by Atash Hagmahani | May 7, 2008Print
�Atash is so arrogant! He still won't admit that he's wrong!�
I heard something to this effect recently through the grapevine. What am I wrong about? Well, everything.
If you're like me, you've probably had the same problem at one time or another in your life, and are wondering what to do about it. Perhaps you've warned your brother-in-law that he's not investing but rather speculating at the peak of a bubble, as you pay his rent for him so he won't end up out on the street. Or perhaps you warned a now ex-friend about the possibility of a recession and its consequences, and so now he's angry with you and blames you for the loss of his job and his house. Perhaps you stocked up on cash, precious metals, and the stocks of resource-related companies while warning your friends against the trendy growth stocks they were investing in at the height of the stock bubble, but instead of taking your advice, profiting form it, thanking you, and admiring you for your insight, now you are persona non grata! Those sorts of things have happened to me. I know that MY misery certainly doesn't like company, but maybe you can feel better knowing that you're not alone, and that what is happening in these situations is easy to understand once you spot the pattern AND correctly interpret it.
I'm good at spotting patterns. When I interpret the patterns correctly, that's how I make money in the markets.
War in the noosphere!
Concepts have an existence comparable to that of biological life, except that they exist in the noosphere instead of the biosphere. Like DNA in mitosis, the ideas that make up concepts break down and recombine through analysis and synthesis. They reproduce through mental mimicry (probably through the �mirror neurons), highly prolific concepts being referred to as �memes�, whose etymology is derived from �genes�.
They are essentially symbiont with intelligent life-forms, but it is not a purely benevolent symbiosis. Sometimes concepts, like certain parasites, destroy their own hosts, but spread to new hosts before their own demise.
�Nature red in tooth and claw� seems to be even more true in the noosphere than in the biosphere. Concepts compete viciously with each other, and will try to destroy competing concepts. Deception in the noosphere corresponds almost exactly to violence in the biosphere. Concepts will even try to use deception in the noosphere to provoke violence in the biosphere against the hosts of competing concepts.
Cells organize into tissues, tissues into organisms, and organisms into communities. Ideas organize into packages called �concepts�, and concepts are packaged up into identities.
Being right does not make one popular
The majority never has right on its side. Never, I
say! That is one of these social lies against which an
independent, intelligent man must wage war. Who is it that
constitute the majority of the population in a country? Is it the
clever folk, or the stupid? I don't imagine you will dispute the
fact that at present the stupid people are in an absolutely
overwhelming majority all the world over. But, good Lord!--you
can never pretend that it is right that the stupid folk should
govern the clever ones I (Uproar and cries.) Oh, yes--you can
shout me down, I know! But you cannot answer me. The majority has
might on its side--unfortunately; but right it has not. I am in
the right--I and a few other scattered individuals. The minority
is always in the right. (Renewed uproar.)
The character Dr. Stockman, An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen
One makes money in the markets by being right when most people are wrong�or in other words as with so many other things being right is most valuable when it is in scarce supply. So, for example, the successful investor is buying when most people are selling, and running scared when most people are rubbing their hands with greed. What's a good setup for profit also sounds like a setup for being unpopular!
People like people like themselves
�It is not enough to possess a talent: one must also have your permission to possess it;�eh, my friends? �Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future
Now consider the typical yuppie party scenario, where a group of people are standing in a circle boasting about their unsecured and optimistically estimated profits. If you want to be popular, you have to be successful doing what they are doing. You have to mirror their behaviors, both at the moment and outside the party, but the trick is to be successful doing�or rather, pretending to do�what they are doing, despite the fact that usually what they are doing is setting themselves up for disaster.
The pressure to think and to see things as other people do can alter our judgments. In one experiment, Solomon Asch (1955) asked participants to identify which two of four lines ... were of the same length. ...it is quite easy to to tell which two are the same. When other people enter the picture, however, such judgments are not as straightforward. Unbeknownst to the person making such a judgment, the other participants in Asch's study were working with the experimenter. When as few as three or four of them made an obviously incorrect choice, participants also made an incorrect choice about one third of the time. It does not take many people to disagree with a position for a change in perception or opinion to occur. Anthony F. Grasha, Practical Applications of Psychology, 3rd edition
Scientist Francis Collins sings it like it is:
Basically, if you can get rich buying when everyone else is buying, and selling when everyone else is selling, then you're on track to be popular at parties and will get that approval from your family and friends that most of us want. Of course, this herd-like behavior is what causes investment failure (and market boom-bust cycles), and not investment success.
