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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

An Open Book? Secrets We Keep From Ourselves

Books I’m reading currently:

(Fiction) HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG, by Andre Dubus III

Books I brought home today to read (both nonfiction):

MEMOIR IN TWO VOICES, by François Mitterand and Elie Wiesel

Books I’ve read recently and am still thinking about:

BLINK, by Malcolm Gladwell
EXPERIMENTS IN ETHICS, by Kwame Anthony Appiah

The last group of three titles is indicative of an exciting recent development in academic research, the rejoining of an old dialogue. Philosophy, psychology and (behavioral) economics, fields that had split from each other during the last century, each growing narrower in scope (not to mention less relevant and less interesting), are now rediscovering many common and overlapping interests. Much of the recent dialogue is fueled by research showing that the classic Western model of rationality, so dear to economists and philosophers, is only part of the picture when it comes to how human beings make choices, decisions and judgments. The classic model does explain a lot of conscious thought and reasoning, and no one ever believed conscious thought explained all decision-making. People have always known that desire and emotion, for example, can “contaminate” reasoning. But that was exactly the classical picture: explicitly logical thought processes were considered legitimate, while anything else was problematic.

Now come all these studies showing that much more of our decision-making than we ever realized occurs on an unconscious level and that this is not all bad. Making snap judgments on the basis of minimal information has evolutionary value, say writers from different academic disciplines: it’s quick, it’s efficient and, in many instances, our conclusions are highly accurate. The other side of the picture (everything being a double-edged sword, proving once again the truth of my own personal philosophy, i.e., that everything is a double-edged sword), obviously, has to do with error. When unconscious judgments go wrong, they can go very, very wrong—and since we are unconscious of how we reach these judgments, we tend to repeat errors again and again.

But Appiah, Ariely and Gladwell don’t leave us hanging there. All three of these writers give us both the good news and the bad and then give suggestions as to how we can become aware of our tendencies to error and re-educate our unconscious thought processes. Along these lines, it’s possible to gain a fascinating and eye-opening look into your own unconscious by trying out a few of the exercises at the Harvard Implicit site. The FAQs page is instructive. I highly recommend it.

It’s turned cold again around here, but it’s the cold of northern spring, not the cold of continued winter. I can smell the difference. Also, one good warm day of sunshine, and the colony of old daffodils under the silver maple at the eastern end of the popple grove will burst into joyous bloom. Look for it here, soon! Two days ago I heard spring peepers in the little swale north of the Houdek Dunes parking lot. Believe it or not, spring has arrived.


Anonymous said...

I have not read House of Sand and Fog but I thought the film made from it was absolutely wrenching.

I'll be interested to learn what you think of the Mitterand/Wiesel collaboration. Come to think of it, that's an odd word to apply in the case.

Don't know if I'm up to the convergence of philosophy, psychology and economics at the moment, but now I'm worried about making a snap judgment in the matter. It is my desire to take a nap and think about it tomorrow.

I explain cold and wet northern spring days this way: We live near a giant ice cube that begins to melt as the weather turns. When the ice cube melts, the air around it cools. This theory implies that if the polar ice cap ever melts, Michigan is going to be doggone cold for awhile.

P. J. Grath said...

Good morning, Gerry and others. It's a cold morning, but the sun's cleared the horizon, and we'll see what the day brings.

HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG is captivating. I thought I'd get further in it last night but didn't last long once I was under the covers. My first impression of the Mitterand-Wiesel book is of two people taking turns talking about themselves rather than having a real conversation--like those two women in Jane Austen's NORTHANGER ABBEY, if you remember them. For years I thought that bit was overdrawn, and then I had occasion to be around people who talked just that way and seemed to be satisfied with their "exchanges," though neither ever commented directly on what the other had said or asked a single follow-up question. As for the three I'm still thinking about, BLINK is probably the most accessible to a general audience, followed by PREDICTABLY IRRATIONAL. Appiah's style is very much that of traditional academic philosophy and wouldn't be for everyone.