. You know, there’s probably a variety of survival and just performance oriented benefits to, to our brains being able to habituate to a lot of these things that don’t really, quote, require our attention. But a big part of your hypothesis is also that there’s a downside to this as well.


Cass Sunstein: [00:12:51] Yes. So on evolutionary explanations, I’m a ambivalent enthusiast, and the ambivalence stems from my knowledge of what a hero Amos Tversky, a psychologist, once said, said, if you listen to evolutionary psychologists long enough, you’ll stop believing in Darwin. And I think that’s because any account of existing, let’s say, psychological tendencies is plausible, and its opposite would also be plausible. So if we didn’t show habituation, there’d be a plausible psychological account of why we don’t, that it makes us inattentive to things. But I think you’re quite right that the fact that we are homo-habituatuans or something. I just made that terrible phrase up. That does have an evolutionary account. Okay. To your question about the downside. Well, let’s suppose you have a partner in life and it’s good to have that particular partner in life because you love that partner. Chances are, the amazement you had at the early stages of that partnership is a little less colorful and bright than it was at the beginning. That’s our species, and there are therapists who deal with that. And that’s a downside because you have someone who’s, you know, willing to stand you and is may be amazing and you just regard it as good rather than a fantastic fact.


Cass Sunstein: [00:14:18] Or you might have, let’s say, a family or a job or a neighborhood that if you thought you’d end up there ten years ago or 15 years ago, you might have thought, could I possibly be that lucky? And now you have those things and you think, well, that’s life. What am I going to do today? And that means that things turn gray. That should be blue and red and green and orange and the celebration in the sky. Julia Roberts, the actor is one of the heroes of our book. Thank you, Miss Roberts. And the reason she’s a hero of our book. She had an interview in which she was asked, what’s a great day for you? What’s a perfect day? And she said, well, a perfect day is I wake up, I make breakfast for my kids and start to get them ready for school, and then I bring them and then they come back. And then I start to think about lunch with my husband, and she goes on in this way, and then she stops herself because she’s aware of the routine she’s describing, and she says it’s boring. But what you have to know, she says, is that because of my job, I go away a fair bit for weeks, and then I come back and it’s surrounded by pixie dust.


Cass Sunstein: [00:15:26] It sparkles. And that’s her ability to dishabituate by virtue of her, uh, mobility. Let’s say, given her job such that she sees things anew and afresh that other people might see, just as, you know, gray. And that’s fantastic. And that’s a downside of habituation, that we don’t see the pixie dust and have the sparkling with respect to terrible things. Let’s say, you know, at work there’s something really not good. Let’s suppose someone’s unkind or there’s terrible inefficiency or the routines are so, uh, if not destroying at least soul-sapping, people habituate to that. And that’s good in the sense that bang your head against the wall starts to hurt. But it has a downside, which is that people habituate to things that make their lives and the lives of people around them much less good than they should be. And we know that when terrible things happen in societies, it’s often because people have habituated to them, and their slow deterioration isn’t something that an individual life or in a social practice, let’s say, produces that big warning flag. That is the surprise signal.


Jonathan Fields: [00:16:42] Yeah, that makes a lot of sense to me. And we’ll be right back after a word from our sponsors. The question. That sort of, um, present in my mind is how habituation relates to the concept of, I think probably Marty Seligman popularized this, the hedonic treadmill or hedonic adaptation, this notion that if you win the lottery a year later, you’re probably going to be back to a baseline level of happiness. Whereas if something horrible befalls you, the vast majority of people a year later are going to be probably back to like a similar baseline level of happiness. Are we using different language for the same phenomenon there, or is there something qualitatively different?


Cass Sunstein: [00:17:21] Well, I’d say they’re very similar, but it’s not exactly the same. So habituation is a very broad thing that all living creatures do. One of its implications is that if something great happens, let’s say you you win the lottery or you inherit a ton of money initially, there’s going to be a surprise signal. And the surprise signal is celebration in the sky. It’s something fantastic. And then the next day there’ll be reduced sensitivity to that particular stimulus and the next day reduce still. And that is habituation. So one of the mechanisms behind what Seligman and others describe as the hedonic treadmill is habituation. It’s a mechanism that helps explain why it happens. And if you have a bad setback, let’s say your leg stops working. It might be that the first day and week are horrific, and you’re not sure how you’re going to make it with a leg that doesn’t work. But a year later, if it stays not working, then you will habituate to that and show diminished sensitivity to the stimulus. Now, that’s not the only reason why the hedonic treadmill so-called might be real. There are other reasons, but habituation is a main mechanism.


