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Lubricants of Reason

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[Image used without permission because I liked it - please go and buy a print here. Let me know if you want me to take it down.]

I've just finished reading Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Taleb. Hailed by Fortune magazine as one of the 'smartest books of all time', it's an exploration of the huge role of randomness in life.

Taleb is a derivatives trader and his hobby is understanding the stochastic limits of epistemology. His core thesis is that we think we know how things work because our brains like cause and effect so we apply a deterministic model to observations, which in turn leads us to make mistakes and leaves us open to being 'blown up' [trader lingo for losing way beyond what you believed possible] by very rare events of huge magnitude [he argues that in a sufficiently large samples, extraordinary high magnitude events are inevitable - the 'black swan' theory].

The book is consciously iconoclastic but his attacks on the certainties of traders and economists ring true and have interesting implications for the arts and sciences of persuasion.

In passing, Taleb dismisses classical economics as completely pointless and I agree.

Classical economics is a normative science - it describes how things should be in an idealised model, ceteris paribus - which means that it is, basically, science fiction - it simply doesn't describe how things actually are.

The foundation of this fiction is the idea of Homo Economicus - rational man - that makes decisions via a cost benefit analysis of each option and always works towards the highest possible personal utility.

This is clearly rubbish. Unfortunately, we're intellectually wed to binary oppositions, so once we realised that emotions had a role in decision making, an opposition was established between rational and emotional persuasion in communication. Maybe we make some decisions emotionally and some rationally.

Thanks to people like Phineas Gage and others who have had accidents that  messed up their amygdalas, we know this simply isn't true.

When people lose access to their emotions, they are no longer capable of making decisions. This is because if you were literally to try to apply pure logic to every decision, you're brain would freeze up with the limitless amount of data you were trying to process.

We like to think of ourselves as rational beings and we are, to a certain extent, but without the heuristics of emotion to help us, we'd never be able to decide anything. We almost never have the perfect knowledge required to make truly rational decisions. Life just isn't like that. Hence we evolved emotions.

So it's not that there are emotional and rational side pulling us in different directions but that emotions are the "lubricants of reason" - we can't think without them.

This thinking is expressed nicely in a relatively recent theory of decision making known as the somatic marker hypothesis:

Real-life decision making usually involves assessment, by cognitive and emotional processes, of the incentive value of the various actions available in particular situations. However, often situations require decisions between many complex and conflicting alternatives, with a high degree of uncertainty and ambiguity. In such situations, cognitive processes may become overloaded and be unable to provide an informed option.

In these cases (and others), somatic markers can aid the decision process. In the environment, reinforcing stimuli induce an associated physiological affective state. These types of associations are stored as somatic markers.

So decisions / stimuli that have made us feel good in the past become somatic markers that are then employed to covertly bias our own cognitive processes when we face similar decisions in the future. The covert part means people will always under report this fact in research.

This suggests that the role of communication could be simply establishing the somatic markers in association with brands, so that when consumers hit the painful decision of which jam to buy, the markers kick in and lubricate the decision, preventing paralysis and panic attack.

Brands take away the need to choose by covertly biasing cognition, and thus make our lives easier.

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