Be careful what you wish for: the problem of blind faith

Talking of ostriches ...For an intelligent species, we’re not always terribly bright at reflecting accurately on what is shaping our lives. Considering its popularity as a childhood game, you’d think we’d be better at playing Consequences by now, wouldn’t you? Dan Pink highlighted a quote from George Orwell yesterday which put it neatly:

People can foresee the future only when it coincides with their own wishes, and the most grossly obvious facts can be ignored when they are unwelcome.”

I’d thought something similar watching the BBC’s wonderful The Secret Life of the National Grid, as vintage footage showed a black and white version of a golden couple, clad in the designer swimwear of the day and strolling hand in hand along a beach. They were representing a vintage version of the future, where electricity had automated and sped up so much of the world around us that the age of leisure had arrived and their most pressing problem was how to spend all those sun-kissed hours. Victims of their own tendency to project the future based on the recent past – the ‘current trends indicate’ school of thinking’ – the biggest threats they would face would actually turn out to be a) dismissal for poor workplace attendance, b) hypothermia, and c) ridicule from the fashion police.

Our dreams and longings often have a nasty tendency to produce unintended consequences; on closer inspection – and sharpened by the crystal-clear focus of hindsight – wishful thinking can turn out to have placed far too much emphasis on the wishing and far too little on the thinking. The tendency to crave our own Utopia is understandable – I’d imagine one reason for the widespread popularity of alcohol is the widespread intermittent dislike of reality.

But Utopia can turn out to be like the holiday destination in the brochure: we spend a long time looking forward to it as the answer to our current situation, forgetting that we will need to continue to be economically viable and ignoring the fact that the brochure hasn’t mentioned the climate, the crime rate or the high incidence of food poisoning or air pollution. I’m not an ostrich’s ophthalmologist, but I’m fairly confident that we don’t get the clearest view of the crystal ball while our head is encased in sand. Here, for example, is sociologist and author Richard Sennett (whose The Craftsman we reviewed recently), reflecting on how getting our wishes on a plate can leave us surprised at the balance between sweet and sour in the finished dish:

The insurgents of my youth believed that by dismantling institutions we could produce communities: face-to-face relations of trust and solidarity, relations constantly negotiated and renewed, a communal realm in which people became sensitive to one another’s needs. This certainly has not happened. The fragmenting of big institutions has left many people’s lives in a fragmented state: the places they work more resembling train stations than villages, family life disoriented by the demands of work; migration is the icon of the global age, moving on rather than settling in. Taking institutions apart has not produced more community.”

(We’ve previously quoted another section of this article in a piece you can read here.)

It’s also striking that our appetite for things that will do us little good in the long run aren’t consistently commented on by others. We may have an obesity crisis, but we have a reasonable glut of people telling us to exercise, to eat less (or better) and that ‘nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’. Our dentists, or at least the dentists of those who still attend one, will normally berate us for our love of confectionary (even if our tooth decay is their profit.) My lack of skill at diagnosing problems with an ostrich’s eyesight doesn’t, however, leave me devoid of vetinary insight. A lot of people would benefit from people warning them when they are behaving like an oozlum bird. For those unfamiliar with the ‘legend’, here’s a summary from Wikipedia:

Some versions have it that, when startled, the bird will take off and fly around in ever-decreasing circles until it manages to fly up itself, disappearing completely, which adds to its rarity. Other sources state that the bird flies backwards so that it can admire its own beautiful tail feathers, or because while it does not know where it is going, it likes to know where it has been.”

As one of the driving factors of the last couple of centuries, technology has a part to play. Everyone loves a gadget or a gizmo (this is especially true of Gizmo manufacturer’s marketing teams), although their implications routinely evade us. In 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism (one of the year’s better ‘left-field business books’), Ha-Joon Chang makes the argument that ‘The washing machine has changed the world more than the internet has’. It was a theme that – without a formal nod or reference – The Secret Life of the National Grid backed up, showing how the rise of the domestic appliance that reduced the time needed for household chores has had profound social impact. Some women were freed from domestic drudgery to be able to take up a working life of their own, while other women lost their jobs as servants – or lost their servants (as women could now earn more in offices or factories) and wound up doing rather more housework than before. Electrification and the boom in manufacturing (and consumer goods) it generated fuelled an economic and social transformation, but we wound up working harder and faster rather than strolling along a sun-kissed beach in our best lycra. Yet the question that crossed a clever man’s lips was ‘Are friends electric?’ rather than ‘Is electricity our friend?’. Some eminently secular things can be so beyond questioning that to do so almost rates as heresy.

