Why we do the things we do

This Marginal Revolution post reminded me of something I encounter frequently, even with myself. The post excerpts a study:

In fact our conscious brain has surprisingly little grasp of what makes us decide to do one thing rather than another.  A telling example of this ignorance has been provided by Joe LeDoux and Michael Gazzaniga, two neuroscientists who conducted a study of patients with a severed corpus callosum, the bundle of nerve fibers connecting the two hemispheres of the brain, leaving the two sides of the brain unable to communicate with each other.  LeDoux and Gazzaniga gave instructions to these patients, via their right hemisphere (hemispheres can be targeted with instructions shown to either the left or right visual field), to giggle or wave a hand, then asked them, via the left hemisphere, why they were laughing or waving.  The patients’ left hemisphere had no knowledge of the instructions given to their right hemisphere, but the patients would nonetheless venture an explanation, saying that they were laughing because the doctors looked so funny or waving because they thought they saw a friend.  However implausible the answer, the patients were convinced they knew why they were acting in the way they were; but they were deluded in thinking so.  Their self-understanding was pure confabulation.

I often find myself in discussions with folks who can’t override their urge to start jabbing their mouth and simply say, I don’t know, why do you think what you think?

I, too, often find myself doing things that I find odd and when I search for an explanation, I find that my first explanation is usually one that would satisfy an external observer. But, then I dive deeper and find other reasons that weren’t intuitive, but were probably more important than the externally acceptable reason.

I’m cheap. I was a loyal shopper of Walmart, until Target opened across the street from it. Then I found myself in Target more often. Why? I’m cheap. I’m supposed to like the lower prices. And, at the time, there was a visible difference in most prices.

So, on several trips to Walmart and Target I “observed” myself. I asked myself questions. What’s keeping me from going to Walmart? Why am I going to Target?

Many things popped up. The Target parking lot isn’t as packed. I don’t have to walk as far. Target’s parking was clean. The store was cleaner and updated. The product displays were always in good order and the products were well presented. I would have to wait a long time to checkout at Walmart. At Walmart, it seemed like they shoved the products on the shelves.Target had some different products that I would like to browse. I wasn’t scared of the folks who shopped at Target. The folks who worked at Target seemed a bit less tired and a bit more engaged.

I came to find that it just wasn’t one reason. There were many. Some would say it was the overall experience. Maybe some mattered more than others, but they all mattered.

Walmart recognized this, too. They responded by improving on many of these things and have won me back, sometimes.

The depth and breadth of these reasons surprised me. I didn’t put conscious thought into any of these things until I first noticed my behavior was odd (not always going for the lowest price) and then decided to “observe” my behavior.

That exercise alone humbled me into being more willing to say, I don’t know, recognizing that he world is complex and the simple answer is often not the whole story. That reminds me of a favorite Oliver Wendell Holmes quote:

I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity. -Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Supreme Court Justice, 1902 – 1932

Not sure I’d give my life for it, but it’s definitely worth more.

“My job is to apply the law.”

This post continues the thread about the Constitution and the idea of better understanding the intended role of judges and the judicial branch of government.

Thomas Sowell writing about Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in Dismantling America (p. 286):

Holmes understood that a Supreme Court justice was not there to favor some people or even to prescribe what was best for society.  He had a very clear sense of what the role of a judge was — and wasn’t.

Justice Holmes saw his job to be “to see that the game is played according to the rules whether I like them or not.”

That was because the law existed for the citizens, not for lawyers and judges, and the citizens had to know what the rules were, in order to obey them.

Legislators existed to change the law.

Holmes wrote that he did not “think it desirable that the judges should undertake to renovate the law.”  If the law needed changing, that was what the democratic process was for.  Indeed, that was what the separation of powers in legislative, executive and judicial branches by the Constitution of the United States was for.

Another judge said to Holmes while riding in a carriage: “Do justice, sir.  Do justice.”

Holmes had the carriage stopped.  “That is not my job,” he said.  “My job is to apply the law.”

Wise words.

Simple, Complex, Simple

“I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” -Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Supreme Court Justice, 1902 – 1932

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler.” -Albert Einstein

Oliver Wendell Holmes’s quote brings to mind a curve on a graph in the shape of a single hump, commonly referred to as the normal distribution.  To the left of the hump is the simplicity he wouldn’t trade for a fig.  The hump is complexity.  To the right of the hump is the simplicity he values.

Getting to the right side of the hump is a fine art few recognize, let alone achieve.  Holmes, Ben Franklin and Einstein were masters. Warren Buffett and Jack Welch are modern day masters.

Getting to the right side requires thorough understanding of a subject and deep reflection.  Like sculpting a human form out of a lump of rock, it takes practice, determination, refined technique, mastered use of the right tools, a feel for the material and a keen eye for achieving the desired shape.

The complexity curve explains why NFL management talent is not deep.  Over 95% of the managers operate to the left or inside the complexity hump.  Less than five percent are to the right.

The effectiveness of leadership and management strategies from the 95% of managers is random.   Some work, some don’t.  Successes aren’t consistently repeatable by this crowd.  They’re often like the one-hit wonders of the music world.

The success rate from the 5% is not perfect, but it is high and more consistent.  They’re much more like the bands that endure.

The five percenters started off as 95 percenters and moved to the right with experience and reflection.

A few things set these people apart.  They’re open to feedback.  They don’t let their egos get in the way of learning.  They distinguish root causes from symptoms.  They have a healthy skepticism of conventional wisdom.  They have a good handle on their biases.  They can see things from other points-of-view.