The Scipionic Circle 98: The Dual Nature of Reasoning, Decoding Decisions, and Unraveling The Nonsensical
“A gunshot wound may be cured, but the wound made by a tongue never heals.” — Persian Wisdom
Welcome to another issue of The Scipionic Circle — I hope you find something of value.
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Food for Thought
I. The Dual Nature of Reasoning: A Defence Mechanism for Identity Preservation
“To be perfectly honest, most of my so-called ‘reasoning’ consists in finding arguments for going on believing as I already do. I, unwittingly, fabricated myself a puerile identity – one filled with various values. These values are deeply rooted in my personality…I can't make the difference between an argument based on reason and one based on my values; anyway, is there any? Once my values get attacked, my feelings get disturbed. They desperately start sending e-mails to my ‘rational’ mind, asking for protection. Then, my rational mind proceeds by deploying a mechanism that can make any opinion look handsome. This mechanism includes some well-chosen words too. You've just witnessed how that mechanism works... My rational mind is a sly lawyer hired by my guilty instincts, feelings, and values to prove them innocent. This fellow is forced to work in order to protect my identity from change, from damage – to conserve it, thus. It needs to be austerely protected – for, if destroyed, I lose myself.” – From Economy of Truth Practical Maxims and Reflections by Vizi Andrei.
II. Decoding Decisions: Process vs. Outcome
“Many people assume that good decisions get good outcomes and bad ones don’t. But that’s not true. The quality of a single decision isn’t determined by the quality of the outcome. Here’s a thought experiment that will help illuminate this concept.
“Imagine you engage in a very thoughtful and intentional decision-making process concerning your career. You have offers from a few different companies, one being a startup and another a Fortune 500. Based on where you are in your life, you decide to go with the Fortune 500 company. The pay is less up front, but it appears to be more stable.
“Imagine your friend ends up working for the startup. You watch as he gets raises and more vacation time. Is your decision good or bad?
“Now, imagine the startup quickly folds after only a year. Does this affect how you feel about your decision?
“I hope you get where I’m going with this. You can’t control whether the startup takes off or not. Nor can you control in the moment how you feel about the startup offering higher pay. You can only control the process you use to make the decision. It’s that process that determines whether a decision is good or bad. The quality of the outcome is a separate issue.
“Our tendency to equate the quality of our decision with the outcome is called resulting. Results are the most visible part of a decision. Because of that, we tend to use them as an indicator of the decision’s quality. If the results are what we wanted, we conclude that we made a good decision. If the results aren’t what we wanted, we tend to blame external factors. It’s not that our process was lacking; it’s that a crucial bit of information was. (As opposed to when an acquaintance gets bad results, at which point we assume it’s because they made a bad decision.)
“Obviously, we all want good outcomes, but as we’ve seen, good decisions can have bad outcomes, and bad decisions can have good ones. Evaluating decisions—ours or others’—based on the outcome (or how we feel about the outcome) fails to distinguish luck from skill and control. Because of that, engaging in resulting doesn’t help us get better. The result of resulting is instead stagnation.
“If you’ve ever ruminated over a bad outcome—asking yourself again and again, ‘How did I not see that coming?’—then you’ve experienced how challenging and ultimately useless it is to judge your decisions on the basis of how you feel about them in retrospect. You think, ‘If only I had talked to that person (whom I didn’t know at the time)!’ or, ‘If I had only known that piece of information (which didn’t exist at the time), I would have made the right choice.’ Even the best decision-makers get bad results from time to time, though.
“Making a good decision is about the process, not the outcome. One bad outcome doesn’t make you a poor decision-maker any more than one good outcome makes you a genius. Unless you evaluate your reasoning at the time you made the decision, you’ll never know whether you were correct or just lucky. Your reasoning at that time remains mostly invisible unless you take steps to make it visible.
“Rarely are you making decisions that have a 100 percent chance of success. And the kind of decision that has a 90 percent chance of success still has a bad outcome 10 percent of the time. What matters are results over time and ensuring that 10 percent of the time won’t kill you.” — From Clear Thinking: Turning Ordinary Moments into Extraordinary Results by Shane Parrish.
III. Unraveling The Nonsensical: Understanding Before Judging
“Sometimes human behaviour that seems nonsensical is really non-sensical – it only appears nonsensical because we are judging people’s motivations, aims and intentions the wrong way. And sometimes behaviour is non-sensical because evolution is just smarter than we are. Evolution is like a brilliant uneducated craftsman: what it lacks in intellect it makes up for in experience.
“For instance, for a long time the human appendix was thought to be nonsense, a vestigial remnant of some part of the digestive tract, which had served a useful purpose in our distant ancestors. It is certainly true that you can remove people’s appendices and they seem to suffer no immediate ill effects. However, in 2007, William Parker, Randy Bollinger and their colleagues at Duke University in North Carolina hypothesised that the appendix actually serves as a haven for bacteria in the digestive system that are valuable both in aiding digestion and in providing immunity from disease. So, just as miners in the California Gold Rush would guard a live sourdough yeast ‘starter’ in a pouch around their necks, the body has its own pouch to preserve something valuable. Research later showed that individuals whose appendix had been removed were four times more likely to suffer from clostridium difficile colitis, an infection of the colon.
“Given that cholera was a huge cause of death only a few generations ago, and given that it is thought by some to be making a comeback, perhaps the appendix should no longer be treated as disposable – it seems that, rather like the Spanish royal family, most of the time it’s pointless or annoying, but sometimes it’s invaluable.
“Be careful before calling something nonsense.
“The lesson we should learn from the appendix is that something can be valuable without necessarily being valuable all the time. Evolution does not take such a short-term, instrumentalist view. In looking for the everyday function of the human appendix, we were looking for the wrong thing. Whether something makes sense in theory matters less than whether it works in practice.” — From Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don't Make Sense by Rory Sutherland.
Quotes to Ponder
I. Henry David Thoreau on embracing individuality:
“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”
II. Persian wisdom on the lingering impact of words:
“A gunshot wound may be cured, but the wound made by a tongue never heals.”
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Thank you for reading,