Cass Sunstein: [00:18:46] One of the principal mechanisms, I want to say, and I’m hopeful that Seligman would agree, he’s one of my heroes. Want to be careful with the idea of a treadmill, because it’s not true that people have a well-being set point that’s impervious, even over the long run, to change. So if people get help for, let’s say, a mental health challenge there, that’s just better and it’s going to stay better. If people get more money, that’s better. It’s better with respect to both experienced well-being and with respect to life satisfaction. It’s probably not as much better as people would anticipate, but on average, people with a good chunk of money do better than people with a pretty good chunk of money, and people with a pretty good chunk of money do a lot better than people who are poor. So mental health is good. Money is good. Reallocating your attention to things like socializing rather than things like commuting. That’s good. Also, people don’t like commuting that much. People do like socializing, so there isn’t a psychological set point which is impervious to circumstances.


Jonathan Fields: [00:19:59] Yeah. I mean, it’s so interesting. Um, as you were just describing the commuting element of it. I think so many people are now experiencing this over the last four years. You know, for the first time, maybe in decades, they’re living a life where, you know, not only have they had time returned to them, but the process of commuting, you know, is now not a necessarily a daily part, if at all. And a lot of people are saying, I didn’t actually realize what this was doing to me now that it’s not there anymore. I was reflecting as you were speaking back to I think it was John Hite’s first book, The Happiness Hypothesis, where he identified a small number of things that people really, genuinely, never truly habituate to, and long commutes was one of them.


Cass Sunstein: [00:20:42] Okay, so I’m a big admirer of Jonathan Haidt and that book and his other work. I have a hypothesis which I think is consistent with the data, that is persons, people’s negative experience of commuting after a year of not commuting is greater than their negative experience of commuting after 15 years of commuting. So that I remember my own experience of being exiled from my office as Covid hit was of distress and despair and angst, thinking, how am I going to do work and function out of the office? Because I was so habituated to the office, and after a number of years of working only in the office, the idea of working at home just seemed to me, and I’m using myself as a placeholder for numerous others, seemed to me not imaginable, but many of us managed to habituate to working at home. It turned, the first few days. It was confusing and disorienting, but then it was fine and even good. So people went to being. Situated to work in the office, to being habituated, to work at home, and the idea, after a period of working at home, of going back to the office, people disambiguated and that seemed very unwelcome. And the commute, I think, is part of that, where for many people who had gotten used to a commute where they were less sensitive to, let’s say, the inconvenience and the whatever, they became more sensitive to those things. It’s a little like the reverse of the Julia Roberts claim about pixie dust. The opposite of pixie dust was on commuting. So the hypothesis is when there comes a time, maybe we’re getting there where people are in the office much more. The commute angst will be diminished because people will get used to the commuting again and they’ll think, why was I so agitated? I think height is right about most things. So he’s probably right about this one, that people are never going to love the commute, and they might never love it as much as they tolerated it, let’s say before Covid.


Jonathan Fields: [00:22:59] Yeah, I want to circle back to something you brought up also, which is this notion that we habituate to relationships. You know, it’s something starts out and you feel the excitement and the glow and the anxiety and there’s an electricity in it. And then maybe that becomes a long term relationship. Maybe it becomes a committed life partnership. And then over a period of years, the dynamic shifts and changes. I guess part of my question is part of that, I think you’re describing as a certain amount of habituation, because this is a regular, consistent thing in your life. This is not the loud noise or the something that the aberrant stimulus. This is just it’s kind of an always there thing. But I can see that both, you know, like the quote, good and bad to that in the context of relationships as well.


Cass Sunstein: [00:23:45] I was at a wedding a few years ago where Esther Perel, the therapist and theorists of marriage, was there, and it’s a little ominous. She’s a lovely person.


