Today is one of those days when the sun is shining, the birds are chirping, God is in his heaven and all is right with the world.
Actually, it’s overcast and although a flock of non-indigenous yellow-chevroned parakeets did go by not long ago, I can’t hear anything but the 110 freeway. The fact that my cat is staring at the wall and not out the window suggests to me that there aren’t any birds out there. But I haven’t personally looked.
Nonetheless, all is indeed right with the world, at least for me.
I’ll tell you why.
I finally have a handle on things. I think I know why the world is in the mess that it’s in. I think I also know why we can’t seem to fix any of our messes. We don’t even really seem to be trying. We are taking a lot of steps intended to address problems that we should be able to see won’t work and yet we persist in doing them. That seems to me like another way not to try.
I’m talking about terrorism, racism, genocide, and violent crime. Societal problems. I think we probably have a much better handle on more technical kinds of problems, like global warming and the spread of infectious diseases. It is how to deal with each each other and with ourselves that we seem to be so hopelessly mired in ineffective responses.
I think I have worked out why. Finally.
We’re not very smart. We are certainly a lot less smart than we think we are.
I was watching this Ted Talk from Dan Ariely as well as this one again last night, wherein he makes the excellent point that while we design our world to accommodate our physical limitations, we seem unable to even recognize our cognitive limitations let alone work around them.
He gives the example of organ donation sign-ups in various countries in Europe, and then points out that what really makes a difference in such an important matter as whether or not we’d like to save someone else’s life if we were to die with at least some of our organs intact is nothing more significant than the way the question is phrased.
When faced with complex decisions, we tend to make whatever decision has been made for us. If we have to opt in, we won’t. If we have to opt out, we won’t do that either. We’ll just make whatever decision is the most similar to doing nothing at all.
If you are inclined towards Freudian psychology, you will probably assume that that is because the decision creates anxiety and we try to avoid that anxiety by not making a decision. But I have my doubts. Not because it isn’t possible, but just because another explanation is more likely.
Complexity gives us a headaches–which is the reason for the name of my blog. Sometimes, when we fail to take steps to really understand a problem well enough to solve it, all we are trying to do is avoid the headache.
I teach math, so I see this every day. I usually teach the students who are less successful at math generally, so I actually see quite a lot of it. And I do see some students who struggle in math because it makes them anxious. I see a lot more students who struggle in math because they simply can’t make themselves persist in a cognitively demanding tasks.
It makes their heads hurt. So they stop.
And I think when we are faced with social problems that are cognitively demanding to understand and solve we do much the same thing. We look for simple answers even when it is abundantly clear that our simple answers are incorrect and their simple solutions won’t work for the same reason that people will donate their organs as long as they don’t have to check a box to do it. It is just too painful to try to think that much.
Because of that, we are probably unlikely to make any significant progress in fighting violent crime during my lifetime, even though we actually know a great deal about what conditions propel us towards violence. We probably won’t create lasting peace in Palestine. And we probably won’t win the war on terror.
I can live with that. My cat is even less smart than we are, and I can live with her.