Friday, May 11, 2012

Don't make me think

People don't think nearly as much as they think they do.  Most of our decisions are made by very simple heuristics, are extremely repetitive, and barely even register on our conscious minds.  Whether it is driving a car or buying groceries we spend the better part of our lives on autopilot.  This isn't a bad thing in general because we simply can't afford to think about everything we do.  Thinking is hard and letting our subconscious heuristics deal with most decisions is easy.

You can see people breaking out of autopilot easily if you present them with a decision that they don't see very often or change the parameters of a decision to be outside their comfort zone.  They look up, focus their eyes, and usually get an irritated expression on their face as they realize they are going to have to work for it this time.  Some of the time they will simply resolve the situation by going back to a heuristic that really doesn't apply instead; this is easy on the decider but often generates foolish decisions.  Parents tend to do this all the time when children do things that are out of line because actually sitting down and figuring out how risky / annoying / messy the child's latest desire is can be difficult.  "You can't do that because I said so."  It applies just as much to politicians, of course, because they desperately try to avoid decisions that require real thinking because it is likely they will end up being wrong.

It's tough because especially as a parent you end up in situations where you simply don't have the mental energy to fully evaluate all the risks and benefits of whatever crazy thing your kid has decided to do.  They want to jump in the river, so you say no.  Maybe it isn't a problem because they will have lots of time to dry out and the river is small and slow but figuring that stuff out takes energy and they will never cease coming up with strange things to request that might be a problem.  The difficulty is that when we use simple heuristics to decide to keep the kids out of the river we vastly overestimate the chances of catastrophic things happening (drowning) and fail to notice the subtle good that comes from letting children sort out their own mistakes and trials.  This makes parents frustrated because they just want to enjoy what they are doing and instead they have to either be autocratic or think all the time and thinking is work!

Now that the weather is getting nicer I see the same thing when I go out barefoot.  People get flustered and upset at my bare feet even though it cannot possibly affect them in any way; it is strange and unusual and forces them to think and they don't like it one bit.  They just want me to conform so they can go back to slotting me into their normal 'tall white dude' box and forget about it.  They worry that I will do something crazy and they worry that they will do something wrong because their normal strategy says nothing about what to do with a barefoot person who isn't homeless and muttering to themselves.

Not that there is anything we can do about this.  People need simple heuristics to make decisions and can't possibly think carefully about everything they do and we really don't want them to try.  I wish though that the first response to being pushed out of autopilot was curiosity instead of hostility.

No comments:

Post a Comment