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Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing

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In 100 Words or Less: Uncertainty is uncomfortable and we'll often go to great lengths to avoid it; this leads us to make costly mistakes. We develop beliefs because we need to make sense of the world, but we oversimplify at the cost of genuine understanding. Excessive confidence causes us to overlook important information, stop asking questions and make risky wagers. Arrogance poisons our relationships, reduces empathy and inspires fundamentalism.

“[In] an increasingly complex, unpredictable world, what matters most isn’t IQ, willpower, or confidence in what we know. It’s how we deal with what we don’t understand.” — Jamie Holmes

Why do we feel anxious? In a word, uncertainty.

Whether we’re awaiting the results of a medical test, contemplating a career change, or trying to figure out how we’ll make this month’s mortgage payment, human life is steeped in uncertainty. Even as we enjoy unprecedented access to information and expertise, we’re also drowning in our abundance of choices.

Nonsense is a wonderful book which deals in a very important but poorly understood concept. In the words of the author, “we often manage ambiguity poorly and we can do better.”

Here are my key takeaways:

  • Our desire for closure can be beneficial, but often is not. We develop beliefs because we need to make sense of the world. We cannot endlessly contemplate every object that enters our field of vision; in order to live, our minds make many quick and often unconscious assumptions. The trick is to recognize these beliefs for what they are; as opinions we have formed on the basis of our personal experiences, and not as objective facts.

    “In a climate where indecision is chronically unpleasant, opinions on both sides of controversial issues can become amplified as people flee the uncertain ground in between. When the world is less predictable, people are more likely to jump to conclusions or entrench their existing views. … Urgently fixating on certainty is our defense mechanism against the unknown and unstable. However, what we need in turbulent times is adaptability and calculated reevaluation.” — Jamie Holmes

  • “Our response to uncertainty is … extraordinarily sensitive even to unrelated stress”. When we’re under pressure for any reason, we become very sensitive to ambiguity. Our brains are more likely to miss or explain away discrepancies or conflicting ideas. Whenever we feel as if we’re losing control over one experience, we’ll try to assert control somewhere else to compensate.

    “In times of stress, psychological pressures compel us to deny or dismiss inconsistent evidence, pushing us to perceive certainty and clarity where there is neither. Unpleasant anxiety can compel us to seize and freeze on ideas and beliefs in areas of life completely unrelated to the source of that anxiety.” — Jamie Holmes

  • Every person experiences conflicting thoughts and emotions on a regular basis. This is human nature! We want to be healthy, but we also want to eat this entire carton of Breyer’s Raspberry Cheesecake Gelato right now. We want to be loving to our partners and children, but we also want to be left the hell alone after a long day at work. The asshole who cut you off may actually be a very kind person when he’s not late to an important meeting.

    The trouble occurs when we fail to recognize this in other people. We judge someone for their actions in a given moment and infer malicious intent or apathy.

    “Some years ago, investigators observed a similar rigidity at play in romantic relationships. The higher someone’s baseline ‘uncertainty intolerance’ was, the more extreme their judgments of trust in their partners were. Men and women who in general didn’t like uncertainty found trusting their partners a moderate amount more unpleasant than trusting them a lot or a little (as both trust and distrust, perhaps counterintuitively, are comforting insofar as they provide certainty). As you’d guess, they also tended to shoehorn any conflicting or ambiguous information about their partners into preexisting views. They were more mentally locked in.” — Jamie Holmes

  • Confidence can fuel wild success or spectacular failure. We often explain success in terms of intuition or brilliance, when in fact the biggest winners merely placed lucky bets. We suffer from hedonic bias; we take credit for our successes and shift blame for our failures onto others or bad luck.

    “He [found that the highest-performing companies] ‘often have more in common with humiliated bankrupts than with companies that have managed merely to survive.’ Firms that go bust, he showed, have the same characteristics as firms that go gangbusters. … The most lucrative tactics were committed tactics, that is, irreversible financial wagers on the future. … Raynor’s study found that committed strategies either win big or lose big. Highly committed firms both made the most and lost the most. Since ‘strategies with the greatest possibility of success also have the greatest possibility of failure,’ he argued, breakthrough success often hinges on lucky bets. Completely unanticipated events like the rise of the Internet or the widespread adoption of the MP3 format make winners and losers not necessarily of the wisest but often of the most fortunate firms.” — Jamie Holmes

  • We should teach the process of grappling with uncertainty. Traditional lectures — merely dispensing information to be memorized — often do not prepare students to learn in the real world.

    “Have you ever had a lecturer highlight the necessity of stumbling, errors, and luck in developing breakthrough innovations? Or is the messy process of creativity usually sanitized after the fact? Have you ever been given a classroom assignment that you were 80 percent likely to fail at, matching an entrepreneur’s odds? Have you ever confronted a school problem that might have no solution? Have you practiced overcoming how it feels to fail?

    “Claire Cook, a cognitive scientist who has studied the instructional value of ambiguity, agrees that helping students deal with uncertainty is particularly important today. ‘When you’re in a workplace, typically,’ she told me, ‘the really valuable skill is to be able to approach a problem that doesn’t have a single right answer.’ We need graduates who can tackle problems without obvious solutions, and yet educators are doing too little to prepare students to navigate unknowns.” — Jamie Holmes

  • Scientific progress begins with uncertainty. Isn’t this an inspiring reason to embrace uncertainty?
  • Certainty is toxic to empathy. For all of our differences, human beings are astonishingly similar; we share 99.9% of our DNA with every other person who walks the earth. Jamie describes empathy as “a fundamentally creative act by which we connect previously unimagined lives to our own.” I love this definition. Once we have come to define ourselves and those we like as “us” and someone else as “them”, we lose our capacity for empathy and the ability to meet them just as they are.

    “Our natural tendencies blind us to how people in Nepal or Niger are just like anyone else; we forget that in the most important ways, people ten or a hundred years ago were exactly like us, too.” — Jamie Holmes

  • Certainty breeds dangerous fundamentalism. If you’re certain that black people are criminals or Muslims are terrorists or that your understanding of the bible is the only correct view, you will come to treat many human beings very inhumanely.

    “Thinking about prejudice as entrenched in the high need for closure might help us see the problem in a slightly different light. We are all stereotypers. Our rapid-fire assumptions are how we achieve the miracle of simplification. Culture determines the ‘style’ with which we reduce complexity and ambiguity. Since we can’t have no style at all, we can’t avoid relying on preconceptions. We can fight one version of snap judgments — bigotry — but we can never graduate morally from crudely categorizing other people. We aren’t normally comfortable thinking of perception this way, I suspect, because we don’t consider positive snap judgments stereotypes.

    “[Speaking of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] Elon doesn’t romanticize or idealize either side, but she understands both sides. She knows that having an open mind doesn’t imply having no opinion. It often implies having both opinions. … It means not denying the supposed contradiction that victims can be victimizers and vice versa, a simple truth that dogmatists refuse to accept.” — Jamie Holmes

  • Certainty causes us to stop looking for answers. When you’re sure you’ve got the answer, you’re no longer motivated to ask the question. One small example: how many new drugs are given FDA approval, only to be pulled from the market months later for severe side effects which researchers in clinical trials failed to detect?

    “We have to reduce the messy world to manage it. But resolving something — fitting it into a mental box — also means that you stop scrutinizing it. Recognition means closure, and it marks the end of thinking, looking, and listening.” — Jamie Holmes

Chris Aram

I'm one-half of Webster Park Digital. I'm a devoted family man, avid reader, coffee snob, fajita-eater and professional PlayStation4 dabbler.

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