Jonathan Fields: [00:23:58] And Brilliant as well. Yeah.


Cass Sunstein: [00:24:00] Met her at a wedding and I knew a little bit about her work. She’s willing to talk about her work as she did at the dinner, and I learned a lot from her. And I’ve read a lot of her work since, and it’s just what you say. She emphasizes the romantic equivalent of this if there’s a cloud of colors on, let’s say, an image, there’s a fixation point in the middle, and you look at the fixation point after about 30s, the colors will turn gray, and if you’re really good at it, the colors will turn white. And then once you move your head a little bit, you’ll see the colors again, and you’ll be startled to see that what was gray or white now is everything. And that’s what Esther Perel works on. And she says fire needs air, so that if a couple are together, like all the time, it might be extremely companionable and full of love and 1001 good things. But the fire is likely to to be diminished. It’s not going to be burning so much. And that’s her claim. And she has data in support of it, and it’s completely about habituation. Now you raise the normative question whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing. And I agree completely that it’s both. So if you’re in a relationship which is full of fire and uncertainty and anxiety and keeping it suitable for children here, but it’s got all everything in it, including, you know, is this going to last then? That’s exhausting.


Cass Sunstein: [00:25:40] And it might well be worse than something that has less in the way of, uh, fire, but more in the way of stability and mutually assured construction. Let’s call it what Esther Perel is focused on. And I think she’s right. So our book is focused on that, too. Following her lead is How to ignite, let’s say, dishabituation, in circumstances where there’s also stability and there are ways to do that. That’s a lot of what she works on. But what I like to think about what she works on to be about, uh, igniting Dishabituation with respect to numerous things in life. Right now, I’m looking out on a street, I have a rental house here, and I’m looking out on the street. It’s a really nice street. I mean, it’s not like a world historically nice street, but there are trees and it’s green and the houses are nice and it’s just pleasant in the sun. How often do I think of that? In a day? Zero times. But I’m thinking about it now because we are talking about it and to feel. Thrilled or pixie dust blessed because you get to live on a street where it’s sunny and there are trees. That’s kind of in the individuals interest.


Jonathan Fields: [00:27:01] Hmm. How much of this affect, if you have a sense, is based on just a natural process that happens versus our intentionality or attentiveness? And what I’m thinking about is, you know, I live in Boulder, Colorado. I hike often, you know, many times a week. Oftentimes I hike the exact same trail. I know exactly how long it’s going to take me. I know when it turns up here. I know where the rock is. There. I know where the route is. You know? I know where I’m going to maybe break for a couple of minutes. And I remember talking to my daughter one day and she’s like, doesn’t he get bored? It’s literally the exact same thing every day. And it was an interesting question because I thought to myself, for some reason, no, actually, I’m never bored hiking the exact same trail, often multiple times a week for like years on end now. And I start to get curious, like, why is that? Because in theory, it’s like, you know, the band who has the hit song and like now for the entirety of the band’s history, every time they play a show, all people want to hear is that one song, and they’re just so tired of it. Um, and what occurred to me, and I’m curious what your take is on this, is that I try and be really present. I often don’t hike with earbuds or listening to something. I really want to be there, and I’ll notice that the exact same trail on any given day is very different. So I’m wondering how much sort of attentiveness plays into the experience of habituation.


Cass Sunstein: [00:28:25] That’s completely great. Two thoughts. One is some people are exploiters and other people are explorers. Now, the word exploit isn’t meant as a pejorative in this context. An exploiter likes the same path, an exploiter likes staycations, and exploiter likes to hear the same song frequently. An exploiter likes to go to the restaurant that’s known to be good. Take an exploiter to be defined as that because they exploit their existing stock of knowledge and experience. An explorer, by contrast, likes new things, likes new trails as a metaphor. Would not like to go to the same restaurant. Would like. Let’s try something new. Sometimes exploiters marry explorers, which means vice versa. And if you’re wondering whether that is an autobiographical statement, absolutely. I’m an exploiter and my wife is an explorer. And there may be some psychological logic in that. My thought had been that explorers tend to habituate more easily and more quickly than exploiters, so that they get they see gray, whereas exploiters see colors in the familiar restaurant. And it’s not that they particularly prize reliability and comfort, it’s that they see new things. But if you’re raising a great point, which is that an apparent which I hadn’t seen, I don’t know any data on, but I bet it’s true.