It is worth mentioning briefly in passing that phoneys who pretend to engage in the �right� behaviors and to have the �right� attitudes but in reality are making the opposite bets�in other words, those who dissimulate (a good word to know)�are often the ones admired for their success by their dupes.
Isn't it really astonishing that many centuries after medieval European monks not only worked out the rules of logical inference, but cataloged all of the common logical fallacies, that people still routinely use them? Isn't it even intuitively obvious that logical fallacies such as bifurcations, affirming the consequent, straw-man arguments, and lack of evidence proving a negative (�there are no black swans� said the man who forgot to look in Australia) are invalid? What is even more astonishing is that pointing out obvious, cut-and-dried logical fallacies in someone else's argument won't convince them, but instead will make you unpopular.
�You're just saying that because you listen to Rush Limbaugh.�
That is an actual exact quote from one of my friends criticizing my lack of enthusiasm for a socialist policy we were discussing. It is a factual error: I don't listen to talk radio of any kind; I'm just not interested. It is also a non-sequitur; even if I did listen to Rush Limbaugh, there would be no logical reason to infer a causal connection between that and my disdain for Socialism. Give me credit for not thinking along the lines of �it's true because Rush says so�!
How on earth did Rush Limbaugh get into the conversation? Well, it's simple really: since I don't think like her, she assumes that I must be one of THOSE people. What defines THOSE people is a function of who is disagreeing with me, and how they identify both themselves and �other than themselves�. For someone like her, who listens to NPR, in that context �people who listen to Rush Limbaugh� are the �other�.
Identity defines belief...and vice-versa
I wish I had a dollar for every time someone said
As a (name of identity group), I believe that...
Or the variation that really scares me,
As a (name of identity group), I feel that...
Whereupon someone has stopped thinking and started �feeling�.
�As a Feminist, I trust my financial planner because she's a woman.�
That was the actual stated justification for having sold off all the natural resource producers and commodity-related investments in someone's retirement portfolio which I had recommended but her financial adviser melodramatically told her were �extremely dangerous� and �risky�. Now that her portfolio of stocks and bonds is worth about 60% of what she paid for them, am I still wrong? Apparently so, because she's the one who inspired this editorial spreading her angry comments about me on the grapevine. After all, her financial planner is still a woman and still hates precious metals, natural resources, and commodities.
Beliefs are based largely on identity because identity is based largely on belief.
Subhuti, what do you think? Is the Tathagata to be recognized by some material characteristic? excerpt from the Diamond Sutra
Most personal identities have no testable attributes. Generally, one is considered, say, a Buddhist or a Republican because they believe themselves to be such, and for no other reason. There is no body temperature or pH we could test for, to determine if it is objectively true that they are, in fact, Buddhists or Republicans. Membership lists, for example, are not reliable, since they could be infiltrators. There is no objective test because they are not objective attributes.
Economists define themselves to be classical, Keynesian, Austrian, supply-side, Monetarist, etc (it would be most refreshing if someone would actually tell the truth and admit to being a �voodoo economist�), largely because that is their chosen identification. There are really a number of problems here: they don't necessarily have much of the background knowledge implied by their chosen identity, they aren't necessarily true to their self-identities, and they are likely to belief or disbelieve facts based on their self-identity, rather based on whether they are actually true or not.
It is worth noting in passing that our economic central planners tend to refer to themselves as �free market� advocates, despite the obvious contradiction. Many are confounded by this deception.
Unfortunately, the same people tend to carry political baggage as another variable that colors their world-view. There are probably certain political ideologies that tend to go with corresponding economic ideologies, such as �liberals� (Socialists) tending to favor Keynesianism because the economic pumping gives them an excuse to spend money on big government projects. Those associations as well as their exceptions are unimportant to my point; the important part is that political identities bias judgment.
