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A guest blogger on Scott Adams blog posed a question about what could cause you to change your mind.

She frames it as ‘most people’ picking a side and then sticking with that decision forever. Oddly she chooses sticking by a losing sports team as an analogy. That simply isn’t a compelling. She then inquires as to what, if anything, causes changing your mind to happen.

This approach accepts too much of the initial thought about picking a side and failing to ask why that is. What is the compelling reason behind picking a side and never reexamining or once was compelling to such a degree that it won out as a mechanism? Where is it shown to be the case that across a broad spectrum of decisions in context that this is a inferior mechanism and by what measurement?

Setting that all aside, the interesting thought to me is considering when if ever are we taught a competing method? I can’t think of a case in my experience. The closest I can think of is being exposed to a couple thinkers who describe trying on ideas like hats and wearing them around for a bit. That is a challenging and subversive notion in that a) there are some ideas that are pretty universally condemned and b) any idea that you try on has the potential to change you. Are you really ballsy enough to take that on? Where and when do we acquire the skill to do this well?

The flip side of the ‘Failures of Imagination’ coin is magical thinking. Magical thinking is where we delude ourselves in believing something that just isn’t going to happen. I don’t mean that in all cases it is impossible that the something will happen but rather that it is just so improbable that from a pragmatic standpoint it might as well be impossible. Take for example building a house. Say it takes 3 months to build a house. That is the shortest amount of time that it would take to do all the things that are needed to build a house and it pretty much can’t be done in less time than that. Planning to have all your furniture delivered on the first day (3 months + 1) after that is magical thinking. There is no realistic way that the house is going to be available on that timeline. Being mad that you can’t get the furniture in that day kind of caps off magical thinking.

We engage in this behavior all the time in our personal lives but in no place is it worse than in the workplace. A room full of people will nod their heads at a quarterly goal that nobody believes is achievable. Nobody is going to speak up and be the bad guy that points this out. Even if they do, they will be told why they are wrong. Usually they are wrong because of some variant of ‘we have to hit this goal’. Mid way through the quarter when it is becoming clear the goal won’t be hit a great deal of anger/disappointment is expressed. Eventually there is resignation that the goal will be missed. A new quarterly plan is drafted that doesn’t change anything that caused the old plan to be missed. Everyone sits in a meeting and nods their heads.

Magical thinking. Just because you say something (or put it in a powerpoint) doesn’t make it so.

We tell ourselves stories. This seems to be a basic condition of human existence. Everything that happens to us that rises to the level of awareness is fitted to an ongoing narrative we construct. Largely we are the heroes of our own narrative.

When we create ourselves as the hero we are subject to cognitive error. Say for example your boss hammers you on some point at work. Narratively that is hard to reconcile with your position as hero. In many cases, and particularly as you retell the story, your bias moves more and more toward the hero narrative and invents or embellishes the details needed to go along with that narrative.

A better approach is to construct a counterfactual story. Imagine the exact same scenario but construct yourself in the least ego friendly light you can manage. In the boss example, assume you were completely in the wrong and were actively deserving the hammering. What does that look like? What conditions would make it the case that this were true? By having this competing narrative you expose your thinking to other possibilities about what happened. It provides perspective on our natural tendency to want to be in the right or to be the hero. The goal isn’t to put yourself in the wrong or to tear yourself down but rather to find a balance.

Something to consider for your mental toolkit.

 

There’s an old cliché about when everything is a priority nothing is priority. It’s actually kind of fun to see in action .

First they have the priority list. Then gradually everything becomes a priority. So they develop a new list, and this is the super extra priority list. And that lasts for a week or two. Then everything gradually migrates to the super extra priority list. So then you get the double extra super priority list. Wash rinse and repeat.
The mindset is really fascinating. It’s this gradualism in which they try to sneak just one or two more items on to that priority list (and then one or two more). Nothing else was supposed to make it on the list without something coming off. The thinking seems to be that somehow they are getting away with something; that just by adding those couple things to the list then somehow they’ll get done. This continues and it’s definitely a fooling yourself kind of situation. You might get away with it for adding one item on the list but as you’ve added your 10th or 12th item to the list it has completely defeated the purpose. While it’s occurring folks are watching this and nobody is stupid. They all know that the list keeps growing to a point where it is unaccomplishable.

You know that at some level they know that this is happening. You point it out to them, and  they can see it. They can’t help themselves. The urge to keep adding things, because of course its all important and also of course it all has to get done, proves too much.

It may not be the same as having to worry about being shot by militants but a friend reminded me of the phenomenon of advanced work dread. This is where you hate your job so much that you have to self talk on the way to work to try to get up enough to be able to make it through the day. “If I can just make it to lunch…” or ” I don’t have to meet with anyone today and I can just stay in my office…” and the like.  Usually at this point you are actively seeking another position or hoping they will put you out of your misery by letting you go. It is also characterized by stress induced sleeplessness and other gems of negative influence on your life like constant rumination about the job even when you aren’t there. It is a 24/7 cycle of light despair that shouldn’t be possible given how little a job, particularly one you hate, should be able to impact you.

I wonder what the psychology is that underpins this? Not wanting to fail mixed with some form of conscientiousness mixed with concern about finding another gig?

Loose monetary policy analogies focus on excess. The punchbowl is a favorite in which excess alcoholic punch is being made available to the market\economy party. In context, providing more punch to the party is irresponsible behavior. The analogy is tenuous when you reverse it; not providing enough punch doesn’t really seem like a problem. To hold to the analogy, the party gets boring.

A more useful analogy it seems to me is the economy as an engine and monetary policy as oil in the engine. What we can hope to accomplish with monetary policy is enough oil in the engine that the engine can perform well. Too much oil in an engine doesn’t make it perform better, and at some level makes it perform worse. Too little oil makes the engine perform worse with extra wear on the engine and eventually it seizes. In reality the engine in question, the economy, is dynamically sized. It can grow or shrink. We don’t know how big the engine is at any time we mostly have suggestions as to what size it is and how it is growing.

This where it makes sense to question how much oil we should be putting in an engine of unknown size and growth rate. That seems to me to be the point where we talk about NGDP targeting and futures markets. At the moment this is the most promising way to solve that problem. See Scott Sumner and his blog the Money Illusion for better insight than I can provide on those topics.