Cass Sunstein: [00:30:00] Which is an exploiter. An apparent exploiter might be actually an explorer who’s extremely attentive. So it might be that if you are doing the same thing, you’re actually learning something every time, and it’s new and different. And so you’re not getting bored because of the nature of your attention. So as you describe your hiking, it’s fantastic. You’re not habituated to it because you’re seeing new things. Or maybe if you’re seeing familiar things, you’re seeing them as if first-time kind of I’m thinking of my beloved dogs who, when I take them on the same walk, they’re not bored. For me, it’s a little routine, but for them, they’re smelling and seeing all sorts of things. Who’s been here? What’s happened here? It’s like a world of of novelty with a ton of surprise signals. And I think some practices, religious or involving meditation, are designed to inculcate what you describe, which is a surprise signal in people when they’re doing things that are ordinary. And surely it is the case that people can train themselves to register surprises more. We’re focused in our book on dishabituation, but where as taking breaks change? But you’re suggesting you can have dishabituation within? That’s great.


Jonathan Fields: [00:31:29] We have some built-in dishabituation mechanisms out here, also in the form of bears. So which I have met a few times on the trail. So you’re always a little bit more attentive I think, because of that. And we’ll be right back after a word from our sponsors. I want to switch gears a little bit also, and talk about some of the sort of like the use cases or the different applications that you dive into in the book. And one of them is the notion of habituation and social media. You have this lens on social media, which kind of describes it as this persistent, low-grade irritant. So take me into your thoughts on social media and habituation and dishabituation and how it affects us.


Cass Sunstein: [00:32:14] Okay. So let’s take the simpler. There are two points about social media. The simpler is that if you hear something that’s false twice, you tend to believe it. It’s called the illusory truth effect. So I don’t know if you heard that Tom Brady, the great quarterback, has decided to go into politics. I’m not sure you heard that Brady decided to go into politics because he’s been in the public domain a lot, and he feels he has some understanding of people and he feels he can connect with them. And that’s why Brady says he’s going into politics. Okay, I just lied three times. Thank you for indulging that lie. Hope you knew I was illustrating a point and the forgive me, but I and maybe you and listeners are going to be thinking in part of your mind, is Brady running for political office? Do you hear that? So this was something I did. I hope it’s not too terrible. And social media, no one wants this, I don’t think, but spreads falsehoods by virtue of that. And the reason it happens is when you first hear Tom Brady is running for president, or something startling about, let’s say, politics or science, global warming isn’t real.


Cass Sunstein: [00:33:26] Let’s say there’s a surprise signal in the brain and that is accompanied by critical scrutiny. But when you hear it again, it’s easier to process. And the brain thinks if something’s easier to process, it’s more likely to be true, easier truth here. And that’s a real problem with the spread of misinformation on social media. Okay. There’s that. Then there’s social media itself. What we know from data is that for many people at least, social media is a little like a dentist. Put something in your mouth and after a while you’re habituated to it. It doesn’t hurt that much, thank goodness, but it’s still an irritant and it’s in your mouth and you don’t think about it at all. But there’s a little bit of a background. Ouch. And then once you take it out, the ouch goes away and you think, wow, it’s better now. And evidence we have about social media consumption is consistent with that, where there’s a kind of ouch and people may not notice it because they’re on Facebook or meta or YouTube a lot. But the ouch hurts even if people aren’t crying out.


Jonathan Fields: [00:34:42] I think that resonates so strongly with me. And I’ve done the sort of like the typical social media fast, you know, where I say for a week or even for a month, I’m not going to be on this platform. I’m not going to do this thing. And what’s interesting is you realize all of a sudden, well, a, you have a lot more time back in your life and a lot more just cognitive and emotional bandwidth that you’re not investing in that. But there is this, this initial window. And I’ve talked to a couple of of colleagues about this, and maybe this is unique to sort of the mechanisms that demand attention in social media and the algorithms where before you get to the relief phase of it, where that persistent nagging thing is now no longer persistent, and all of a sudden you realize the toll that was taking, that there was a short window of almost, um, addictive withdrawal, because it’s almost like your brain has been wired to expect that persistent low-grade irritation. And when it goes away for a hot minute, it’s like it misses it. Does that make sense?