We can, of course, seek to comfort ourselves with our ability to process information and to be guided by memory and experience. Except it seems we’re not as good at this as we’d like to think. Being overly optimistic about one possible outcome can affect our memories, and distort the weight we give to different sources. Here’s an extract from an article, Wishful thinking and source monitoring, by Ruthanna Gordon (Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, Illinois) and Nancy Franklin and Jennifer Beck (State University of New York, Stony Brook, New York), published in the journal Memory & Cognition in 2005 (download a PDF):

The bias to make source decisions that are consistent with one’s wishes has practical implications. People sometimes make important life decisions based on information from “experts.” Misattribution of inaccurate information to experts can lend it unwarranted plausibility, with serious consequences, as in the example of the cancer patient who pursues a bogus miracle cure. As with other types of source monitoring errors, wishful thinking could also have consequences for eyewitness testimony. Witnesses with a stake in the outcome of a case may be more likely to make reality monitoring errors, genuinely believing they have seen events that support their desired verdict.”

If you saw Andrew Neil’s BBC documentary about The Tea Party on Monday night, you may have seen a historian whose opinion essentially boiled down to seeing them as wishing to return to a version of an American past that didn’t exist – one that combined the tenets of the Declaration of Independence with an absence of slavery, disease, sanitation, transport, and education (and, I suspect, the unexplained presence of TV, SUVs, oil rigs and national hockey leagues). History, no matter how inflammatory the related topic or fervent the wish, isn’t a pick-and-mix counter: 1776 + 1955 = 2012 is no more valid in chronological terms than it is in mathematical ones.

But even a more attentive view of history may not save us from undue optimism. Leonard Mlodinow’s surprisingly readable exploration of randomness and probability, The Drunkard’s Walk, points out two more problems. The first of these is our tendency to base our expectations of the future with a pattern we perceive in the past and present. One example he uses is the ranked performance of mutual funds: many people could well be making important investment decisions based on their expectation of future performance. Our willingness to perceive a pattern – whether we link it to fund manager skill or financial return – can, however, blindside us:

If the past were a good indication of the future, the funds I considered in the period 1991-1995 would have had more or less the same relative performance in 1996-2000. That is, if the winners (at the left of the graph) continued to do better than the others, and the losers (at the right) worse, this graph would be nearly identical to the last. Instead, as we can see, the order of the past dissolves when extrapolated into the future, and the graph ends up looking like random noise.”

(Another experiment in the book shows that, even in hypothetical scenarios in lab experiments, those told they are being paid more highly than their colleagues, usually start to give less weight to the opinions or inputs of those being paid less, regardless of relative performance or accuracy of performance. Predisposed to a pattern that suggests wealth springs from success based on skill, we make the illogical leap that the less wealthy are less intelligent and capable. They might be, but any such correlation is likely to be coincidental. When we confuse what we’re assessing with how we assess it, our conclusions can be distinctly misshapen.)

Maldinow also quotes the historian Richard Tawney as the latter highlights one of the dangers of his own profession, which must wrestle constantly with the tendency to see things only in the rear view mirror:

Historians give an appearance of inevitability … by dragging into prominence the forces which have triumphed and thrusting into the background those which they have swallowed up.”

We might long to hear crystal clear signals that clearly identify the current strands that will weave together to compose our future, but we might do better to worry less about controlling the signal to noise ratio and concern ourselves more with that ‘random noise’. Secret Doris Day fan that I am, I’m not saying ‘Que sera sera’ was a cop-out to fatalism, but it might not be too unwise to accept that the future might be shaped as much by the elephant in the room – and the things we’ve swept under the carpet the elephant is standing on – as by our own plans and intentions.

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