For one thing, even though we have big heads, we can’t hold enough in our minds all at once to make sense of the world, not even close. When we think things through, we have to slowly chunk up our concerns into categories, and then higher categories, and higher ones, until we end up with few enough chunks that they all fit in our minds at once. It turns out that our simplification is a dangerous activity if you are really trying to do the right thing.
In the real world, our decisions impact our lives according to our unique situations – specifics matter, yet simplification glosses over specifics. Plus, the thoughts and feelings that guide our decisions are highly interconnected by their nature. At the most basic level, if you spend time on one thing, you have less time for another. One level up, if you attend to one aspect of your life, the others fade from your attention. Some levels up from there, if you hold one area of your life as the most important, than the others are less important. And so on. Those interconnected relationships are enough to boggle our minds, and if we put our unique and changing life situations on top of it all, we quickly look for an easy way out, a generic checklist, an automatic reminder, a rule of thumb, a trusted bit of conventional wisdom. Also as a result of those simplifications, we end up with enough biases in our thinking and intuition to inspire a Nobel Prize, and to give us pause.
The news rings with scientists who are chipping away at the problem. However, as the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman pointed out in a recent appearance at the Singularity Summit in San Francisco, despite forty years of study he still cannot avoid the biases in thinking and intuition that he has studied all his life. Isolated lab experiments and tidy stories are true and make sense but still leave us without a clear map we can apply to our unique situations. For better or worse, our world and our minds are so interconnected that even Nobel Prize winners find that it is still hard to figure out the right thing to do.
I’m a geek, so I tried to figure out how big the gap is between choosing a single ‘most right’ path and the decisions we face in our real lives. To do this, I ran the numbers on the prototype Wahanegi algorithm. At the moment, it takes into consideration only some of most prominent scientifically proven aspects of happiness and our cognitive biases. To do that, it looks at ten areas of our lives across fourteen rankings of priorities and motivations. Each unique set of priorities and motivations represents a story, a path our lives can take. It includes more aspects than we consider in our day-to-day lives, but not so much to boggle the mind, right?
Unfortunately, no. Even such a simple view into our lives is incredibly complicated. In fact, Wahanegi’s relatively simple algorithm considers at least hundred times more possible stories than particles in the universe, or 1 followed by 89 zeros. If you are a visual person, that looks something like this:
No wonder it is so hard to figure out what to do.
And that calculation is just one example of the general impossibility of picking the “most right” path. Here are a few more:
- Every time we decide, we cut off many life directions on purpose, and by accident we also slash huge swaths of life that we never even considered. Without knowing what else might have happened, we can’t know if we did the right thing.
- We are scientifically proven to be terrible at estimating the chances and results of our decisions, and at the same time we are overconfident in our ability to get what we want and overly afraid of risking what we have. So in this sense, the more carefully we consider the decision, the more likely we will confuse ourselves and end up heading in a certifiably wrong direction.
- Even if we had magically perfect knowledge of the chances and results of our decisions, statistics are not about you, they are about a theoretical version of you who can make decisions a zillion times to see what happens X% of the time. Not even Einstein could use statistics to predict what will happen to you as a real person. Remember – lies, damn lies, and statistics.
Obviously there are examples where statistics are useful, and we should make use of them to help guide us. I saw my fraternity brothers do well bringing down the house by counting cards in Vegas, and we watched an incredible team of scientists and engineers made a bunch of good decisions that just landed a robot named Curiosity on Mars ‘against the odds.’
But as difficult as those challenges were, it is still easier to figure out the count at a blackjack table, or the tensile strength of a titanium wire, than it is to figure out how much happier you will be if you quit your job, or get married, or move to a new city.