Consider a certain sort of political conservative�in fact as I write this I have a specific person in my mind whom I happen to know. If the conversation wanders onto dangerous topics such as trade deficits or national economic competitiveness, this type of person's brain suddenly freezes up. This person will stop responding to the conversation, look at me blankly, and declare
�America feeds the world.�
In case you're not following the argument it probably goes something like this: �America feeds the world, therefor nice people don't talk about national trade deficits or budget deficits�. This one line argument by the way shows up in a variety of contexts.
It will only enrage them to point out that the United States is in fact a net importer of food. The point is not to deliver true facts, but to demonstrate loyalty to an identity that has a habit of construing cronyism and loyalty to the status quo as �patriotism�.
Someone else I know is a �liberal�, which in her mind is identically the same thing as that she is a kind person who �cares about people�. She has, in fact, on more than one occasion slapped me silly for stating an opinion with which she does not agree. In her very Kantian mind, good-will is the only innate good, consequences be damned, and she is quick to attack my motives. If I do not approve of social welfare (I don't), she would (and in fact does) claim that it's because I am �selfish� and �lack compassion and empathy for others� (sic), and therefor provoked the attack by being �bad�. As far as I can tell, she feels no guilt for her seemingly hypocritical behavior, but rather tends to consider her anger to be of the �righteous� variety.
There is an innocence in lying; it is a sign of faith in a good cause.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future
People grasp at logical fallacies to support their lies, not because their brains have mysteriously been wired with illogical rules of inference, but because their goal was never to tell the truth, but instead to demonstrate loyalty to an identity group and its associated system of beliefs.
If you discovered some information that was contrary to your values and beliefs would you...
- find out if it's true?
- share it with others?
Attacking someone's motives instead of their argument is a fallacy known as a �Bulverism�. The concept of a Bulverism (or at least, the name for it) was invented by C.S. Lewis, and named for a character in one of his books...
...Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father - who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third - �Oh, you say that because you are a man.� �At that moment,� E. Bulver assures us, �there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.� That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.
I find the fruits of his discovery almost everywhere.
C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock
The old Gods
Cause and effect is not intuitive to human brains. Instead there is some sort of widespread instinct that things happened because someone wanted them to (or, on the other hand, didn't happen due to lack of resolve or lack of faithfulness to a cause). Animistic and mythic belief systems are based on �filling in the missing details� regarding whose agenda is responsible for making the sun shine or the wind to blow.
If the sun gets too hot and burns up your crops, perhaps you need to propitiate the sun-spirit. If the wind turns dangerously fierce, maybe the wind is angry with you. In any case the sun and wind are assumed to have personal agendas.
The funny thing is, as humans seemingly became more sophisticated, they attributed primitive animistic-mythic worldviews to ignorance and yet continued to have exactly the same tendency to attribute events to agendas whether the agenda actually exists or not.
Have you ever met or heard of scientists who vindictively persecute other scientists for sincerely disagreeing with them?
Have you ever met modern children who attack inanimate objects after they get hurt (hit or stomp them), but, more astonishingly, have overprotective parents who will try to comfort them by saying things like �did that bad toy hurt you�?
Have you ever wondered about how discussions about topics over which we have no personal control�say �global warming��predictably turn into heated arguments instead of rational discussions?
Noble lies and dangerous truths
Paradoxically, in openly championing the �pia fraus� (�pious fraud� or �noble lie�), Plato and Leon Strauss were in some sense MORE HONEST than the legions of moral liars who walk the earth. To the concept of the noble lie, Leon Strauss added the concept of �the dangerous truth�. People who go around speaking dangerous truths will be perceived as being bad people, and historically have been punished accordingly.
Hoaxes are perpetrated by the dupes
From 1963-65, Col. Larry Carrigan was in the 47FW/DO (F-4E's). He spent 6 years in the "Hilton"- the first three of which he was "missing in action". His wife lived on faith that he was still alive. His group, too, got the cleaned, fed, clothed routine in preparation for a "peace delegation" visit.
