Some of the best questions about the world around us are those that seem obvious when they’re asked … but anything but obvious until they’re asked.
I recently saw a spate of articles about the use of anesthetics and plants. We’ve known – at least since 1846 – that compounds like ether can anesthetize humans. Breathe a little in and you lose your sensibility to the world around you while maintaining core functions like breathing, heartbeat, and so forth. Simply put, you lose consciousness.
But what would happen if you apply anesthetics to plants, which don’t have heart or lungs or spinal cords? Would plants also lose consciousness? That would, of course, imply that they are conscious.
It’s an interesting question and — being interested in the history of questions – I wondered if it had ever been asked before. As it happens, a French scientist named Claude Bernard was one of the first to experiment with anesthetics and plants. In 1878, he published Leçons sur les phénomènes de la vie, communs aux animaux et aux végétaux. (You can find the original text here. I discovered it via a 2014 article found here).
Through a series of ingenious experiments, Bernard found that anesthesias such as ether affect plants in very specific ways. For instance:
In December 2017, researchers published an article in the Annals of Botany that effectively updates Bernard’s experiments. The researchers came to similar conclusions as did Bernard while using a variety of different anesthetics “that have no structural similarities.” They conclude that plants can be an effective research model “to study general questions related to anaesthesia, as well as to serve as a suitable test system for human anaesthesia.”
I find all this fascinating but I also wonder why it has taken almost 140 years to update Bernard’s original research. I think it has to do with our assumptions. We assume that animals – especially animals with spinal cords – are so fundamentally different from plants that we don’t think about comparing them. Carl Linnaeus laid down the rules: there are two kingdoms – the animal kingdom and the vegetable kingdom. Never the tween shall meet. Because of the strict delineation between the two, we haven’t been asking obvious comparative questions, perhaps to our detriment.
It occurs to me that the delineation between animal and vegetable is similar to Descartes’s delineation between mind and body. For Descartes, mind and body were two different universes. Only recently have we discovered how entwined they are. We’re now asking useful and insightful questions about how one influences the other.
I wonder what other useful questions we’re not asking because of our assumptions. Perhaps it’s time to create an encyclopedia of assumptions and begin testing them one by one.
I also think we need to start asking different questions. So many of our questions are about the differences between things. What’s the difference between mind and body? Between men and women? Between different ethnic groups? Claude Bernard, on the other hand, asked about the similarities between animals and plants. Perhaps we should follow his lead. If we asked about our similarities, we might discover that we’re connected in much more profound ways than we imagine.
(The New York Times has a good article on the recent plant experiments, which includes time-lapse photography of plants under the effect of anesthetics. You can find it here.)
With a perverse incentive, a company incents its employees to behave in ways that are contrary to the company’s interests. The company, in other words, pays employees to do things that reward the employee but prevent the company from reaching its stated goals. (See here and here for more detail).
Why would a company do that? Sometimes the stated goals of the company are not its actual goals. For instance, the company may say that it aims to increase customer satisfaction. That’s nice wind dressing but the real goal may be to “make the numbers”. So, the company may incent its sale force to act in ways that make the numbers even if such behavior also reduces customer satisfaction. In this example, studying the perverse incentive can help us understand what the company’s real goals are. This seemed to be the case at Wells Fargo, for instance.
In other cases, one business process conflicts with another. Perhaps each process is perfectly fine when running in isolation. When they run in tandem, however, they create perverse incentives. A good example comes from Signet Jewelers, the owner of several retail jewelry chains, including Jared’s, Kay Jewelers, and Zales. (I discovered this case in the business pages of the New York Times. Click here for the original article.)
The Signet situation involves two different business processes: sales and financial credit. By combining the two, Signet created a perverse incentive. Each business process works fine in and of itself. It’s the combination that spawns confusion. Here are the two processes:
Now let’s change the scenario. You’re now the manager of a retail jewelry store that also offers loans to its customers to enable them to buy more jewelry. Your compensation is based on how much jewelry you sell.
It sounds like a good idea. So, what’s wrong with this picture? To sell more jewelry, you have a strong incentive to give loans to non-credit-worthy individuals. You make the sale, but a relatively high proportion of the loans you make go bad and are not repaid. The company either writes off the loans or spends a lot of money with debt collectors trying to redeem them. The net result is often a negative: you sell more but also lose more.
The Signet example is just one of many. Once you’re familiar with the concept of perverse incentives, you can find them most everywhere, including the morning paper.
Loneliness is a growing problem in modern societies. Political polarization is also a noteworthy trend. Could the two phenomena be linked? Could loneliness, in fact, cause political polarization?
According to numerous sources, loneliness is a serious health problem – not just mental health but physical health as well. Several recent studies have documented the physical effects:
Additionally, the problem of loneliness is growing. The Harvard Business Review reports that, “Today, over 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely, and research suggests that the real number may well be higher.” The BBC reports that half of adults in England experience loneliness. And it’s not just old people. Julianne Holt-Lunstad’s study suggests, “ the prevalence of loneliness peaks in adolescents and young adults, then again in the oldest old.”
