Tag Archives: optimism


System 1 is gullible and biased to believe, System 2 is in charge of doubting and unbelieving, but System 2 is sometimes busy, and often lazy. 
– Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow (81)


I spent the greater part of my working hours this past week removing books from the library shelves and stamping them “withdrawn.” Feeling something of the executioner, I began to muse on the psychological effect it might have on me to stamp the word, “withdrawn” “withdrawn” “WITHDRAWN” over and over again.

One further limitation of System 1 is that it can not be turned off. If you are shown a word on the screen in a language you know, you will read it (25)

Daniel Kahneman’s fascinating book, Thinking Fast and Slow names the differing ways of thinking, respectively, System 1 and System 2. The part we know and believe to be firmly in control is System 2, all activity that requires conscious thought lives in this system. The unfortunate news that Kahneman shares in his book is the overwhelming evidence that System 1 is in fact (smugly, no doubt) running the show. System 1 is so firmly in control of our reactions, impressions, and judgements, that it hardly need deign to acknowledge its domination.

The technical definition of heuristics is a simple procedure that helps find adequate, though often imperfect, answers to difficult questions. The word comes from the same root as eureka (98).

Admittedly heuristics is a good thing. We are not after all computers and lack the ability to algorithmically function in real time. Lord knows I’m all for split second, heuristics. Or so I thought. I don’t want to make an enemy of my own brain, but the fact that System 1’s default attitude is to believe, always to believe, concerns me.

declarations of high confidence mainly tell you that an individual has constructed a coherent story in his mind, not necessarily that the story is true (212).

Halo effect, illusions of validity, hindsight effect, coherence, over confidence, context dependency- the list of pit falls, oversights, blind spots and standard issue mental sloth is depressing me. Standing in the back of the stacks with my red stamp – withdrawn, withdrawn, withdrawn, the frame of my life takes on a rather pathetic hue. What might I be feeling if the word was “discard?” I shudder to think. But never mind “discard,” the depressing point, according to Kahneman is that if the word had been “keep” or “valued” I probably would not have even noticed. It doesn’t fit into my story.

A single cockroach will completely wreck the appeal of a bowl of cherries, but a cherry will do nothing at all for a bowl of cockroaches (302).

As the acidic paper of the books I remove from the shelves flake and fall, strewing my hair and the floor with brittle specks of lonely confetti, I force System 2 to step it up. How we frame events, the tension between our remembering selves and our experiencing selves  makes a real difference to the actual quality of our lives. Kahneman mentions movements and policies, at the end of the book, that aim to help us help ourselves when dealing with all of our innate (and not always negative) judgment disabilities. And that is some cause for celebration. For hope.

Unless there is an obvious reason to do otherwise, most of us passively accept decision problems as they are framed and therefore rarely have an opportunity to discover the extent to which our preferences are frame-bound rather than reality-bound (367).

An admission that we know nothing,  yet relentlessly protect our belief systems against reality, is a healthy thing to keep in mind – I’m talking to you System 1! Understanding how profound our mental biases and tendencies are leaves me feeling that much more like useless confetti helplessly blowing about- it’s no use! but, never fear- my optimism bias kicks in and I just KNOW that acceptance is the first step! All is well, all goes well, all goes as well as it possibly could – oh dear, I must confess my cynicism bias can kick my optimism bias’s ass any day of the week…..In the meantime I take some solace in the ineluctable certainly that, it is not just me. My predictable predilection of perception fallibility is matched only by yours. Solidarity, my fellow humans!

Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it (402)

All is well, all goes well, all goes as well as it possibly could

“What is optimism?” said Cacombo – “Alas!” said Candide, “it’s the mania of maintaining that all is well when one is wretched.” – Voltaire, Candide (19)

DSCI0011I am a big believer in the power of optimism to knock you on your ass. My brain is highly susceptible to positive thinking. I have a tendency to feel inexplicable reoccurring episodes of positivity. Over and over again with relentless purity. Still, each time the legs of the chair called optimism are cut out from under me – it hurts. Where, oh nascent psychology student, is the conditioned response?

“It’s a great pity,” said Candide, “that the wise Pangloss should have been hanged contrary to custom in an auto-da-fé; he would tell us wonderful things about the physical evil and the moral will that cover the land and sea, and I would feel enough strength in me to dare, respectfully, to make some objections.” (103)

I have some objections. Not least of all the “inspirational” “power of thinking” that leaves one feeling worse for having failed to positively think themselves out of a housing dilemma, low paying job, or sick family member.

“You are very harsh, ” said Candide.
“That’s because I have lived.” said Martin. (237)

Voltaire uses grotesque exaggeration to make his amusing point, but I think he would probably throw-up if he knew how much more ridiculous the cult of optimism has become. As much of a romp as it is to read Candide, I can’t help a creeping disgust at how depressing it is that things have changed so little. Whywhywhy?

“My fair lady,” replied Candide, “when you are in love, jealous, and whipped by the Inquisition you are beside yourself.” (69)

True, true. I will collect myself, Candide suffered far worse. I don’t think he would have chosen me as worthy of his pity. But he would have to forgive me for my Pangloss moment:

“I flatter myself,” said Pangloss, “that I might briefly discuss cause and effect with you, the best of possible worlds, the origin of evil, the nature of the soul, and pre-established harmony.”  At these words the dervish shut the door in their faces.

But wait! I really do. I, perhaps by sheer necessity, pursue Voltaire’s prescription to “tend to ones garden,” in other words: look to work to “keep away from us three great evils: boredom, vice and need.” (295) It is a good strategy. But why have the ability to think if that is the cause of the harm? I wonder about a philosophy, or strategy, however simple and “effective,” that at its root is avoidance of introspection; avoidance of contemplating the world as it is. Is a “work” ethic really so different in essence from prayer meditation positive thinking visualization incantation? Don’t they all just refocus the mind elsewhere? Of all methods, (could just be my absorbed Protestant mentality) I’d certainly go with work for the added benefits, but who among us doesn’t pause in their steps at moments and say – why? What’s so great about work? Nothing. It’s purpose and meaning that satisfy, if work provides that, then it fits the philosophy, if not- you didn’t work hard enough. Or at least work so hard that you didn’t have time to notice that boredom, vice and need are also forms of creative impetuous, and…interest.

If we don’t find a pleasant place, we will at least find new things.”(141)

Why can’t people make a cult of kindness? Be kind. That’s all. Of course, given the many men and women, far wiser than me, whom have espoused an ethic of kindness- some of whom have many a shrine built in their name – I am not optimistic.

I wanted to kill myself a hundred times, but I still love life. This ridiculous weakness is perhaps one of our most baleful inclinations; for is there anything more foolish than to want to bear continually a burden that one steadily wants to throw to the ground? To hold one’s being in horror, and to cling to one’s being? In a word, to caress the snake that devours us until it has eaten our heart? (99)

*Voltaire’s Candide A Bilingual Edition translated and edited by Peter Gay
** Title from page 225

Making My Manna

DSCI0044Now would be as good a time as any
to mention
the land of milk and honey.
A mirage within my heart,
a whisper
once held as a lark.
When at last I’m free,
a shout
I’m poised to heed,
all my worked-for sundry
that no one can take from me.