Cass Sunstein: [00:35:39] Completely. There’s habituation to the pain, so it hurts less. There’s also a related phenomenon which is addiction. Now the formal characteristic of addiction is that while the pleasure from consuming the good stays constant or goes down, the pain of non-consumption increases over time. So the problem with an addict in the experience of an addict is that non-consumption of the good is really painful. There’s an intense craving. There’s some passage from a long time ago about a heroin addict that if I had to walk in front of gunfire to get heroin, I would walk in front of the gunfire to get heroin, and that’s more intense. I hope that anyone feels with respect to social media, but it’s exactly what you say. So addiction is intense intensification of the pain of not getting the thing which is different and in some ways opposite from habituation. But one thing that connects it with habituation is. Is that the pleasure of the head from, let’s say, a like or a fun story or something is a lot lower once you’re reading social media a lot, there’s some, but it doesn’t have the the high.


Jonathan Fields: [00:37:03] Yeah. I mean, social media is interesting also because it serves a lot of good and a lot of different ways at the same time that it potentially takes a lot from us. So I once heard somebody who was talking about addiction actually, and they said, it’s one thing to tell somebody to stop ingesting or consuming a substance that they don’t actually need to survival. But when you have somebody where that substance is food, for example, there’s no abstinence there, there’s no complete removal of it. And I remember seeing some research on teens being asked, like, you know, like basically like, would you want to survive without your device? And it’s almost like for some people, it is such an integral part of not just the way that they spend their energy, but also their sense of connection and belonging. As much as we often say that social media disconnects, it also plays a different role in terms of fostering certain connections that the notion of existing without. It seems so brutal that it just can’t even conceive of it. And to habituate of, I’m thinking of like sort of like the habituation and dishabituation dance that we might do with social media that might be sustainable and sort of a holistic for the greatest number of people.


Cass Sunstein: [00:38:16] Okay, let’s talk about concepts and then data. So habituation is diminishing sensitivity to stimuli. So it’s that cold first and then you get used to it. Not so cold right. Or really smelly first and then not so smelly or the air is very dirty in Beijing. And then after a week you don’t notice it so much. So the relationship of that to habituation is that the good and bad things associated with it get less intense over time. And that has a connection with addiction, but isn’t the same as addiction. Okay, so the word habituation in a way has an unfortunate characteristic, which is the root is habit. But in a way, our book is against the grain of those who are celebrating habits and focusing on their amazing value for people, and urging that habituation has a downside because people stop noticing what’s fantastic or what’s terrible. Now let’s talk about data a little bit for social media. There was a study relatively recently in which people use Facebook were asked, how much would you have to be paid to be off Facebook? And a number of them said roughly $100. And half of that very large number was told, we have a deal, and the other half was told, we don’t have a deal. We’re not going to give you $100. And then both large groups were told to monitor their answers to various questions throughout the course of a month, like how happy are you? How satisfied are you with your life? How depressed are you? How anxious are you? And along every dimension, the people who took the $100 were better off. So they were happier. They were more satisfied. They were less depressed. They were less anxious. Everything was better when they were off. Then they were asked, now how much would you have to be paid to be off another month? And the average answer was $87. They should have said we’ll pay you.


Jonathan Fields: [00:40:17] Mhm. Right.


