A Brief Study Of Human Behavior

I was recently directed, by a post on “Vineyard Views”, to an article in the New York Times by David Brooks. I’m not a fan of David Brooks, his views tend to congregate at the opposite end of the pole to mine, and this particular piece, entitled, “The Behavioral Revolution”, went all round the houses to state what, in my opinion, was already fairly obvious.[1]

Much of Brooks’s article, which was vaguely about the economic crisis facing the United States, consisted of quotes from Nassim Taleb, currently a Distinguished Professor of Risk Engineering at New York University’s Polytechnic Institute. Taleb wrote the popular book, “The Black Swan”, or, “The Impact of the Highly Improbable,” which received mixed reviews but basically spent four hundred pages stating that the highly improbable is actually quite likely, if you’re just prepared to wait around long enough.

Brooks categorized Talib’s writing as “idiosyncratic”, which would be difficult to debate, except for the comment that eccentricity is markedly preferable to Brooks’s own shortfall of inevitably stating the obvious.

It was not a quote of Talib that caught my attention, however, but Brooks’s final paragraph – or, at least, part of it:

“This meltdown is……a big, whopping reminder that the human mind is continually trying to perceive things that aren’t true, and not perceiving them takes enormous effort.”

The sentence itself is hardly worthy of a place on Quotes.Com, but there is a comparison to be made between the apparent inability of those in government and on Wall Street to forecast the present financial crisis – by virtue of them persuading themselves all was really hunky-dory and there was absolutely nothing could go wrong because they were far too brilliant and intelligent to allow it – and the impending catastrophe waiting in the wings to wipe us all off the face of the earth rather quickly, in the form of global warming.

Do we really need Brooks to remind us of this most obvious quirk of human nature? After all, our whole existence is based around perceptions of things that aren’t there. I well remember my old science teacher, a man of stentorian tones, teaching the class that everything was made of particles in a constant vibratory state, “If you magnified my desk sufficiently, boy,” he boomed, “you could drive a double-decker bus though the gaps between the atoms!”

While physics has moved on a bit since those days – they’ve added a few quarks and leptons to the mix – the basic premise remains the same. Our eyes, hands, ears, nose, and mouth respond to electromagnetic stimuli that our brain translates into the solid world discerned by our senses.

In other words, we spend our whole lives perceiving things that aren’t true. Add to that another perceived fiction, that because we’ve invented computers and sent a man to the moon we’re somehow capable of solving all the problems in the universe without recourse to recreational drugs, and you have the perfect recipe for pandemonium.

The well-documented problem with the human species is its inability to grasp simple inevitabilities. The Wall Street crash was one of them. Global warming is another. It doesn’t matter how obvious are the signs, or how loudly the experts scream of impending doom, as a species we bear a remarkable resemblance to the proverbial ostrich. We bury our heads in the sand and hope it will go away. When it doesn’t, we react with great alacrity to rectify the problem, then scratch our heads in astonishment when we inevitably fail.

The current crisis that has set the world rocking on its financial heels will continue to cause misery and poverty for years to come. It is as nothing compared to the major catastrophe presently bearing down upon us; a crisis, once again, that many are refusing to believe exists, and those that do are banally writing articles like this one while still driving their fossil-powered cars every day and waiting in vain for “someone” to sort out the problem.

Every day, catastrophic events occur around this planet that are forecast long in advance. In the last few years: the Asian tsunami, a catastrophic hurricane striking New Orleans, and now the financial meltdown. With the possible exception of Hurricane Katrina, our response to these is always magnificent. We are great responders. Unfortunately, our species is rubbish at taking preventative actions.

Global warming is the big one. Compared to it, every other catastrophe ever to strike human beings on this planet will be insignificant.

We know it’s going to happen. We are aware of it already occurring, but what are we doing as a result of this knowledge?

Arguing over who has the rights to mine fossil fuels lying under the newly exposed Arctic ocean.

David Brooks and I will always be at opposite ends of the pole. His view of life is as different from mine as a coal-fired power station is to a wind-farm. Out of all he’s written, we have managed to agree on one sentence: the human mind is continually trying to perceive things that aren’t true, and not perceiving them takes enormous effort.

Or, to put it more succinctly, we’re more like the proverbial ostrich, than………the ostrich.

[1] “The Behavioral Revolution”, NYT, October 27th 2008

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2 Replies to “A Brief Study Of Human Behavior”

  1. I agree, RJA. Like it is so appalling we create an alternative universe in our heads. I know when I’ve asked the question: “Are you prepared to give up your SUV/Truck,” I’m met with stunned looks. Very few individuals are prepared to anything. I guess we all need to just keep doing our own bit and leave smaller footprints.

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