Ever since I began falling down the psychology rabbit hole, I’ve felt more than a little empathy with poor Don Quixote. From Kahneman and Tvserky, to Ariely, to Thaler, to Haidt—everything we have learned in the past 60-70 years points towards a mind that is not very interested in truth. And why should it be? Evolution is not a process that would ever lead us out of Plato’s cave and into the light; it is a process of relentlessly shedding any unnecessary cruft that might get in the way of survival and reproduction. Unfortunately for philosophers throughout human history, truth is, unfortunately, very often cruft.
We don’t like the truth when it sheds a bad light on a group we affiliate with or the individuals in it. We don’t like the truth when it conflicts with ideas we have invested in emotionally. And on and on. This should be well-worn territory for any reader of The Ümlaut, so I won’t dwell too long on the particulars. Suffice to say that humans are pretty spectacular at a lot of things, but recognizing the truth is not one of them.
But what is one supposed to do once this information is presented to them? Is it possible to overcome these innate human imperfections? The outlook is not good. Kahneman himself, godfather of this body of research, has stated that he’s very skeptical of our ability to do anything significantly beyond going along for the ride. There are many little tips and tricks and heuristics, and he offers a few of his own, but for the most part these are simple nudges for marginal gains.
Surely reason exists, though. What of Haidt’s rider, from his rider and elephant metaphor? What of this system 2 that Kahneman keeps speaking of? The system 2 is nothing like Socrates’ reason. Unlike system 1, it thinks slowly, and sequentially. When it is fully asserting itself, it follows rules, so it is as good as the rules it is following. But it is not even all that good at following rules; and the more demanding those rules, as with advanced mathematics, the shorter the period that it can function effectively. Moreover, it is highly influenced by system 1, Haidt’s elephant. It begins from the assumptions provided by system 1, and, being fundamentally lazy, often simply concurs with the first suggestion system 1 provides. Turning down those suggestions requires measurable exertion; the more tired you are, the less likely you are to resist. And there’s no guarantee that resistance yields better outcomes all or most of the time, either.
Along with the fictional Don Quixote, I also find myself empathizing with real world schizophrenics. For my unified self increasingly feels like a pantheon of advisors whose opinions it troubles me to disagree with. At one end of the table sits libertarianism, that I picked up by, well, hanging out with a lot of libertarians. Next to that sits folks like Hume, Burke, and Oakeshott—people who take tradition, even traditions of government, quite seriously. Now there’s also a few chairs occupied by behavioral economists; to say nothing of the people I know personally and especially the 5-15 closest to me. It’s quite crowded up in here! Can any actual schizophrenic claim so many voices in their head?
I’ve been told, by people familiar with this literature, that surely the situation isn’t so dire—we can think for ourselves. But it’s not clear to me what this even means—in practice “thinking for yourself” seems to involve reading what a lot of other people think. In short, at best you are adding a few more voices to the pantheon, but your system 2 is still basically at the mercy of the suggestions from system 1. You are, perhaps, adding more perspectives from which a suggestion might originate, and maybe there’s even some benefit to that—people like Nate Silver make a version of that argument. But it still doesn’t sound like “thinking for yourself”; rather, it sounds like trying to be choosy about who it is exactly you’re allowing to think for you.
No lesson here, no big takeaway. Except perhaps the simple reminder that we are all quite bad at this; whether or not we believe ourselves to be the nudgers rather than the nudged, or meta-rational rather than simply muddling through with the rest of us. The biggest takeaway, really, is that we could all use a lot more humility. But for those of us with the “someone is wrong on the Internet” bug, that is a hard lesson to learn, and harder still to stick to.