They, however, had time and devised a plan to get word to the world that they still survived. Each man secreted a tiny piece of paper, with his SSN on it, in the palm of his hand. When paraded before Ms. Fonda and a cameraman, she walked the line, shaking each man's hand and asking little encouraging snippets like: "Aren't you sorry you bombed babies?" and "Are you grateful for the humane treatment from your benevolent captors?" Believing this HAD to be an act, they each palmed her their sliver of paper.
She took them all without missing a beat. At the end of the line and once the camera stopped rolling, to the shocked disbelief of the POWs, she turned to the officer in charge and handed him the little pile of papers. Three American men, heroes, died from the subsequent beatings. Col. Carrigan was almost number four but he survived, which is the only reason we know about her actions that day.
The same guy who blamed me for him losing his job once sent me the preceding story in an email. It's a hoax. It's true that Jane Fonda did deny that American POWs were tortured in Vietnam, and she did a lot of other shameful things in order to divert negative attention towards innocent soldiers and away from guilty policymakers with whom she seems rather chummy, but this particular narrative is fictional.
First of all, the only Jerry Carrigan anyone's been able to find to verify it denies it ever happened. More importantly, if you read the whole story in its entirety carefully, you see signs of hoaxing, such as comments calculated to hit a raw nerve but which the narrator would have been unlikely to have knowledge of.
Hoaxes work because the dupe wants to believe them to support a pre-existing agenda.
Failing the loyalty test
If certain beliefs constitute a test of loyalty, lack of belief is prone to interpretation as treason. Heretics were not burned because they were believed to be �honestly mistaken�, but because they were assumed to be disloyal and perhaps even working for �the other side�.
If noble lies are a function of faith in a cause, then dangerous truths are interpreted as proof of pursuing the wrong agenda. Please understand me clearly:
- If the stock market crashes, it will be blamed on the bears for undermining investor confidence.
- If commodity scarcity leads to a food crisis, it will be (actually, has already been) blamed on the �speculation� of commodity bulls.
- If the �clash of civilizations� results in the �end of civilization�, it will be blamed on war critics for �lack of resolve to win the war�.
- If the economy collapses into hyperinflationary depression, it will be blamed on hard money advocates, free-market advocates, and the like, for having �failed to take decisive action to save the economy�.
THIS IS A DANGEROUS SITUATION FOR THOSE WHO DO NOT SUBSCRIBE TO THE ECONOMIC OR POLITICAL ORTHODOXIES.
Nikolai Karlovich von Meck fan club
�La republique n'a pas besoign de genies!�
(The Replublic has no need of geniuses)
The Judge who sentenced brilliant scientist Antoin Lavoisier to the guillotine on trumped-up charges, apparently as a favor to Marat, who was jealous of him. This is one of my all-time favorite quotes, because it is so telling of a certain rather common mentality.
Nikolai Karlovich von Meck was one of 4 engineers sent to the firing squad, ostensibly for sabotage of the soviet train system, in the aftermath of the Shakhty show trials in the Soviet Union. Once von Meck's replacement subsequently managed to derail the trains putting heavier loads on them and running them faster than the gauge of their tracks could handle, did the Politbureau tearfully admit its mistakes and beg forgiveness for their crimes?
No, they blamed the conductors for sabotage and had them shot too. The central planners did not reject the new information; they re-interpreted it.
- If the trains derailed under socialist planning, they must have been sabotaged.
- If the flat earth casts a round shadow against the moon as observed during lunar eclipses, it must be disk-shaped.
- If the economy fails to improve after an interest-rate cut by the Federal Reserve, it must not have been big enough, or early enough.
- If prices are rising, it must be because of price-gouging.
Investment newsletter writer Jay Taylor often refers to this scenario, which he calls �seeing what they believe�.
If unpleasant consequences you predict will happen do happen, not only might you be blamed for them, but those who failed to anticipate them are likely to re-interpret the new information in a way to convince themselves that their agendas are still viable.
As an aside, conceptual models carry more weight when they have PREDICTIVE value, but loyal fans are willing to patch their pet theories AFTER new information comes along.
