Heuristics, You’re Soaking In Them

In September 1927 a young man of 32 stood on the edge of Lake Michigan and contemplated suicide. From a young age, his Grandmother had taught him to appreciate, and follow the Golden Rule. Entry into the workforce had brought him to the alarming realization that the general populace did not share his enthusiasm for that ancient moral teaching. After a few hours of soul searching, the man came to two decisions. One, he would no longer accept any assertion as fact until he examined the assertion himself, no matter who made it, not even his Grandmother. Two, that he would live his life as an experiment.

That man was none other than Buckminster Fuller. He went on to not only prove in his own life that it was good policy to follow the Golden Rule, but he also gave us a slew of inventions and ideas that are still rocking our world. If more of his notions were widely adopted, there are many who feel this world would be a much better place. Whether you agree with his notions, or not, there is no denying that he was a singular character and that he inspired a great many people. He did this all through the simple expedient of not taking anyone’s word for anything, and living his life as an open laboratory.

What strikes me is how the idea of the Golden Rule nearly drove him to suicide and then became the proof of his life’s passion. His life went through this transformation due to Bucky’s skepticism about this widely accepted ethical teaching.

We humans are faced with an overwhelming amount of data, and endless decisions on a daily basis. We have evolved to deal with this overwhelm through several methods, one of which is pertinent here. Heuristics. A heuristic is a mental shortcut. A rule of thumb used to come to a decision without having to think. Heuristics mean we don’t have to stop and remember each and every step of a recipe while we cook. They are also the mechanic that makes some of us rabidly insist that the proper way to put a toilet paper roll on a dispenser is so that the next tissue comes up over the top of the roll. (Those people are dead wrong, by the way. It should always come from under the roll. Just goes to show you how crazy these mental shortcuts can make some people.)

The problem with these shortcuts is that they work so well. We can easily build up walls of, “well, it’s always done this way…”, “Everyone knows that!”, “Internet stocks are a good idea…” and so on. As we give our decisions over to these auto-pilot scripts more and more, we increasingly distance ourselves from freshly emerging reality, and we curtail our skills of critical thinking and considered determination.

Confucius once put forth the idea that if society could be built up with answers to all basic obligations and actions set out in strict detail then the masses would be free from the stress of thinking. On the surface, this seems like a good idea. The problem is, once you get on those tracks it can be quite hard to get off!

The thing is, I can think of many, many examples of human beings who made hugely positive impacts because they were willing to go against the grain, discard “common sense”, and prove things for themselves just like Bucky Fuller did. I can’t think of a single example of someone who made a lasting impact on the world while doing what they were told.

I am not suggesting that one should go against the common cut just to do it. That is the path of the useless rebel. What I am proposing is that the less we take things for granted, the more we consider options with critical thought, the more we prove our morals in the cauldrons of our own life experience, the better off we will be. Also, if we are lucky, we will make things a bit better for others.

Heuristics are a great evolutionary tool for us to have. However, just like any other tool, they can become a crutch, and then a chain, if we lean on them too much. The first way they do this is by blinding us to any alternatives to them. We can get so set in doing things one way that we close ourselves off to any other.

I got a heavy dose of clarity around this when I started driving for Lyft. I was living in San Francisco, as I had been for 42 years. I had driven the cities streets for 25+ years by that point. I thought I knew the city. I was very wrong. I knew the spots I frequented and the routes between them, but that was it. About 80% of the city was a mystery to me. After having driven people all over for two weeks I can now say I know the city well, but the difference was astounding. All of that was due to the blinders I had taken on through my habits of getting from where I knew to where I knew.

The very first recorded TED talk was on this exact subject. A scientist shared, in a five-minute video, his top tip for cutting wasted time out of our days. He illustrated this with a sports shoe he had on a table. He told a story of getting a pair of similar shoes. The thicker, running shoe style, laces kept coming undone on him. He took the shoes back to the store and asked for a refund. The clerk at the store, after being told the issue, asked the scientist to tie his shoes. When the scientist did so, the store clerk simply said, “Oh, you tied your shoes wrong.” The clerk then proceeded to show the scientist the correct way of tying his shoes. The difference was in the direction of the motion during one step of tying the shoes. That difference altered the mechanics of the knot such that, when tugged, the knot reinforced itself. The way the scientist had been tying his shoes was such that the knot would loosen when tugged. You can watch the talk here to see what I mean.

We all live our lives leveraging the power of shortcuts, here and there. Life is far too complex for us to do otherwise. We need them. However, we also need to be aware of them lest they make the easy transition from our servants to our masters.

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