Cass Sunstein: [00:40:19] Keep us off. Said $87. Now what’s going on there? We don’t know from the data there are two possibilities. One is that people were addicted and they were suffering probably reduced withdrawal symptoms a month in than a weekend, but enough that they wanted to be back on. Another is that they wanted that sense of connection and information flow. Even though it wasn’t making them happier, it was making them more connected. And they were willing to sacrifice something in terms of how much, how good their days are, if they could be connected. And that’s consistent with the fact that there was one dimension along which the people who withdrew from Facebook were less well off than the people who stayed on. That is, they had less political knowledge. That’s interesting. It might be that the people who stayed on were learning a lot about politics and making them depressed and anxious and not happy, but they got the knowledge, and maybe the people who were off thought, you know, I’m going to be a little sadder, but at least I’ll know more what’s going on. And so that’s one possibility. Then there’s another recent bit of data, which I find even more interesting, where people are asked how much you have to be paid to be off TikTok or Instagram for the next month. Young people and they came up with real dollars, $80, $70, $100. You’re going to have to pay me to be off. Then they’re asked, how much would you have to be paid to be off? Instagram. If everyone in your community is also off Instagram and so too for TikTok. So now the question is different. It’s not just you’re going to be off, but you’re going to be off in. Everybody’s going to be off. And then a lot of people answered, oh, in that case, I will pay you.


Jonathan Fields: [00:42:05] Oh wow. That makes sense also. Yeah.


Cass Sunstein: [00:42:08] So the young people said, I will demand a lot to be off Instagram if everyone else is on, but if you have a way of getting everyone off, I love that I’ll pay you. So that’s suggestive that people are staying on. Many people are staying on Instagram and TikTok not because they’re addicted, not because they get knowledge, but because they don’t want to be left out of something which everyone they know about is involved in.


Jonathan Fields: [00:42:39] Yeah, that makes so much sense that there’s a huge, you know, social context to it and that if you say, like that whole thing can’t happen on this device or app anymore, like that’s fascinating. I’ve never seen that data point. And it makes you want to run experiments, you know, like, what if I, me and the five people that I tend to associate with or DM with or communicate with most on one of these platforms, all agreed to do this for a month. And then also the curiosity is like, how would we dishabituate in ways that created new opportunities and different the novelty and the variety that you’re talking about? How do we connect, you know, novel and different ways?


Cass Sunstein: [00:43:18] Again, we want to be careful with the term disambiguate because as we use it, it could be used this way. It’s not the same as habit-breaking.


Jonathan Fields: [00:43:26] Right right. Right.


Cass Sunstein: [00:43:27] This habituation is diminished sensitivity to a stimulus.


Jonathan Fields: [00:43:30] Right right right. One of the topics that you dive into as well is the notion of, um, our ability to habituate to lying and how that tends to escalate in ways that we probably wouldn’t want to admit.


Cass Sunstein: [00:43:45] Okay. So let’s let’s see if it works for me. I am so good at tennis. I could probably play varsity tennis right now. I just lied and I felt it. I’m a good club tennis player, but I could not play varsity tennis right now or ever not close. And as I lied, I felt something in my head that was very unpleasant. I felt ouch. And the ouch was my amygdala, I believe, which is a part of the brain that registers emotional arousal. And here now we go from a little tail which was just observed to data, which is my co-author, Tali Sharot on the book. Uh, got a bunch of people into her lab in which they were told that they were going to play a game with a stranger in which they could get money if they cooperated. The number of them were told if they lied, the word lie wasn’t used, but it was clear they could get more money. And if people lied, it would be a very good economic day. And people did in fact lie now as they lied. Their initial lies produced a lot of activation in the amygdala, which is sending a big bright red light saying stop. As they lied, the amygdala quieted down over the course of the day and started signaling, okay, I guess this is what we do here.


Cass Sunstein: [00:45:10] We lie. And that’s suggestive that people emotionally habituate to their own lying. And that’s because the initial surprise signal, which I got when I told you I was a much better tennis player than I actually am, uh, that I’m still ashamed of that, by the way, which shows I was very vocal. Um, the the lying produces for initial liars a surprise signal and an internal red light. But as people do it, they show emotional habituation to their own lying. This was observed for completely normal, you know, honest people. So people who start to lie not infrequently end up lying a lot. Not necessarily because they’re psychopaths, but because they’re human and they’ve habituated to something which keeps happening or which changes only slowly. So the upshot is that bad behavior of multiple kinds, you can take your pick cheating on your taxes, cheating on your spouse, driving over the speed limit, texting while driving, shoplifting that the initial surprise signal that people who do those things typically feel weakens over time, which means the underlying action will strengthen over time because people’s internal halt exclamation point turns into a okay dot dot dot.