Phenomenon and interpretation
Phenomenon: something happens. Interpretation: what does it mean? Most people take for granted that their interpretations ARE the phenomena.
With my child-like personality and sense of wonder, I am still amazed that I can make money just by logging into a website, typing some numbers and symbols, clicking on some buttons, and in time�typically less than a year, more money starts showing up in my account without much effort on my part. It's so easy! It just seems too good to be true.
There are counterparties to these trades. Although it is possible that the counterparty also made money (they might have been hedging a winning trade), because the game is close to zero-sum chances are that my winnings came out of someone else's losses. Why did someone else bet the wrong way with at least as much information I have, and possibly more?
The answer is that they misinterpreted the information. Variability in interpretation is the hole in �efficient market theory� (especially in its �strong� form): even if we all had the same information (which we don't), there would be at least two and more likely a great many interpretations regarding what it means.
Consider what happens when, say, the price of gold rises. You will read opinions to the effect that:
- Gold is rising due to �flight to quality�. Sell stocks and buy gold.
- Gold is rising due to rising consumer confidence and demand for luxury items. Buy growth stocks.
...and their contrarian counterpart:
- Gold is rising due to the mistaken but widely-held belief that gold is money; sell gold and hold cash to prepare for the deflationary spiral.
There you have three common interpretations all based on exactly the same information about the price of gold, and you can probably find more than that.
The horror of Dunning-Kruger effect
Here is a scenario I have witnessed many times in my life, which I will explain by first offering an example:
Once I was talking to a relative about how deficit spending on current consumption does not create prosperity, but instead destroys capital. �Eating the seed corn� as they say. I mentioned Frederic Bastiat's argument about the broken window and if replacing one broken window helps the economy why not go down the street and break them all? Someone I know, with feigned innocence, first began looking for something, then began thumbing through a textbook, until he found what he was looking for, SLAPPED it down in front of me, and triumphantly pointed a finger at the passage about �economic stimulation�.
He thinks that proof consists of quoting from a textbook!! My whole carefully laid-out explanation went in one ear and out the other, totally ignored!
The Dunning-Kruger effect is that someone who doesn't know what he's talking about is more likely to be confident in his knowledge than someone who is competent, while, paradoxically, is less likely to be able to spot competence in others. In other words, ignoramuses tend to be insufferable know-it-alls.
Real-life epistemology (the painful truth)
The ways that most people test new information tend not to be particularly rational. Not only are the beliefs themselves tied to self-identities, but so are the ways of testing new information.
Here are some common methods:
- �We learned that in macroeconomics�.
- �The author won a Pulitzer prize for journalistic excellence�.
- �It has been revealed to us by the blessed masters of old�.
- No, really, I heard it on the news.
- My friend Bonnie explained it all to me.
- �Everybody knows that�
- �Your wrong. Nobody thinks that way�.
Someone who self-identifies as a �scientist�, for example, is likely to be swayed by results published in �prestigious� journals where they can be �peer reviewed�. It doesn't matter if the results were falsified, the experiment irrelevant and the results misinterpreted, or that the �peers� are in cahoots with the authors and the journal is a �gatekeeper� that simply refuses to publish rebuttals from hostile peers, the purpose typically being to create and defend elaborate frauds to push extremely profitable commercial products such as medical drugs or procedures, or to win government grants. Nor does it seem to matter if regardless of INTENT, the authors just happened to be plain wrong!
Someone who identifies with one of the softer sciences, such as an economist, is likely to be impressed with papers that have lots of footnotes, which are called �extensively researched�. The really odd part is when they footnote subjective statements that could not be tested (as if the authors of the referenced paper did an experiment to determine whether a claim that started with something like �It is unconscionable that...� to determine if it were truly �unconscionable�). As we used to say in the software business, �paid by the pound� and also �proof by intimidation�. One simply quotes members of one's own little clique, and if you follow the footnotes they tend to cross-reference each other.
The economic behaviors of people in general tend to be influenced by those with whom they identify. This is likely their friends, but the friends are often picked out according to shared identities--�birds of a feather�. Average people not being particularly creative (if you're too creative, you're �weird�), it all starts with commercial indoctrination disguised as entertainment.
