Realizing everyone you meet is massively flawed isn’t cheery, but it explains a lot.
Since forever, philosophers, economists, and conspiracy theorists have devised any number of elaborate theories on the nature of society and the motivations of human behavior. From the ideas of Adam Smith to Karl Marx, most of these models depend (at least somewhat) on the idea of rational human actors working to achieve reasonable results for themselves, their community, or society. But they are wrong.
Similarly, there have been volumes written about how you should successfully relate to other people—but most assume that the person you’re talking to is a relatively intelligent, functional person, even though they probably aren’t. You probably aren’t, either. Advertisement
In practice, people are stupid, lazy, and behave as if they’re insane, and all human endeavors are a result of that trio of near-universal traits. So we should see the world accordingly.No one, even rich powerful people, is playing 3D chess. People are barely playing 2D checkers.
When I think of smart people—like really smart people, not just the smartest guy on the bus, but theoretical-physicist-smart—I can only conclude I’m a damn idiot. But when I read the comment section on the New York Times, I feel like I might be the smartest person in the world. Thing is, there are many more New York Times commenters than theoretical physicists. In other words, forty-six percent of Americans believe ghosts exist, so we’re rarely dealing with the intellectual vanguard in our day-to-day lives.
Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter where anyone falls on the “smartness spectrum” because even the smartest person is stupid most of the time. This isn’t to say that people can’t be intelligent, but that what we define as “intelligence” is rarely the basis of decisions, opinions, and interactions, even among people who are able to score highly on IQ tests or show other outward trappings we’ve decided denote “intelligence.”Advertisement
Psychologist Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for economics and a presidential medal of freedom for his lifelong study of the psychology of decision-making. In his 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman proposes that we have two modes of processing information to make decisions. The first is automatic. It’s our first reaction, our mind’s formation of instant associations with no effort. It’s intuitive and impressionistic, the result of connections we’ve built though countless past experiences.
The second is slower thought—the part of our brain we use when we do an Algebra problem, where we go through careful, logical steps to arrive at a conclusion. This kind of thinking is a lot of work.
According to Kahneman, no matter how “smart” we are, our day-to-day mode of thinking involves an interaction between these two modes of thought, with Mode 2 lightly monitoring the unformed input of Mode 1 as we navigate the world, rarely piping up to offer input. Think of how thoughtlessly you can drive a car, for instance.
Most of time, this works out fine. We take our assumptions, impressions, and biases and base our decisions and opinions upon them with no static. Even something that challenges our basic assumptions can usually be explained away with some small effort from Mode 2 mind. Advertisement
The amount of effort it would take to always think with Mode 2 mind would be unsustainable and largely useless most of the time. Actually examining our assumptions and decisions with the care we give an algebra problem takes great effort, and who has the time? Most decisions don’t actually have a single “right” answer anyway, and there are a ton of great shows streaming right now.
This could be considered lazy. While laziness is often derided as a character flaw or one of the seven deadly sins, it actually offers great evolutionary advantages. Mollusks have been around for millions of years and they don’t do shit.
Many followers of evolutionary psychology (itself an often lazy discipline) contend that humans conserving energy by doing just enough to meet immediate needs was a preferable survival strategy to the effort it takes to engage in longer-term planning for some abstract goal—just go hunt a bear and don’t worry about building a city. In the 2021 world, immediate gratification isn’t an optimal success strategy either, but it’s tough for us to shake our ancient impulses, so it’s safe to assume that most people you meet are thinking and acting in the very short-term.
For an illustration of how “lazy” you are, ask yourself what percentage of your time is devoted to getting through the day, and what amount is involved in really striving for some kind of long-term, abstract gain.Advertisement
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in five Americans live with a mental illness, and according to the CDC, more than half of us will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some time in our life. And this doesn’t account for all of us who aren’t diagnosed but are often unreasonable. You’re almost certainly worse at understanding your own biases than you are at recognizing them in others.
It also doesn’t account for many people with personality disorders, who are less likely to seek treatment but more likely to succeed (in business and politics) than others, even though their reduced empathy can negatively affect their decisions. Researchers call them “successful psychopaths,” and describe them thusly: “Completely lacking in conscience and feeling for others, they selfishly take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without the slightest sense of guilt or regret.” Does that sound like anyone you’ve heard of?
Whether the prevalence of mental illness exists because mental illness provides some evolutionary advantage, is the result of a toxic society, or springs from greater awareness of mental health issues is debatable, but it’s safe to assume that many of us suffer to some extent, or at least behave insanely. Advertisement
It’s easy to think that people are dumb and lazy when you’re in line at the Costco—you’re in “Mode 1 Mind” so your biases kick in—but the trick is realizing that everyone is just as flawed. The outward trappings we’ve come to associate with sanity and intelligence are as false as assuming that the guy next to you in line is a dope.
Many of us tend to think that rich and powerful people got that way because they’re smart, industriousness, and make sound decisions—rich people will tell you that—but the true “source” of wealth is unlikely to have anything to do with those things. Instead, it’s a complicated confluence of fate, culture, and sheer luck that adds up to wealth, like a lottery so exclusive you can’t even buy a ticket to play it.
“This rich jerk is just as flawed as I am” is an important thing to keep in mind when dealing with people with more authority or money than you have. No one, even rich powerful people, is playing 3D chess. People are barely playing 2D checkers.
It’d be nice to think that recognizing the flaws and potential pitfalls in other people’s internal worlds would make it easier to recognize them in yourself—to become more “mindful,” dedicated, and centered—but it doesn’t work that way. Feel free to try, of course, but you probably won’t succeed. You’re almost certainly worse at understanding your own biases than you are at recognizing them in others, and knowing that fact won’t help you escape the Chinese finger trap.
Neither will being “smart.” Researchers have long studied “bias blind-spots,” (our tendency to see the biases of other people over our own), but recent research suggests that “cognitive sophistication” more often leads to people having a larger bias blindspot—being “smarter” seems to makes it harder to understand your biases compared to seeing them in others.
You’d think Daniel Kahneman, who literally wrote the book (actually several books) on the nature of flawed decision-making, would be able to avoid the pitfalls, but nope. “My intuitive thinking is just as prone to overconfidence, extreme predictions, and the planning fallacy as it was before I made a study of these issues,” he writes in Thinking, Fast and Slow.
There’s nothing you can do to change the mental processes of others. You can only accept them. But that acceptance can help the world make more sense, whether it’s personal interactions or world politics. Realizing that political and social movements spring from the decisions of individuals working with incomplete information and a set of unknowable biases, instead of from a cabal of powerful people secretly plotting world domination, could mean you’re less likely to fall for conspiracy theories…and suddenly, the fact that hundreds of talented, intelligent people devoted their professional lives to producing the movie version of Cats makes sense.
It’s a great relief in interpersonal relations, as well. Knowing that your fantasy football rival and your co-workers at the batting cage are just bumbling along means you can stop obsessing over their motivations. No one knows what they’re doing, after all, and they’re probably just trying to make things easier for themselves in the short term.
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