Jonathan Fields: [00:46:42] So it doesn’t hit you as much. It just becomes your new normal almost to a certain extent. How do you dishabituate that behavior?


Cass Sunstein: [00:46:50] Okay. So we think that with respect to certain forms of misconduct, the right thing to do is nip it in the bud. So we don’t want that first lie from our friends. We don’t want it from our colleagues. We don’t want it from our students. We don’t want it from our teachers. So to have a strong taboo against even minor infractions of a norm is a little harsh, but it makes a certain psychological sense. I worked in the white House under President Obama, and someone in a position of great authority said, if you leak, you’re fired. And I remember that to this day. I remember partly because it was scary and also partly because it was so severe. I don’t think anyone had heard that there were maybe 30 or 40 of us in the room who heard that would forget it. And the reason is, it suggested, even if you might do a little minor leak, that’s kind of innocuous, maybe giving someone a heads up, you’re going to get fired. But I honor that. If you leak, you’re fired, I like it because it inculcates. It makes the amygdala never soften. Even to this day, I think any leaking is extremely horrifying, and it’s because the norm was inculcated with extreme power. My dad said when I was maybe 11 or 12, he said, you know, this is a long time ago. We talked about hitting a woman, and he described it as something he’d never done. He would never do. It was, uh, I don’t remember the words he used, but I remember the music that it was unthinkably horrible. Now, I’d like to think I never would have been within a million miles of doing that anyway. But it’s not as if he thought, you know, you got in a fight and you slap someone. That’s okay. He thought just the opposite. And taboos. Often they make a lot of psychological sense because they keep the internal censor alive and well.


Jonathan Fields: [00:48:59] Yeah. I have a curiosity around how much of, you know, if you start with that one tiny lie and then build on it and build on it, it just becomes kind of normalized. You habituate to it. It doesn’t provoke the same internal response from you as it did in the beginning. You don’t get that amygdala hit on the same level, just kind of slowly kind of fades. I wonder how much also if there’s an an external driver of this in that, you know, it was probably 40 years ago. Robert Cialdini, studying influence, identified this thing he called the consistency principle, where if we take a public action or make a public statement that there’s something in us on an identity level that wants to be seen as being consistent with that initial action or statement, and he would literally talk about how to leverage that, in fact, for political purposes, to inspire people to take bigger and stronger and more public actions that were consistent with the tiny little early one. So I wonder also how much of the sort of like the the building on the lie, once it’s a public part of your identity or conversation, is also this more social context of wanting to be seen as the type of person who’s consistent with what they’ve said and done before.


Cass Sunstein: [00:50:10] That’s undoubtedly very important.


Jonathan Fields: [00:50:12] So interesting.


Cass Sunstein: [00:50:14] It’s compliments habituation.


Jonathan Fields: [00:50:16] I mean, it ties in also with what you mentioned earlier and what you write about in the book, which is this notion of misinformation from the outside in, just the way that we habituate, if we’re doing it ourselves, we also habituate when it’s coming from the outside, as you described. You know, when somebody shares something, whether on social or in some other or, you know, at a meetup or a conversation, that repetition breeds belief. So there’s an inside-out thing and an outside-in thing here, right?


Cass Sunstein: [00:50:44] Completely. So there’s the illusory truth effect where you hear something several times and you start to believe it. There’s also something called truth bias, where if you go to a town that’s new and you ask, how do I get to the gas station? And they tell you, turn right, go a mile up, turn left three-quarters of a mile, it’s on the left, and you can’t miss it. In addition to the fact that I will miss it, I don’t do well with navigating small towns, I will believe, and most of us would believe, the resident who tells us how to get to the gas station. We don’t typically think they’re being mischievous or cruel or having a joke at our expense. And we typically tend to think, if you ask someone what’s the weather out today? They’ll tell you the truth. And that can lead to trouble on social media also, where the truth bias can make us credulous about things that are really not true. And if you put together the loser truth effect and the truth bias. As Tom Hanks said when he was an astronaut, before he was an actor, he was, I think, actually on Apollo 13, maybe he was an actor. But he said, Houston, we have a problem. Houston, we have a problem. And the question of what to do with it is very challenging, but it’s really important to answer that one.


