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Wednesday, September 02, 2009

But you're not nearly smart enough to tell me how to run my life

From an apparently unsigned Health column in The Hindu, courtesy The Guardian news service, "Our ideas of brain and human nature are myth," we learn
Perhaps that sounds a little overblown, but it’s not. Who, dear reader, do you think you are? Do you think your mind is capable of independent judgment and largely directs the course of your life? Do you think that most of your decisions in life have been the product of your rational, conscious self? Do you believe you are in control of your life? Do you cherish ideas such as self-expression, a sense of autonomy and a distinct, self—authored identity? The chances are that, albeit with a few qualifications, most of your answers are yes. Indeed, given a pervasive culture which reinforces all these ideas, it would be a bit odd if you didn’t.

But the point about this new explosion of interest in research into our brains is that it exposes as illusions much of these guiding principles of what it is to be a mature adult. They are a profound misunderstanding of how we think, and how our brains work. They are fairytales, about as fanciful and as implausible as goblins.
Does it indeed? Further,
It’s not an accident that many of the biggest bestsellers in this territory are about decision-making -- Blink, Nudge and The Decisive Moment. The image which comes to mind is that they are all sticks of dynamite dug in to explode the great sacred mythology of our time: namely that individual freedom is about having choices, and that progress is about the constant expansion of those choices.

Read these books and you discover that people are useless at making choices. We are lazy, imitative, over-optimistic, myopic, and much of our decision-making is made by unconscious habits of the mind which are largely socially primed.
Ah, I see. Any guesses as to how this thesis will be used?
It’s intriguing how much attention the thesis has attracted from many parts of the political establishment, such as policymakers in pensions, health and the environment, because often the gains from nudging seem pretty small -- it is fanciful to think it can solve the environmental crisis.
Well, where's the feather I knock myself over with when I am totally astonished? This is a thesis perfectly attuned to authoritarian government. It's also nonsense.

Freedom is about having choices, whether to start a business, leave a religion, or vote the government out.

And, while people have a variety of reasons for making choices, good or bad, if these theories are really as represented here, they would be far too simplistic to even approach the reality of how people make choices.* Our brains are more like an ocean than a machine, and schools of fish move about. As intellectual projects, they probably won't last nearly as long as behaviorism and maybe not even as long as evolutionary psychology. But while they're hot, the bat fairy must have delivered them to intrusive government. I can't think who else would.

*Maybe they're not; I haven't had time to read the books. What's significant to me is that that's the conclusion so swiftly drawn. By the way, the title phrase is from Kathy Shaidle at Five Feet of Fury.

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