I don’t consider myself a curmudgeon. But every now and then my System 1 takes off on a rant that is entirely irrational. It’s also subconscious so I don’t even know it’s happening.
My System 1 wants to create a continuous story of how I interact with the world. Sometimes the story unfolds rationally. I use solid evidence to create a story that flows logically from premise to conclusion.
Sometimes, however, there’s no solid evidence available. Does that stop my System 1 from concocting a story? Of course not. I simply make up a story out of whole cloth. The story may well be consistent in its internal details but may also be entirely fictional. I use it to satisfy my need for a comforting explanation of the world around me. In this regard, it’s no different from a child’s bedtime story.
Though I refer to it as System 1, it’s actually my left brain interpreter that does the work. According to Wikipedia, “…the left brain interpreter refers to the construction of explanations by the left brain in order to make sense of the world by reconciling new information with what was known before. … In reconciling the past and the present, the left brain interpreter may confer a sense of comfort to a person, by providing a feeling of consistency and continuity in the world. This may in turn produce feelings of security that the person knows how “things will turn out” in the future.”
Apparently, our desire for “feelings of security” is deep and strong. So strong, in fact, that our left brain interpreter may create a “contrived” story even in the absence of facts, data, and evidence. While the interpreter often interprets things logically, it “…may also enhance the opinion of a person about themselves and produce strong biases which prevent the person from seeing themselves in the light of reality.”
How often does the interpreter create completely contrived stories? More often than you might think. In fact, my left brain interpreter took off on a flight of fancy just the other day.
Suellen and I were driving to an event at the University of Denver. We were running a few minutes late. We were on a four-lane boulevard where the speed limit is 30 miles per hour. But most people drive at 40 mph because the road is broad and straight. We got stuck behind a Prius that was driving at precisely the speed limit. Here’s how my left brain interpreted the event:
Damn tree-hugger in a Prius! Thinks he’s superior to the rest of us because he’s saving the planet. He wants to keep the rest of us in line too, so he’s driving the speed limit to make sure that we behave ourselves. What a jerk! Who does he think he is? Doesn’t he know it’s rush hour? What gives him the right to drive slowly?
That’s a pretty good rant. But it has nothing to do with reality. I didn’t know anything about the driver but I still created a story to connect the dots. The story followed a simple arc: he’s a jerk and I’m an innocent victim. It’s simple. It’s internally consistent. It enhances my opinion about myself. And it’s completely fictional.
How did I know that I was ranting? Because I interrupted my own train of thought. When I thought about my thinking – and brought the story into my conscious mind – I realized it was ridiculous. It wasn’t his fault that I was running late. And who, after all, was trying to break the law? Not him but me.
I was certainly thinking like a curmudgeon. I suspect that we all do from time to time. I stopped being a curmudgeon only when I realized that I needed to think about my thinking. Curmudgeons may well think primarily with their left brain interpreter. Whatever story the interpreter concocts becomes their version of reality. They don’t think about their thinking.
When we’re with someone who is lost in thought, we might say, “A penny for your thoughts.” It’s a useful phrase that often starts a meaningful conversation. We might make it more useful by altering the wording. To avoid being a curmudgeon, we need to think about our thinking. Perhaps we should simply say, “A penny for my thoughts.”