Jonathan Fields: [00:52:07] When you talk about habituation, one of the contexts that you reference as well is this notion of of risk, often of personal risk. You know, maybe we move to a new town and we don’t know it as well. And we’re, you know, sort of really careful about how we navigate it. We don’t know what’s around the next turn or whatever it may be. And the more we start to navigate, the more we take the same path over and over again. You know, whatever alertness we had to potential peril, it gets dialed down. And this is an interesting sort of circumstance of habituation because it really is related to potential personal harm completely.


Cass Sunstein: [00:52:47] Construction workers the first week on a new job might well be extremely alert to the fact that there are hazards around, but if nothing bad happens after five weeks on the job, they might be really good at avoiding danger, but also habituated to the fact that nothing bad happens and they’re surprised signal might be gone, which means danger is greater. So there was a nation in Europe that switched from driving on one side of the street to the other, and everyone expected it would be really bad. And crash, crash, crash, crash, crash. But in fact, what happened was there was a significant reduction in accidents. And the reason is if you switch from one side of the street to the other, people are going to be really careful. They’re going to be really alert to the risks of driving. And that can and in this case, did diminish risk-taking. Often accomplished athletes are actually more at risk than newcomers to dangers associated with their sport. And the reason is, if they’re lucky, they’re habituated to a situation in which risks are real but haven’t materialized, which means they don’t take precautions.


Jonathan Fields: [00:54:08] If we start to zoom the lens out here, it seems like in almost every context that we’ve talked about, there’s always some form of benefit to habituating. And then at some point it also starts to bring on some sort of potential downside. It’s like we’re doing a dance always of wanting to like preserve whatever benefit there may be so we can function while at the same time, if it’s a relationship, we want to bring the sparkle back into it. If it’s a circumstance where there’s danger, we want to ameliorate the danger. If there’s, you know, we want to bring more energy into it. Um, so and it seems like a lot of the prescription, regardless of the context or the use case, revolves around variety and novelty and finding ways to bring that back into the experience in some way, shape or form. Is is that right?


Cass Sunstein: [00:55:00] Yeah. So the the book is a poem to Dishabituation. And Julia Roberts is a hero because she, she’s just generally a hero, but she’s a hero here because she’s alert to and engaged in Dishabituation Martin Luther King is a hero not only because he’s Martin Luther King, but because he was a dishabituation entrepreneur, a category of people who are disambiguated to a practice that’s not good, who is also determined to fuel this habituation on the part of others. So what we aim to do with the book is to promote dishabituation that habituators of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains.


Jonathan Fields: [00:55:51] Hmm. It feels like a good place for us to come full circle in this conversation as well. So in this ontainer of Good Life Project, if I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up?


Cass Sunstein: [00:56:03] See with new eyes. Things that you have seen as dark and grey.


Jonathan Fields: [00:56:14] Mm. Thank you.


Jonathan Fields: [00:56:17] Hey, before you leave, if you love this episode, Safe bet. You’ll also love the conversation we had with Daniel Kahneman about how our brains do some pretty quirky and weird things to influence our behavior. You’ll find a link to this episode in the show notes. This episode of Good Life Project. was produced by executive producers Lindsey Fox and me, Jonathan Fields. Editing help By Alejandro Ramirez. Kristoffer Carter crafted our theme music and special thanks to Shelley Adelle for her research on this episode. And of course, if you haven’t already done so, please go ahead and follow Good Life Project. in your favorite listening app. And if you found this conversation interesting or inspiring or valuable, and chances are you did. Since you’re still listening here, would you do me a personal favor? A seven-second favor and share it? Maybe on social or by text or by email? Even just with one person? Just copy the link from the app you’re using and tell those you know, those you love, those you want to help navigate this thing called life a little better so we can all do it better together with more ease and more joy. Tell them to listen, then even invite them to talk about what you’ve both discovered. Because when podcasts become conversations and conversations become action, that’s how we all come alive together. Until next time, I’m Jonathan Fields, signing off for Good Life Project.

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