The Lethality of Conviction in Vague Ideas (Convaguetion)

If you don’t care enough to think long and hard and research something, then you don’t care enough to die on that hill for that stance or idea. Blind-Spots’ mission is to poke around in issues that impact on us a lot but that get little popular discussion.

You’re sat at a crossroads, pulling off a smaller road onto a road of greater importance. A car is coming along the greater road at 80kmph/50mph. There’s no one behind the oncoming car. You’re in enough of a rush to decide to pull out in front of the oncoming car, forcing it to slow down. However, you’re not in enough of a rush to drive any faster than 50kmph/30mph once you’ve pulled out. Why would you be in enough of a rush to pull out but not be in enough of a rush to drive at a normal speed once you’ve done so?

This irritating and amusing scenario gives us a glimpse into a very common irrational pattern of human behaviour touched on by a number of different scholars in the fields of psychology and economics. 

Mismatched Thresholds

I like to think of this behavioural dynamic in terms of mismatched thresholds. If you’re not in enough of a rush to drive faster than 50kmph/30mph, then you’re definitely not in enough of a rush to pull out in front of a speeding car on the main road, slow them down, and boost the chances of an accident in the process.

It would be safe to infer that an athletic high-jumper that cannot clear a 5-meter threshold will not be able to clear an 8-meter threshold, but human behaviour does not seem to follow this rational pattern.

One of the pioneers of both cognitive psychology and behavioural economics, Danny Kahneman, discusses whether the mathematical concept of transitivity applies in human behaviour. Transitive relationships are simple enough. The idea is that if A is bigger and B, and B is bigger than C, then it’s safe to assume that A is bigger than C. A hilarious example he gives of what non-transitivity in human behaviour would be is the following:

Deli Assistant: Would you like beef or chicken in your sandwich?

Customer: Beef, please.

Deli Assistant: Oh I forgot to mention, we have pork in the back.

Customer: Oh! In that case: I’ll have chicken, please! 

This interaction trips off our ‘doesn’t make sense alarm’, but human behaviour is full of examples where things are cared enough about to put x units of effort in on one hand, but not cared enough about to put a fraction of x units of effort in on the other!

Many of us have undergone the heartbreak of rejection in love, only for our exes to suddenly care enough about us to be upset if we move on or begin to see other people. This always reminded me of supermarket chains locking their bins at night to ensure the homeless or impoverished won’t eat the discarded food. How is the threshold for caring what happens to the discarded reached but the threshold for caring enough not to discard not reached?

The entire Brexit saga is a perfect illustrator of this dynamic at a mass-behaviour level. One of the most googled term in the UK the day after the Brexit referendum was: “What is the EU?”. That the threshold for caring enough to hate the EU is reached but the threshold for caring enough to know what the EU is isn’t reached shows just how non-transitive human behaviour can be. James O’Brien’s wonderful radio show guest who cared enough to hate the EU laws but didn’t care enough to read up enough to know what any of them were is another peach example at the individual scale.

We’ve probably all known people who care enough to get on a soapbox and preach on a topic that they didn’t care enough to read the first thing about (sometimes, you can tell media pundits haven’t even taken the time to google or wiki a topic that they have taken the time to run a radio/television feature on!). This piece’s purpose is to highlight that these behavioural patterns exist, less so to analyse exactly why people do this. But I can conjecture reasons such as virtue signalling and group-identifying as possible explanations.

The Lobster Pot and The Failsure Mechanism 

What’s discussed thus far is more embarrassing or funny. But how and when do these behavioural patterns become lethal?

Well, you have to think about this in terms of probability:

If your threshold for being very certain and having a lot of conviction in a stance is very low, but your threshold for changing your mind after that point is very high, then you can get fanatically locked into a course of action just because you thought it or said it.

It’s a way of accidentally treating your own thoughts or speech as supporting evidence just because those thoughts or speech are yours. Eckhart Tolle is especially good at explaining the dynamics of identifying with one’s own thoughts or speech. This can very much lock our steering wheel on a course we don’t really want to be on because we feel any questioning of the course is a personal attack on ourselves.

It functions like a lobster pot: it’s dangerously easy for us to end up with a certain thought, feeling, or belief; but once we’ve identified with it, it can be fiendishly difficult for us to back out of it, often preferring actual material harm in order to save ourselves from egoic harm.

To satirise this mechanism the same exaggerated way Kahneman satirised non-transitivity with the delicatessen example: 

If you hear the rumble strips on the edge of the road warning you that you’re veering off: should you course correct or veer off into the ditch and kill yourself to spite the rumble strips?

A system with a failsafe mechanism is one that has a backup feature that kicks in to prevent catastrophe if something goes awry. This is why I call these kinds of behavioural patterns Failsure Mechanisms. If you allow your ego to cause you to run towards danger to spite warnings, then even tiny mistakes can end up spiralling into catastrophes.

Bringing back our mismatched thresholds again: it is a much safer way to live to have a higher threshold for being sure of something than your threshold for changing your mind because this lets you make small mistakes, and still be open to the feedback your environment is giving you to tell you to stop damaging yourself.

On the other hand: having a very low threshold for certainty but a very high threshold for changing your mind will result in you treating warnings of impending danger as if the warnings were the danger. Donald Trump learned this the hard way when he would punish his staff for giving him warnings or telling him bad news until he was surrounded by yes-men who would rather tell him things were hunky-dory as they were on a collision course.

Conviction + Vague = Convaguetion

As often happens, I feel we’re missing a word for the dangerous combination of conviction and certainty in a stance or idea that we’ve put precious little consideration into, or have close to zero evidence to support it. As annoying as it can be for everyone having to work or live with people who have this behavioural trait, it’s nothing next to the damage Convaguetion does to its host.

by Cian Walker

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