Don’t trust a fantastical behavioral scientist

Don't trust a fantastical behavioral scientist

The behavioral sciences are filled with rosy-cheeked optimists.

Go to any psychology blog and you’ll see article after article about how “you’re way smarter than you think” or “one small tweak that will double your willpower”.

While I appreciate the can-do attitude, I think that the excessive cheerfulness and unbridled optimism is one of the field’s biggest weaknesses.

The fact of the matter is that almost every applied behavioral scientist out there overestimates how powerful they are. They almost act as if they are sculptors, able to effortlessly mold the people under their purview into any shape imaginable.

I find that, most of the time, this is because these individuals don’t have enough real world experience–they’re too busy living the land of academic research.* So their interventions are either underpowered or built on faulty assumptions.

The fact of the matter is that change is hard. Getting someone to do a quick, one-time behavior… like purchasing something… that’s easy. Getting them to reshape their entire habit repertoire or shift from being disorganized and last minute to conscientious and planned? That’s a whole different story. That’s an intervention that will take months, if not years, and a lot of creativity and experimentation. 

So if you’re talking to a behavioral scientist that looks you in the eye and tells you that they can “definitely” solve your problem (especially if it involves more than one time conversion), run as if your life depends on it.

They’re like the 160 IQ money manager that Charlie Munger talks about:

“A money manager with an IQ of 160 and thinks it’s 180 will kill you,” he said. “Going with a money manager with an IQ of 130 who thinks its 125 could serve you well.”

I think that the field needs a bit more cynical realism… a bit more humility… but that usually doesn’t sell books or lead to TED talks.

Which brings me to an article I’d like to share with you. It’s one that I wrote a couple of years ago, as I was thinking about the utopian/revolutionary mindset, and what beliefs separate the optimist from the realist. I think it relates to the topic at hand.

There are too many “fantastical” behavioral scientists, and not enough “cynical realists”.

Let me know what you think.

You’re Not Cynical Enough

There are two types of people in the world: those who believe that perfection exists in this life, and those who believe that every solution is flawed and that life is but a series of trade-offs. The former position, which I’ll label “The Fantastical,” is common in creative people and children. The latter position, which I’ll label “Cynical Realism,” is common in older people, doctors, and soldiers.

The Fantastical person believes that the history of humanity has been one of never-ending progress. Each generation is better off than the one before it, and life is but a series of problems that just need to be “solved.”

The Cynical Realist sees human progress as a beautiful and fragile artifact, ready to fall apart at any moment. Like a delicate rainforest plant that needs to be kept in an optimally tuned greenhouse and fed the right ratios of nutrients, it is a rare occurrence that ought to be celebrated and appreciated for what it is — a triumph against all odds. To a Cynical Realist, life is a series of OK decisions, since each choice results in some unwanted outcomes.

The worldview of the Fantastical person is much more uplifting and pleasant, and the great revolutionaries of human history have been died-in-the-wool Fantasticals. After all, visions of perfection on Earth, unequivocal progress, and unrestrained freedom are emotionally stimulating and extremely seductive. The problem, however, is that nothing has ever been, or will be, unequivocally good. Every invention, person, culture, or occurrence is a mixed bag of good and bad, pleasure and pain. Cuba, for example, may have good health care, but this comes at the cost of human liberty and dignity. Similarly, the United States may have great freedom, but more gun deaths. After all, with more freedoms come more opportunities to do stupid things. There are trade-offs in everything. This more complicated view of the world put forth by the Cynical Realist, however, is much harder to grasp, since it requires one to see both sides of every issue or circumstance. The Fantastical worldview paints the world in easy-to-understand strokes of black and white when reality is a collision of a million shades of gray.

The Taoist and Buddhist traditions understand the Cynical Realist position well, as this classic Taoist story shows:

There is a story of a farmer whose horse ran away. That evening the neighbors gathered to commiserate with him since this was such bad luck. He said, “May be.”

The next day the horse returned, but brought with it six wild horses, and the neighbors came exclaiming at his good fortune. He said, “May be.”

And then, the following day, his son tried to saddle and ride one of the wild horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. Again the neighbors came to offer their sympathy for the misfortune. He said, “May be.”

The day after that, conscription officers came to the village to seize young men for the army, but because of the broken leg the farmer’s son was rejected. When the neighbors came to say how fortunately everything had turned out, he said, “May be.”

But as the story shows, Cynical Realism can be isolating. The neighbors (prototypical Fantasticals) were all quick to label their neighbor’s circumstance as good or bad. He stood alone in equanimity, hesitant to celebrate or moan. In the modern context, Cynical Realists tend to stand alone at parties, and are often seen as out-of-touch curmudgeons. But in the march toward a perfect world of human-made “solutions,” we’d be wise to listen to the pleas and warnings of the Realists — since they may be carefully explaining a vision of myriad shades of gray while we’re busy navigating a map of black and white.


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