Vivek Murthy, the former U.S. Surgeon General, describes loneliness as an “epidemic”. The United Kingdom has now appointed a minister for loneliness. And Natalie Proulx asks in the New York Times, “Does Every Country Need A Loneliness Minister?”
Shifts in demographics and joining behavior have contributed to loneliness. People today are less likely to belong to church or fraternal organizations. Enrollment in trade unions has declined sharply. Men’s clubs have all but disappeared. Long-term employment with a single company has also declined. The gig economy is perhaps the ultimate expression of the atomized workplace.
If we can no longer find a sense of identity and belonging in traditional identity organizations, where do we turn to alleviate loneliness? Two trends suggest that we may have already moved in loneliness-alleviating directions.
The first trend is that we have sorted ourselves into what might be called “identity neighborhoods.” (Neal Stephenson, in his novel Snow Crash, calls them “burbclaves”). As Bill Bishop pointed out in his 2008 book, The Big Sort, we now segregate ourselves by political identity as much as by class or ethnic identity. Liberals live here; conservatives live there. Our neighborhood can give us a sense of identity and belonging. It also insulates us from opinions that differ from our own. Bishop points out that, “The clustering of like-minded Americans is tearing us apart.” Bill Clinton adds, “Some of us are going to have to cross the street, folks.”
The second trend is the rise of identity politics. We’ve moved away from broad-based political parties and towards “…political positions based on the interests and perspectives of social groups with which people identify.”
Is identity politics driven by loneliness? Simon Kuper thinks so. Writing in the Financial Times, Kuper notes that people are increasingly joining political parties to signal, “…they belong to the same tribe …with a shared identity … and something to talk about. In other words they are doing something that is usually considered positive: they are forging a new kind of community.” If Kuper is right – and I’m inclined to think that he is – then loneliness is the root cause of identity politics.
Loneliness then is not simply an individual issue. It affects the way we organize ourselves in neighborhoods, communities, nations, and political parties. Many observers suggest that identity politics is bad for America – click here, here, and here for representative examples. If we want to stifle identity politics, we first need to work on the problem of loneliness. Perhaps we need a minister for loneliness, after all.
Are older people wiser? If so, why?
Some societies believe strongly that older people are wiser than younger people. Before a family or community makes a big decision in such societies, they would be sure to consult their elders. The elders’ advice might not be the final word but it’s highly influential. Further, elders always have say in important matters. Nobody would think of not including them.
Why would elders be wiser than others? One theory suggests that older people have simply forgotten more than younger people. They tend to forget the cripcrap details and remember the big picture. They don’t sweat the small stuff. They can see the North Star, focus on it, and guide us toward it without being distracted. (Click here for more).
For similar reasons, you can often give better advice to friends than you can give to yourself. When you consider your friend’s challenges and issues, you see the forest. When you consider your own challenges and issues, you not only see the trees, you actually get tangled up in the underbrush. For both sets of advisors – elders and friends – seeing the bigger picture leads to better advice. The way you solve a problem depends on the way you frame it.
According to this theory, it’s the loss of data that makes older people wiser. Is that all there is to it? Not according to Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, the widely acclaimed master of big data and aggregated Google searches. Stephens-Davidowitz has written extensively on the value of big data in illuminating how we behave and what we believe. He notes that companies and government agencies are increasingly trawling big data sets to spot patterns and predict – and perhaps nudge – human behaviors.
What does big data have to do with the wisdom of the aged? Well … as Stephens-Davidowitz points, what’s an older person but a walking, talking big data set? Our senior citizens have more experiences, data, information, stories, anecdotes, old wives’ tales, quotes, and fables than anybody else. And – perhaps because they’ve forgotten the cripcrap detail – they can actually retrieve the important stuff. They provide a deep and useful data repository with a friendly, intuitive interface.
As many of my readers know, my wife and I recently became grandparents. One of the pleasures of grandparenting is choosing the name you’d like to be known by. I had thought of asking our grandson to call me Big Daddy. But I think I’ve just come up with a better name. I think I’ll ask him to call me Big Data.
Seth Stephens-Davidowitz is probably best know for writing the book, Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What The Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are. He’s also a regular contributor to the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times. I heard his idea about seniors-as-big-data on an episode of the podcast Hidden Brain. (Click here). I mentioned his work a few years ago in an article on baseball and brand loyalty. (Click here). He’s well worth a read.
It’s hard to think critically when you don’t know what you’re missing. As we think about improving our thinking, we need to account for two things that are so subtle that we don’t fully recognize them:
Because of assumptions and filters, we often talk past each other. The world is a confusing place and becomes even more confusing when our perception of what’s “out there” is unique. How can we overcome these effects? We need to consider two sets of questions:
The more we study assumptions and filters, the more attuned we become to their prevalence. When we make a decision, we’ll remember to inquire abut ourselves before we inquire about the world around us. That will lead us to better decisions.