A blue-collar man in rural areas, whose ancestors were farmers (but couldn't compete with agribusiness), is likely to be influenced by television �cowboys� and country-music lyrics. For those reasons, he is likely to buy a bigger pickup than he really needs (or can afford), drink too much beer, go to bars for fellowship, and have a soon-to-be-ex wife who shops at Wal*Mart�.
An �urban sophisticate� �knows� that he's supposed to sip wine with expensive imported cheeses, listen to jazz, eat out often at trendy �fusion� restaurants, overdecorate his over-priced condominium (with an eye to impressing his party-guests), have expensive dressing and grooming habits as a �metrosexual�, and that sort of thing. He and his live-in girlfriend ape the behaviors they see in movies that got favorable reviews in the trendy on-line city-guide, or read in New York Times bestsellers. Their friends watching and reading the same materials and learning the same behaviors reinforces them and convinces them that �this is normal...this is how people do things�. That's why the PR industry exists to plant both specific product placements as well as general lifestyle trends and ideas.
But what about li'l ol' me, like the biblical voice crying out in the wilderness, counseling his friends to stop engaging in self-destructive economic behaviors such as borrowing for current consumption, or speculating but calling it �investment�? Why did I lose the argument about the danger of �economic stimulation�?! What I lacked was �credibility�.
A lot of phenomena that would seem to be the domains of philosophy, religion, logic, or hard science, can also credibly be interpreted in economic terms. If your wallet is fat enough you can actually buy credibility like any other commodity!
Let's say you want someone else to be the expert; that's a little easier, but you can be one too if you like. Here's how to do it:
- Identify a good prospect. Typically this is someone already feeding press releases to news syndicates, someone who would like to be a professional, recognized �expert�. It probably helps if they �look like� your target customer (or look the way your target customer wishes they themselves looked!) and at least have a mercenary attitude towards championing a point of view on demand.
- Use some of your PR budget to plant news items quoting your expert. This shouldn't cost much since publishing planted news articles spares the media the cost of producing original material. As long as it is carefully crafted to LOOK �newsworthy�, and doesn't step on the toes of anyone who's important, they are likely to run it for free.
- Here is the key step: use some of your PR budget to create favorable publicity about your expert...for example, produce one of those fawning biographies such as Bob Woodward's snow-job �Maestro� that make their subjects sound god-like.
- Capitalize on your new memetic property by creating self-reinforcing loops; for example, Bob Woodward himself a bit of a legend, the beneficiary on his own behalf of a lot of favorable publicity. Create your own synergistic mutual-admiration societies.
- Your own privately-owned personality cults are now ready to propagate memes on demand.
Destroying the credibility of rivals
I have no respect for justice.
I maim without killing.
I break hearts and ruin lives.
I am cunning and malicious and gather strength with age.
The more I am quoted the more I am believed.
I flourish at every level of society.
My victims are helpless.
They cannot protect themselves against me because I have no name and no face.
To track me down is impossible.
The harder you try, the more elusive I become.
I am nobody's friend.
Once I tarnish a reputation, it is never the same.
I topple governments and ruin marriages.
I ruin careers and cause sleepless nights, heartache and indigestion.
I spawn suspicion and generate grief.
I make innocent people cry in their pillows.
Even my name hisses.
I AM CALLED GOSSIP.
The name could equally be �slander�. Something I have discovered to my own dismay is the following line of reasoning:
�I don't like Atash. Therefore, he must be a bad person who did all these terrible things.�
Someone who doesn't like you is apt to just make stuff up. Over time, people are apt to start remembering incidents that never happened and quotes that were never spoken.
