What I Think When I Think About Thinking
Moneyball, the movie, was nominated for an Oscar or two so you might have heard of it. If not, it’s an adapted screenplay from a non-fiction book of the same title by Michael Lewis. It’s a typical rags to riches story, where the Oakland A’s rise to baseball fame by winning 20 games in a row with a budget of just 40 million dollars, in comparison to the Yankee’s 140 million. Drama aside, the A’s didn’t win 20 games because they dreamed big or worked hard (although they did both). They won because they thought. They calculated, measured and mathmetized baseball and in so doing should have bust the ‘go with you gut’ theory into oblivion.
Alas, the rest of us mortals continue to think like we always have, sometimes in numbers and sometimes in rainbows. Or as Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman puts it in ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, we think either quickly or slowly. Fast thinking refers to associative, intuitive, reactive thinking where someone says yellow and we immediately think sun, smiley, or a terrible childhood memory involving lemon icing. Slow thinking refers to rational, calculated thought, with charts and citations to support our conclusions.
Unlike economists who have for decades deluded themselves into believing that people are rational beings who think slowly, the masses have been convinced by Malcolm Gladwell in ‘Blink’ that in fact, that is not the case. Billy Beane of Moneyball and Kahneman would agree, which is why Kahneman is considered by some to be the father of behavioral economics.
There are plenty of shocking examples in these, and other books, that demonstrate over and over how what we assume to be rational thinking is effected by such trivial matters as lunch time, colors, and the weather. It is not that our decisions our effected by certain factors, but that they are the end result of a million causes and conditions, genetic, cultural, corporeal – all converging in the final decision of yes, I will eat the cookie, or yes, that man is guilty.
All this leads to the ethical and existential question of: now what? If my actions are the result of heuristics and associations – the logos I’ve seen flashing on the screen all my life, my father’s face when my mother served him dinner – then I am not in control. If I am not in control then there is no responsibility, no right or wrong, and essentially, no me.
Oh well, there goes your ego, and all of religion, and all ethics, law, and emotions too – you can’t get angry at the net result of a million years of evolution and 25 years of nurture just because he hit you in the face, can you?
(There is an end to this, I promise. The free choice conundrum need not go in circles forever. And here it is:)
You can control the default positions you will have at any given moment. Only not at that moment.
If you spent a lifetime being taught, and reading about, and listening to people who thought stealing was wrong, your knee-jerk reaction to stealing would be, “That’s wrong!” The same is true for associations like ‘oceans are relaxing’, ‘men like power’, ‘dreaming big is American’, that are not objectively true or false but simply memes of a particular time and culture. Switch cultures, switch memes.
By using rational thought to inform choices like how to spend your time, which books to read and ideas to follow, which environments and stimuli to open yourself too, which groups and people to associate yourself with, you choose how you will act in three weeks, or three years.
That may sound elitist to some since it indicates that some ideas and people will produce better heuristics, and therefore better choices. But elitism and pluralism are themselves cultural memes, as is better, and I choose not to engage these thoughts right now.
Also see: King of Human Error, by Michael Lewis