(credit: Torbein Rønning CC BY)

How difficult can it be?

We all need a little faith, once in a while, when we’re faced with a difficult problem and we don’t know what is the best solution. But it’s best not to use it as a substitute for curiosity

Are you curious? I bet you are. The fact itself that you are reading this suggests that you are interested in finding out what this article is about. Maybe you even expect to learn something (I hope you do!). But even if you’re just reading this to while away a few idle moments, there are most likely other areas where what you do is motivated by curiosity.

Checking your social media feeds, watching or listening to the news, reading a book, viewing a documentary or even a soap opera or a reality show — if you were not curious what the next page, the next minute or the next episode would bring, you would already have ceased checking, watching, listening etc.

Curiosity doesn’t get the unequivocal thumbs up, though. The English proverb curiosity killed the cat ascribes lethal capacities to it. And in a famous Kipling story a little elephant with “’satiable curtiosity” initially gets beaten up for asking too many questions, but eventually its curiosity is vital in providing all elephants ever since with a most handy appendage.

So it is in practice for us too: curiosity is a valuable trait. Arguably, the success of our species so far, as well as the prospects of its future are closely tied to this trait. Maybe that is symbolized by the most important punctuation sign by far: the question mark. We owe a debt of gratitude to our ancestors for their why, how, when, and what questions which have led to all the good stuff we have today, from agriculture and electric cars to cancer treatment and Netflix.

So, curiosity is a key driver for acquiring knowledge, insight. This can serve us personally — if we are more educated or skilled our work can be more financially and emotionally rewarding. And it can serve others: when we put to use what we learn thanks to being curious, our family and friends, our colleagues, our clients (and indeed our readers, I should add) can also benefit.

But responding to curiosity is costly. When it comes to choosing things — whether it’s breakfast cereal, a car, a sofa or even a house or a life partner, most people are by and large satisficers, rather than optimizers. This means that we tend to go for answers, solutions or choices that are “good enough”, rather than figuring out what is the very best one. As long as we avoid a major catastrophe, we seem to be reasonably content.

Is satisfying your curiosity worth this much? (image: reynermedia CC BY)

There are several possible reasons for this. A recent paper by Larbi Alaoui and Antonio Penta, two economists at the university of Barcelona, explores why we stop reasoning before we have found the best answer. Being economists, they hypothesize a trade-off between the (expected) benefit of a better solution, and the (cognitive effort) cost of discovering it. However, such a cost-benefit analysis may not always be the only or the dominant factor in the decision whether or not to continue reasoning.

We often don’t know for certain whether there is a better solution to be discovered, whether we will actually find it, and how much effort it will take. How we deal with this uncertainty may depend on who we are, and on the context. Some people may derive intrinsic joy out of exploring possibilities — thus lowering the cost of satisfying their curiosity. But others may, in contrast, have an aversion to thinking, or fail to systematically pursue all the options because they are under time pressure and the fear of failure is large. (This can sometimes be spotted in TV game shows.)

But even establishing whether ‘a’ solution to a problem or ‘a’ choice is ‘good enough’ may require some measure of cognitive effort. Ultimately, we need confidence that it will indeed be good enough — i.e. it will not be disastrously wrong. Maybe we need to work something out, imagine different futures, or do some calculation and check that the result is above or below a certain threshold. Maybe we need to estimate a number or likelihood. Or perhaps we can rely on previous experience, or on heuristics.

But there is one thing that can trump all that: faith. Faith can give us confidence, without requiring evidence.

That can be quite helpful. If it is too effortful to work out which of two satisfactory options will be better, and we are uncomfortable with tossing a coin, then a sprinkle of faith can add to the confidence we already had in one of them and seal our choice. But faith is such a powerful element in our decision-making process, that it can overshadow all other aspects.

In an article in the Guardian last week, Rafael Behr described a striking illustration of how this can happen. It featured the then-Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab (who has since resigned from the British government over the draft EU withdrawal agreement that prime minister Theresa May is — as I write this — still valiantly defending in the House of Commons).

Raab had, to use a phrase that was inadvertently coined by George W Bush, ‘misunderestimated’ the importance of cross-channel trade for the UK economy, notably the Dover-Calais crossing. In doing so, he joined his predecessor David Davis and other leading figures on the Leave side of the Brexit divide, whose assumptions and predictions had likewise often turned out to be at odds with reality (see this Twitter thread for some choice examples).

There is of course nothing wrong with being ignorant, even though it is not always bliss. We are born ignorant, but also with the capacity to ask questions and learn. As Behr points out, however, the key flaw in Mr Raab’s attitude and that of his naïvely optimistic colleagues was that they did not ask. Their faith in the righteousness of the cause, and in the ability of determination to overcome every and any obstacle disengaged their curiosity. And when there is no curiosity, there is no awareness of ignorance.

This would appear to be a peculiar instance of a cognitive phenomenon known as motivated reasoning, peculiar in the sense that there is hardly any reasoning involved. Normally, those who engage in it will emphasize the facts and data that support the conclusion that they prefer (or that they believe is most likely). Like a lawyer for the defence or the prosecution in an adversarial case, they are highly selective to build and strengthen their argument.

Blindfolded by faith — yay ignorance! (image: Kirill Balobanov)

What we see here, however, is the justification of a choice based entirely on faith, which makes facts and data unnecessary. Genuine curiosity tends to generate question upon question in the search for understanding.

But if faith is all there is, there is just one rhetorical question: “How difficult can it be?” The only value of this question is that it is a rather good tell-tale sign for the problem.

Faith, next to curiosity, can play a useful role in decision-making, in particular to combat indecisiveness, and to provide enthusiasm for a satisfactory, rather than an optimum choice. But it can be very dangerous when it is used on its own. Before you know it, it can have fooled you into thinking that there is no need for facts or data, and shut down your curiosity.

Isn’t that curious?

Originally published at koenfucius.wordpress.com on November 16, 2018.

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Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius