Thinking is very difficult(2017)

Many people believe UFOs exist. Many people believe vaccines altogether are probably a really bad idea. In a similar manner, many people vote for politicians who’s deceits have been pointed out to them. Sometimes people instead have a make-believe attitude towards politicians and readily believe anything that further tarnishes the reputation of a politician they dislike. These are just a couple of examples – there are many similar instances of contested opinions circulating in society.

We are at a point where people are discussing whether we are living in a ”post-fact” society where truth is degraded into something no more objective than personal taste. What we less often discuss is why and how people come to believe a thing altogether. We need to be talking more about how beliefs form since the things we come to believe influence how we chose to act when we’re given options or opportunities. Unfortunately, sometimes the choices that satisfy us turn out to be detrimental for our well-being. I believe we tend to underestimate how hard it actually is to make up ones mind.

I think that there is an immense difficulty embedded in the act of reasoning altogether and that it is that difficulty that explains a lot of the confusion we see in the societal debate. I would like to demonstrate this with a real life situation that happened to me ”about a week ago”. What became very apparent in that situation is the enormous difficulty of dealing with unusual information.

The wedding

Four days ago I was heading to a wedding in a city about 5 hours by car from where I live. I was going to travel with two friends, lets call them Anders and Martin. I had known each of these guys for at least 5 years but they didn’t know each other so well. These guys were acquainted mainly through me and probably hadn’t spoken so much before this occasion(why this is important will be clear as the story unfolds).

The three of us were travelling on a Sunday and the plan was that we were going to take my car. The night before departure I came up with a nice idea – I decided that it was better to buy snacks for the trip right away instead of waking up early on Sunday and losing some sleep. So I took my car to the only shop that was open this late. It was about 22:00 Saturday night, Christmas Eve.

I made it to the shop but just as we got done and were heading back, the car-engine stopped working as soon as I pressed the button for ignition. At this point I knew we were in trouble. To the best of my knowledge we had no means of transportation besides my car – Anders said his car needed repair and I assumed Martin didn’t have a car since he never spoke of one. My main problem as I stood at the parking lot with my malfunctioning car was that I had promised to drive my friends. I really despise breaking my promises… So despite the high costs, I decided that I would rent a car and that we would stick with the plan – meet on Sunday morning 08.30 at the railway station.

Fortunately Anders happened to show up at the parking lot just as I was juggling the crisis in my head. There was obviously a lot of luck involved in him showing up – but then again, this was the only shop open this late(by now it was around 22:30). He came driving his car and told me how he miraculously got it repaired with very short notice earlier during the evening. So now plan A was that he would pick me up Sunday morning and then we would head to Martin at the railway station. Martin was fortunately far away from this stressful situation of which he hadn’t been informed. Martin just knew we would meet Sunday morning (most of the planning was between me and Anders). Around 23:30 that night I noticed that I had an unanswerred message from Martin where he asked me where we’d meet Sunday morning. I confirmed that it was definately 08:30 at the railway station. Martin replied that he would be there on time.

On Sunday morning Anders was late when he reached and it seemed inevitable that we’d be 30 minutes late to Martin. This is the point where you guys need to get to know Anders a little bit better…

Anders is the good sense of humor, ”prankster type of guy”,  but he has turned that behavior into something of an art so he still fools me every now and then. On the way to Martin I asked Anders if he had made Martin aware that we were going to be late. Anders answerred me that he informed Martin and that Martin was furious. As it would turn out, Anders was joking about Martin being furious – but this joke unleashed a very important conversation.

Thinking is very difficult

I knew Martin quite well and had no reason to question Anders testimony. It was a really cold morning and leaving someone alone and uninformed would indeed be infuriating. My knowledge of Martin was that he was a very calm person – I had never seen him angry and at a low estimate we had spent at least 300 hours together in different settings. But then again anger is a natural biological reaction and under exceptionally stressful situations even calm people lose their temper. My immediate comment for Anders once he mentioned Martins rage was that Martin probably had to endure the 30 minutes of delay while standing outdoors in the Swedish winter – and I added – ”simply because 30 minutes of delay in itself isn’t enough pain to push Martin over”. But then I asked Anders – how come the waiting room in the railway station was closed? Anders suggested that since it was a Sunday and Christmas they were closed – which was quite reasonable.

I don’t know if you noticed what happened above. In a split second I had assumed that Martin was waiting in the cold and subsequently comitted to that belief by asking why he was standing in the cold. Since Anders and I have known each other ”for ever” he simply asked me why I thought Martin was standing in the cold. What Anders didn’t know up until this point is that I have quite an odd ability – I can often almost witness my thoughts assembling in real time. For most people however thoughts simply just show up and what precedes their condensation is imperceptible – or at least not something they try to monitor.

I told Anders of the considerations that had passed my mind during the split second from him saying Martin was furious to me replying that Martin probably suffered because of the cold weather. First of all; I knew Martin was a calm person. Second– Martin had confirmed around ”sleeping time” Saturday night that he would be at the railway station 08.30. Third– I had no reason to believe Martin and Anders spoke since they barely knew each other and I had sent them each others numbers Saturday night and Sunday morning respectively. Anders who would have known of his delay got Martins number ”just in case” as soon as I woke up 07.54 Sunday morning – he hadn’t proactively asked for it. Fourth– the trip from where Martin lives to the railway station takes 30 minutes and on a Sunday during Christmas he would need to leave his house around 07.30 to make it in time(i.e. before I sent Anders his number). Fifth– From previous experience I had no reason to believe that Anders late arrivals were caused by carelessness which suggests that he realized that he was going to be late not much before the agreed upon time 08.30. Sixth– Even if Anders called Martin as early as 08.00, Martin would probably already be halfway towards the railway station. Now combine all of those considerations with the fact that it didn’t even occur to me that Anders might be fooling around. Had that occured to me it would rebalance all of my previous considerations and introduce the necessary skepticism that would have allowed me to correctly decipher the situation. What happened instead is that I jumped into a flawed conclusion – one that despite being flawed remained thoroughly considerate. 

The everyday problem

In the fraction of a second that Anders gave me to react to his joking around I had weighed a bunch of memories, assumptions, expectations, expertise, possibilities etc against each other. The categories of information processed within the blink of an eye include biographical-(mutual adventures), physiological-(sleeping time), geographical(weather conditions)-, physical (limitations on transportation and communication)-, psychological(personalities)-, and statistical information(likelihood of various events). I filled in many gaps in order to make an odd situation understandable – my most important validating forces being the trustworthiness of Anders together with my immediate failure to detect any larger inconsistencies surrounding his statement. In other words Anders was being reasonable and I didnt have much of a reason to object against his statement.

The reason is chose to write about this topic is that the implications of the difficulties inherent in processing information are simply jaw-dropping. Whether I called out Anders joke or not has no significant impact on the world other than having left us with an amusing story. But the same mental faculties we use for playing games and fooling around are the ones, in other settings, responsible for giving us recommendations that have life and death consequences. Compare my little mistake with how flawed information permeates the societal debate by simply being reasonable among the people sharing it around. You see, many people vote for racists, bigots, psychopaths etc because they are afraid of a larger evil of which they are haphazardly informed.

The bottom line is that thinking is very difficult; often we are lucky with our conclusions about complex topics – sometimes when we are wrong we don’t receive the vital piece of information that would have us reconsider – and sometimes we receive heavy-duty information after we have already reached a conclusion so firm that it sidelines new considerations unless/until their presence and pervasiveness becomes overwhelmingly intrusive. Many things might need to break first before we change our minds once we have committed to a particular belief or system of belief. Watch out for Anders.