2014-10-13

The Heuristic-Heuristic

No Single Standard

This morning, I pulled up the news headlines, and saw the following:

I can see how not having a set of therapeutic guidelines or recommendations based on science and experience would be a serious problem when it comes to controlling outbreaks of potentially fatal illnesses. But, according to the article, an absence of guidelines is not the problem:
Murphy says some of the issues in Texas stem from a "system problem" in the way public health care is managed in the USA. The Centers for Disease Control provides only guidance for infection prevention and management. "What they do in Texas, what they do in Illinois, it's up to the state," he says. 
"The question is, who's in charge?" Murphy says. "The states can follow all the guidelines and take the advice, which they usually do, but they don't have to. It's not a legal requirement. So there really is no one entity that's controlling things."
Do you see the problem now? It's not that medical science is failing us, it's that there is no central authority manipulating things from above.

Homo Heuristicus

Admit it: When you woke up this morning, you weren't particularly worried about whether or not there was one single, standardized way to deal with Ebola. Even if you were worried about Ebola, chances are, you were worried about catching Ebola, not about Ebola governance. Having read this morning's headlines, though, you are far more susceptible to forming an opinion on how "we as a nation" "should" "respond" to "Ebola." Scare quotes intended.

There is probably a propaganda mechanism at work here. Doctors are always angling for new ways to nudge us into complying with therapeutic standards. If they can find a way to force us into a single disaster response pattern, they probably will. That's because clinical and health care data is notoriously subject to variation. The more factors that can be controlled, the closer medical scientists can come to understanding a problem, and then healing it. Society is not a laboratory, however, and it shouldn't be subjected to stringent controls for the benefit of experts.

Well, that's all little more than philosophical bloviating. Human beings are paradigmatic thinkers. We yearn to rid ourselves of life's problems and inherent complexity by applying rules of thumb. To the extent that some problems actually can be solved by applying heuristics, this makes us a powerful tribe of apes indeed. 

But to the extent that standardized rules obliterate our ability to perceive nuance, undermine our dynamism and innovation, and allow for individualized experiences, they are more bane than boon.

The Heuristic-Heuristic

This brings me to the heuristic-heuristic, something that I've begun to perceive as a real threat to anyone who seeks any measure of authenticity whatsoever.

For people actively engaged in solving new problems, heuristics provide an important means by which to find viable solutions. And by "heuristics," I mean mostly the scientific method. Deductive reasoning is a powerful force for good, and we are indebted to those people who solve society's urgent problems.

You and I, on the other hand, do not solve these problems, but rather solve our own individual problems by consuming the products produced by the problem solvers. So, while Jonas Salk invented the polio vaccine, all we do is buy the polio vaccine. While auto makers are actively engaged in producing faster, safer, and more fuel-efficient vehicles, all we do is buy one. 

The point is that, while problem-solvers deploy a heuristic called "the scientific method" to innovate, we deploy a much cruder and far more useless heuristic called "find the product that solves our problem, and buy it." 

In the case of polio vaccines and cars, this heuristic serves us well. But in the case of our daily lives, this is a major source of our existential problems. We complain that the schmoozers get the job promotions, we complain that things just aren't like they were when we were kids, we complain that nobody knows the true meaning of Christmas, we complain that Senior Prom has become too big a deal. We wonder why there isn't a "single standard" Ebola response, but when we get to the hospital, we want doctors to give us personal, individualized attention with good bedside manner. 

The crude heuristic doesn't work for us. We commodify every aspect of our lives and gradually come to wonder why our lives seem to "lack something." 

The Cheaters

Via Facebook, I was pointed to this Slate.com article about why people in happy marriages cheat. Here's an excerpt:
Slate: So what are people looking for?

Perel: What’s changed is, we expect a lot more from our relationships. We expect to be happy. We brought happiness down from the afterlife, first to be an option and then a mandate. So we don’t divorce—or have affairs—because we are unhappy but because we could be happier. And all that is part of the feminist deliberation. I deserve this, I am entitled to this, I can have this! It allows people to finally pursue a desire to feel alive.

Slate: Alive?

Perel: That’s the one word I hear, worldwide—alive! That’s why an affair is such an erotic experience. It’s not about sex, it’s about desire, about attention, about reconnecting with parts of oneself you lost or you never knew existed. It’s about longing and loss. But the American discourse is framed entirely around betrayal and trauma.
Perel makes a lot of points in the interview - some good, some bad. She talks a lot about our expectations of a marriage, and she talks a lot about finding something about ourselves that we've lost. It's not that our partners aren't fulfilling us, it's that we ourselves are lacking what we need to be as happy as we might be.

Perel makes the mistake of suggesting more open marriage arrangements. This is a mistake because it doesn't solve the core, underlying problem. The question goes from "What's wrong with my life and my marriage?" to "What's wrong with my life, my marriage, and my affair?"

The point here is that commodifying marriage has basically ruined it. We expect the cutesy romance, followed by the expensive wedding, followed by childless marital bliss, followed by 2.3 children (it is still 2.3, isn't it?), followed by a commodified set of child-rearing benchmarks (first tooth, first day of school, first etc. etc.). Small wonder this has grown into boredom.

But if it is boredom, then of what benefit is adding one more commodity to the list? {Love, marriage, job, kids, infidelity, death} is not much better than {love, marriage, job, kids, death}. True, there is one more "term" in the "set," but this term would only ever prove valuable if it actually meant something to us. Its value - especially in light of what Perel believes - is not in the fact that it is part of the list of life experiences to "check-off," but rather in the fact that it is not supposed to be there. It is one rare triumph on authenticity in an otherwise commodified set of existence-benchmarks.

Normalizing, i.e. commodifying, the experience of infidelity will surely result in nothing more than rendering the experience itself inauthentic, and therefore no more interesting than anything else on the list. That's the first inevitable conclusion here.

The second one - the more important one, in fact - is that infidelity isn't the important thing; authenticity is. So we'd all be better off if we made our marriages (and our daily lives) more authentic, rather than trying to keep our experiences neatly packaged and then seeking to escape from them by engaging in divergent and self-destructive behavior.

Darn, there's that nuance stuff again!

De-Commodify

It's difficult for everyone, of course. Every moment of your life is a moment in which we experience some kind of pressure to commodify. We don't want our children to merely meet Santa Claus, we want them to meet him at a shopping mall, and have their pictures taken on his lap, and ask him for a particular Christmas present. And he has to be wearing a red suit with white trim and a black belt, and he has to be fat, and he has to say, "Ho ho ho." If it's not that, if it's not all of that, then we say that our children haven't had the "real" experience. 

This itself is preposterous, considering first that Santa Claus isn't real, and second that we can therefore define the experience however we want. It doesn't have to be any particular way! The whole thing is made up! So why not just invent a totally pleasant, authentic experience, and make that your holiday tradition?

This is my whole point.

Rather than seeking out a socially prescribed list of experiences and lifetime milestones, hoping that they will unfold in the way that they have unfolded for countless other people, we should take the time to recognize that whatever list of life experiences we have is ours for the choosing. We can define our lives to be anything we want them to be. Every minute of your life can be authentically yours. It can be as satisfying as you'd like it to be.

To accomplish this, you need to back away from the idea that your experiences should look and behave a certain way. You need to get away from the heuristic-heuristic, the mechanism telling you that X is only accomplished through Y. 

There might not be a product available to satisfy your need. There might not be a standard response to every terrible thing that happens in the world. Creating a new product or a new national standard will not necessarily fix things the way you want them to.