Be thankful when people disagree with you in good faith because they are being kind when they do.
Annie Duke, How To Decide
Keep an open mind but not so open that your brain falls out.
(Richard Feynman and others)
I know only one thing: that I know nothing.
The divisions we see in America today are both obvious and disturbing.
… Earlier this year the New York Times asked, “Are We Really Facing a Second Civil War?” and the New Yorker magazine pondered, “Is a Civil War ahead?” Last month a survey found that more than two in five Americans believe civil war is at least somewhat likely in the next 10 years …
Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns comments: “I’m not saying that it necessarily could go that way but it could go that way so I think, borrowing gratefully from our beloved Debora Lipstadt [a historian interviewed in The US and the Holocaust documentary], the time to save a democracy is before it’s lost.
Bridgewater Associates founder Ray Dalio said recently that the U.S. is suffering from the worst political polarization in more than a century — and that the U.S. is even more polarized today than it was during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s.
At Think in the Morning we have pointed out the growing divisions in America several times. A partial list of previous comments appears at the end of this blog. It’s not surprising that democracy is difficult to sustain considering that we each have different goals, needs, abilities, resources and opinions. Finding the common ground (i.e. a basis of mutual interest or agreement) required to hold democracy together can be tricky. Let’s hope we haven’t run out of tricks.
On the last day of the Constitutional Convention of the newly formed United States, September 18, 1787, a lady asked Dr. Benjamin Franklin: “Well Doctor what have we got a republic or a monarchy.” – “A republic replied the Doctor if you can keep it.”
The problem with the common ground required to keep a functioning democracy is that we are obstinate in our opinions even when they are wrong. Psychologists have pointed out for years that our decisions are riddled with inconsistencies and biases. Consider, for example, How We Know What Isn’t So by Thomas Gilovich or Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire by Kurt Andersen.
Our lives depend on the set of past decisions we have made and the future decisions we will make. As Robert Frost told us in The Road Not Taken, our decisions can make “all the difference.”
Think of your decisions like the branches of a tree. Start at the trunk. With each decision you follow a particular branch, a successive branch, etc. Moving between branches is difficult and sometimes impossible. Luck plays an important role. Seneca reputably said that luck is when preparation meets opportunity. This may be true, but what if the opportunity doesn’t arise? It pays to be prepared but preparation is only half of the equation.
How can we make better decisions? Advice is abundant. The books by Gilovich and Andersen mentioned earlier can help. I recently read Annie Duke’s book How To Decide. Annie Duke is a former professional poker player and also an author in cognitive-behavioral decision science and decision education. A link to an online interview and discussion about her book appears at the end of this blog.
Most people are unaware of the cognitive biases that impact their decisions, biases such as overconfidence, hindsight bias, and confirmation bias. Duke explains these biases and others such as the halo effect and anchoring. She gives simple examples to help you understand and avoid them.
Most people will say they are better than average drivers (or investors, or parents, etc.) even though a majority cannot be better than average. We are often over confident. Annie Duke provides this interesting example of over confidence: 82% of gym members go once a week or less. Of those 82% of members going to the gym once a week or less, 77% of those memberships went completely unused. Eighty percent of gym members who join in January—prime New Year’s resolution folks—quit within five months (according to CouponCabin). Half of all new gym members quit going within six months, according to the global trade association of the fitness industry, the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA).
After the fact many people will say they “knew” or “should have known” what was going to happen (hindsight bias). The reality is that few really did know. The problem is that you may assume that what happened will happen again without knowing why it happened in the first place.
Once you form an opinion, it’s easy to cherry pick the facts that back up your opinion and ignore the other facts (confirmation bias). Charles Darwin was very aware how confirmation bias could corrupt his thinking. He once saidthat whenever he ran into something that contradicted a conclusion he cherished, he was obliged to write the new finding down within 30 minutes. Otherwise his mind would work to reject the discordant information, much as the body rejects transplants.
When someone is an expert in one field (like Einstein in physics), you may think they are experts in other fields (like religion or politics) when in fact their opinion in these other fields is no better or worse than anyone else’s opinion. This is the halo effect sometimes referred to as argumentum ad verecundiam.
Even professionals can be influenced by anchoring. Annie Duke provides an example where realtors base their real estate appraisal close to the tentative price they’ve been given in advance even when it’s clearly higher or lower than reasonable.
People confuse outcomes with decisions. For example, if you buy a stock and it goes up is that a good or a bad decision? Most people would say it was a good decision. It was a good outcome but whether or not it was a good decision depends on why you bought the stock. If you bought the stock because you felt in your gut that it was a good thing to do there is no reason to call this a good decision. As Annie Duke says in her book: Your gut—no matter how much experience or past success you’ve had—is not really a decision tool … intuition and gut are infected by what you want to be true … It’s difficult to reach a conclusion about decision quality from one result … When figuring whether a decision is good or bad, you are essentially asking whether the upside potential compensates for the downside risk.
The outcome or result of your decision could simply be the result of luck—good luck or bad luck. Luck is not something you can replicate. By definition it’s random.
The economist Robert Frank wrote a book called Success and Luck: The Myth of the Meritocracy where he shows how the rich often underestimate the importance of luck in their success.
Another thing about luck: good luck can turn quickly to bad luck. Consider the story of the Chinese farmer.
A farmer discovers that his horse, a major source of his wealth, has run away into the hills. His neighbors come by to offer their condolences … “Sorry for your bad luck,” they say. “Who knows what is good and what is bad,” says the farmer. A few days later, the horse returns and brings several wild horses along. The neighbors exclaim: “Congratulations on your good luck!” “Who knows what is good and what is bad,” says the farmer. The next day the farmer’s son breaks his leg riding one of the wild horses. The neighbors return and predictably say “Sorry for your bad luck.” “Who knows what is good and what is bad,” says the farmer. The next week the military authorities come through searching for young men to fight in the war. The farmer’s son avoids conscription because of his leg. You can imagine how things progress from here.
When biases impact our decisions or when we confuse good decision making with good luck we are prone to making mistakes, mistakes that can impair the common ground that holds our democracy together, our ability to reason together.
Simple misunderstandings can erode the fragile bonds of a democracy. In a past blog on Wittgenstein’s Mistress we included a video that depicts such a misunderstanding. Two partners fail to communicate accurately because they are playing different games in their heads.
When your partner says “You never help me, you’re so unreliable,” your natural inclination might be to hear this as the stating of the facts game like the battle of Waterloo was in 1815 so you might respond by stating some facts such as how you actually got the car insurance yesterday and you bought some vegetables at lunch time too. But actually your partner is involved in a different language game. They’re using words not to capture facts but they’re playing the help and reassurance game. So, you never help means “I want you to be more nurturing.”
The different games analogy is why we seldom change peoples’ opinions by mustering the facts. David Hume, the eighteenth century philosopher, wrote “reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” That is, we tend to decide on emotion. If you want to convince someone, appealing to their emotions is likely to be more fruitful than a listing of the facts. This is not to say the facts are unimportant. They are extremely important but emotions are also important and cannot be ignored when trying to convince others.
Learning how to make better decisions and understanding how facts and emotions both enter into opinions might help put Humpty Dumpty together again. Unfortunately, there are also structural problems resulting from how our democracy was originally set up. David Leonhardt points out two such problems in his recent article (A Crisis Coming: The Twin Threats To American Democracy). First, there is a growing unwillingness to accept the outcome of our elections. Second, there is a disconnect between public opinion and the ability to make government policy because the three branches of government are not representative of the majority of the populace. A proper discussion of the points raised by Leonhardt is beyond the scope of this current blog.
Decisions and opinions are driving us apart. They are endangering our democracy. Social media and a plethora of news outlets allows us to pick and choose the information we pay attention to. If we are going to keep this republic we all need to take a deep breath and widen our perspective even if our minds work to reject the discordant information as Darwin warns. In the words of Annie Duke: Be thankful when people disagree with you in good faith because they are being kind when they do.They are giving you a chance to investigate your biases and revisit your reasons for making the decisions you make. Our republic depends on it.