Monday, July 12, 2010

Alternatives


People default to thinking that things all have a clear cause and effect. We have an amazingly hard time dealing with the idea of randomness. This leads to us assign causes where there might not be a clear cause or where we might not even be able to comprehend the real cause (think of mental illness and its association with the person being "possessed" by some outside force). This way of thinking forms the basis for religion and other supernatural beliefs. People believe that things are "supposed to happen" - as though there's some invisible force out there that's guiding things or that things have lined up in just the right way (or wrong way). Think of the person who's buying the lottery ticket because they're "feeling lucky," as though this is the time that - for a reason - something completely random will line up in their favor.

Think of finding a partner (something I wrote about a couple weeks ago). Out of all the people out there, there is, yes, probably one person that would be closest to what you're looking for. There are also a whole bunch of people that are close, some that are not so close, and so on, sliding down the scale. That one doesn't stick out at the top of the scale - there are bunch of other people that are likely very close, say, in the 99th or 98th percentile. Out of the ridiculously high number of people (a number that is hard for us to really comprehend) and through a less-than-systematic and focused search - probably through "hanging out" and "meeting new people" - you might come across someone who you believe is the "right one." Who hasn't heard someone in a relationship say, "oh, he's perfect for me"? But the idea that you've managed to happen upon the right one is absurd. The probability isn't that you're going to find the one - what's more likely is that you've found someone who is better than most out there, maybe even a lot better, but is in all likelihood, not the one. They're more likely to be somewhere around the 75th or 85th percentile. To people (me included) who are prone to that kind of thinking, it's unsettling. To a perfectionist and optimizer like me, it's deeply unnerving to think that there is a way that your life could have turned out that would be much much better, but simple probabilities say that your life probably didn't turn out that way. The same thing applies going forward - you're unlikely to find the best combination out of the vast, just about incomprehensible number of combinations out there.

Why do we think this way? I definitely don't know for certain, but a few ideas:
  • Humans don't usually think in terms of a continuum, they think in black-or-white and either-or. Like when two people are together, they're the right ones for each other, and when they break up, they're the wrong ones for each other.
  • People are also biased towards the concrete and the tangible. We don't think of the giant number of alternative paths that were presented to us - we can only see what actually did happen. That particular sequence is much more prominent in our minds, even though it might have been just as probable to happen as some other completely different sequence. We are terrible at imagining things we can't see.
  • Seeing what did in fact happen as the "best" way it could have turned out probably has a lot to do with the fact that we tend to rationalize our decisions - once we've made a decision, we selectively look for information to confirm that we've made the right one.

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