"I have done that", says my memory. "I cannot have done that" � says my pride, and remains adamant. At last � memory yields. Aphorism 68 Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche
Here is the mechanism by which false memories come into existence:
mind the gap
At relatively early periods post-learning (say minutes to hours to days), retrieval systems allow us to reproduce a fairly specific and detailed account of a given memory. This might be likened to the library model. But as time goes by, we switch to a style more reminiscent of the Sherlock Holmes model [that is, we look for clues for the whole story from fragments of remaining memories]. The reason is that the passage of time inexorably leads to a weakening of events and facts that were once clear and chock-full of specifics. In an attempt to fill in the missing gaps, the brain is forced to rely on partial fragments, inferences, outright guesses, and often (most disturbingly) other memories not related to the actual event. It is truly reconstructive in nature, much like a detective with a slippery imagination. This is all in the service of creating a coherent story, which, reality notwithstanding, brains like to do.�
John Medina, Brain Rules
Some brains do it more than others, and some brains do it not just to fill in the missing pieces of a fragmented memory, but rather, to create supporting evidence for a prejudicial self-identity. In other words, they make stuff up in order to self-fulfill a foregone conclusion.
�Pretend you are a freshman in high school and know a psychiatrist named Daniel Offer. Taking out a questionnaire, Dr. Dan asks you to answer some questions that are really none of his business: Was religion helpful to you growing up? Did you receive physical punishment as discipline? Did your parents encourage you to be active in sports? And so on. Now pretend it is 34 years later. Dr. Dan tracks you down, gives you the same questionnaire, and asks you to fill it out. Unbeknownst to you, he still has the answers you gave in high school, and he is out to compare your answers. How well do you do? In a word, horribly. In fact, the memories you encoded as adolescents bear very little resemblance to the ones you remember as adults, as Dr. Dan, who had the patience to actually do this experiment, found out. Take the physical punishment question. Though only a third of adults recalled any physical punishment, such as spanking, Dr. Dan found that almost 90 percent of the adolescents had answered the question in the affirmative. These data are only some that demonstrate the powerful inaccuracy of the Sherlock Holmes style of retrieval.
This idea that the brain might cheerily insert false information to make a coherent story underscores its admirable desire to create organization out of a bewildering and confusing world...�
Recently I tried to warn a young man trying to start a high-risk, low-profit business that it might be challenging to do so at the start of a recession. He coldly informed me that he wasn't worried about it since all my other predictions about the economy had turned out wrong. Stunned, I asked him what predictions he was talking about. He frankly admitted that he couldn't remember�he just remembered that I was wrong.
Mental irrationality has a purpose
It was not reason that besieged Troy; it was not reason that sent forth the Saracen from the desert to conquer the world; that inspired the crusades; that instituted the monastic orders; it was not reason that produced the Jesuits; above all, it was not reason that created the French Revolution. Man is only great when he acts from the passions; never irresistible but when he appeals to the imagination. Benjamin D'Israeli, Coningsby
Not that I am advocating the massacres admired by one of the characters in Coningsby, but there is a reason that how we perceive the world is colored with agendas. Consider the fate of a poor real-life chap the emotional center of whose brain was damaged in an accident. His boss fired him, and his wife divorced him. Why? Because his lack of emotion made it impossible for him to make decisions. He could rationally list the pros and cons of any course of action, but then was unable to choose one. Emotions are our motivators; the final impulses that push the balance, make that synapse fire, and make us take action.
Have you ever met an unemotional, intellectual type who is full of facts but lacks initiative? I had one as a tenant once. He's working on his PhD in theoretical physics, lives not much better than a bum in a flophouse which is as much as he could afford, and is barely able to support himself. He is barely functional.
You can't buy goodwill
Recall my former friend who blamed me for him losing his job. When I was young and foolish�before my 42nd birthday or so�I used to think that maybe in these sorts of situations I could �make it up to� people who turned on me that way. I diligently looked for another job for him and kept sending him referrals. One of them hit pay dirt, he got the job, and was very happy and prosperous as a result.
I thought surely I would be back in his good graces. After all, I had �undone� what he accused me of doing�and did some other nice favors too such as making a gift some software he wanted and asked for, and solving an equation using the Jacobian method (I wanted to make sure it would converge, and it did) to help him impress a female colleague (on his own behalf�one of those Cyrano de Bergerac scenarios) who didn't know how to solve it.
I was stunned to discover that he remained hostile and eventually blew up at me one final time. His final words to me were...harsh and vindictive. Unbeknownst to me, I was already doomed, the victim of slander by someone influential to him. Once he made up his mind to believe her, all the evidence was creatively interpreted so as to confirm the belief he had already committed to.
That wasn't the only time something like that has happened to me. Bailing relatives and in-laws out from their debts or helping them out after a job loss (in which cases I was doubly damned because of the issue of lost pride) did not spare me the ignominious distinction of being the black sheep of the family. I'm really quite good at noticing patterns but this particular pattern was hard to INTERPRET. It took me years to figure out what the problem was. One of my clues was a strange conversation I had with someone who was briefly my lead at work. He was a grumpy, bitter man, with a graduate degree from a prestigious university, who was under-employed. Of course, he'd never figured out for himself how to APPLY his degree�he expected someone else to do that.
One day he gave me a cold, hard, intense stare, and told me �You're a really NICE person�. I thought a compliment was coming. He continued. �People don't like nice people,� a pause, then �I don't like nice people.� That's all he had to say. I continued looking back at him with the usual warm friendly smile on my face, having no idea how to constructively respond given the implication of what he'd just said.
For years I sensed that there was some sort of truth in what he was telling me. The answer took form over the years, but I had, dare I admit, a mental block preventing me from acknowledging it. Finally one day someone with an advanced degree and some background in nontraditional psychology told me what I already knew:
Nobody likes a wimp
If you want to be popular, try being an inconsiderate, self-centered, foul-mouthed, obnoxious rock star. You'll have all the adoring fans (�fans� by the way is short for �fanatics�) you want. Nice people are often taken as losers who are nice �because they have to be�, or people with hidden agendas, or more likely, for both reasons. The idea is that if you have what it takes to be popular (groupies...money...favorable PR...), you don't need to be nice.
I've known popular people who happened to be nice, but they weren't popular because they were nice. If you already have strikes against you such as having unpopular opinions (which if correct will only enrage people all the more�Galileo was right but he died under house arrest with a heresy conviction hanging on his head), trying to compensate by being nice and helpful is likely to backfire.
In one of those strange paradoxes of everyday life, my lead's harsh comments were one of the better turns anyone ever did me. Maybe that's what people call �tough love�.
Key points to learn from:
- You won't be popular flouting conventional financial wisdom, even and especially if you are financially successful because of it.
- Warning of the consequences of bad economic policies might get you blamed for the failures of someone else's agenda. THIS COULD BE DANGEROUS IN THE BAD TIMES AHEAD.
- Bailing out your friends and relatives might provoke all the more resentment. Attempts to butter them up are likely to backfire.
"Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye."
Teaching of Yeshua, as quoted in Matthew 7:3-5
- Make sure that you're not blind to your own foolishness of the sort that's easy to detect in others. Beware of �confirmation bias�, whereas you might believe whatever confirms your own prejudices, and reject whatever does not, without testing the facts for themselves. Walk the fine line between being a stubborn fool or an indecisive wimp. Being a �permabear� or a �permabull� will not help you make money. Look at all evidence, test it rationally, and then make your decisions. Let go of your personal identities, and just �be�.
I have learned that when things go wrong, it's better to figure out why and see what can be done to fix the problem, instead of just getting mad. It took me about 43 years (all my life) to understand this particular problem.
Don't be angry or resentful of your friends when they turn out to be all too human...otherwise, you might not have any. Neither blame yourself and try to placate them; it won't help.
Instead, anticipate the possibility that well-intended but unwelcome financial advice might provoke anger and resentment. How do you help your friends and relatives who are about to cash out their 401(k) plans to buy overpriced real estate with exotic mortgages, or finance worthless college degrees with credit cards? It can be done; it's not easy. You have to work on them carefully, never exposing the huge gap between your own beliefs and their plans, but instead bringing them around gradually so that they never realize the gap is there. The problem is that by the time they are about to commit to a foolish project, it's usually too late to change their minds.
Copyright © 2008 Atash Hagmahani
Financial information and observations cited in this editorial do not constitute financial advice. Make your own financial decisions after consulting with appropriate professionals.
Atash is the editor of MutuallyAssuredSurvival.com, where you can find ideas for surviving petroleum depletion, globalization, economic starvation, and other hazards of the 21st century.