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Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing

Jamie Holmes

Success in future will hinge on just one question: "How well do you deal with unstructured problems, and how well do you deal with new situations?" Jobs that can be turned into an algorithm aren't coming back. What will be rewarded will be the abilities to pick up new skills and remain attuned to your environment, and the capacity to discover creative solutions that move beyond the standard way of doing things.

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Fatigue and time pressure tend to heighten our need for closure. We revert to stereotypes, jump to conclusions, and deny contradictions.

But this is a necessary part of modern life. We have to deal with so much stuff that we can't treat everything to fine-grained inspection. William James description of life as "great blooming, buzzing confusion."

Piaget found that when kids try to understand something new, they often just extend a concept they already know about. Why does the wind blow? Well the trees must make it by waving their limbs, the way I make a breeze by waving my hands. Things that move must be alive. But then, faced with a contradiction (dead leaves moving) they have to figure out an accommodation.

Say you see a white crow. You can either assimilate the novel experience by deciding it's actually a dove, or you can accommodate it by accepting that albino crows exist. The problem is the uncs doubt associated with the assimilation - we act as if we're sure it's a dove, but underneath we feel that's incomplete. Stuck between assuming we've understood and sensing that we haven't. One way we cope with these doubts is to find comfort in our social groups and passionately emphasize our ideals. (Affirmation)

After a traumatic event, the old, known, comforting world is gone, and a new one must be constructed.

The instability of the present age is only going to intensify people's appetite for certainty, and the explanations we hold onto can do permanent harm - conspiracy theories or outdated beliefs. For example, those with high need for closure more likely to believe that national security trumps individual rights such as not being tortured.

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Urgently fixating on certainty is our defense mechanism against the unknown. However what we need in turbulent times is adaptability and calculated reevaluation.

Can get people to slow down in jumping to conclusions by telling them they will have to justify their decisions in front of the group later, that their judgments will be compared to actual results down the line, or that their conclusions will be contrasted to expert ones.

2004 study found that one in five breast cancers discovered by mammography and treated were not actually a health threat. Pathologists examining tissue samples gave wrong diagnosis 12% of the time. Radiologists judging Xrays disagreed with one another 20% of the time. Even worse, they disagreed with themselves 10% of the time when images re-submitted later.

And all the analyses say that misdiagnoses still happen at much the same rate as they always have across all areas of medicine. Part of the problem is that have to cope with far more information. What we actually need is better systems to prioritise symptoms and potential treatments. The multiple possible treatments for any one set of symptoms increases the uncertainly in Malthusian expansion. Yet the culture of medicine has little tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty.

We like to think of medicine like repairing watches whereas it's more like an artist improvising a garment from ambiguous threads.

In the face of ambiguous symptoms, doctors strongly tend to jump to the safety of ordering tests, instead of probing further to clarify the understanding. Two problems with this: First: the most common diagnostic error is when doctor takes closure instead of thinking "What else could this be?" and second, the tests often throw up more ambiguous data, clouding rather than clarifying diagnosis.

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Or, in some cases, the tests themselves are harmful. An inconclusive PSA test for prostate cancer often leads to a biopsy, which are risky to the patient's health, as well as costly. But since we're averse to ambiguity, we do the test in the hope of finding clear, anxiety reducing answers.

In fact no test is completely harmless in psychological or health terms - radiation exposure or complications arising from the tests themselves.

Kids shouldn't take OTC cough medicine. There is no evidence that it reduces coughs or shortens the duration of the cold.

2013 study found computers got three times more face time from doctor than patient did.

Successful CEOs have high tolerance for ambiguity, but confidence not correlated.

We easily see ambivalence as duplicity, but in fact ambivalence is a far more normal state of mind than we often assume. Wanting and not wanting something at the same time is so common.

Lectures are about as good as textbooks for conveying facts. They do nothing to inspire interest, encourage active thinking, change student's mind, or help them listen respectfully to an opposing POV. But the basic problem is the idea that receiving information is the key part of learning.

And, doesn't meet needs of today. When did you ever hear a lecture which highlighted the necessity of stumbling, making errors, and luck in reaching a solution to a problem? Did you ever get an assignment with an 80% chance of failure, just like entrepreneur's odds? Or a problem for which there is no solution?

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Best ways of prepping students involves asking them to find mistakes, having them argue an unfamiliar position, giving them tasks they'll fail at.

Students who are given less feedback, and allowed to fail, did far better than those, who, like the golfers who were constantly coached on every error, and appeared to be learning more during tutoring.

Companies/teams often do debriefs when things go wrong, but rarely when they succeed. Especially when an unexpected success, they get overconfident and fail to constantly re-evaluate what they are doing.

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We invariably take responsibility for wins, but not for losses. Success due to skill/ability/hard work; failure due to bad luck. Teaching brings academic success, but poor pupils are to blame for failures. Politicians are successful because of their winning personalities, but failure due to party mistakes.

Failure unfreezes - old ways of thinking are shaken up and new ways can be accommodated. Success breeds complacency and lack of institutional flexibility.

The greatest asset of science is persistent self-scrutiny and skepticism.

Philippines 1998 cellph customers realized that scratch cards they bought to recharge their phone minutes could be used to transfer money. Could send the code to another person who could use it on his own phone, or sell it for a small commission. In 2003 the P Telecom co commercialised it, allowing you to send any amount, not just the face value of scratch cards. Copied in Mozambique in 2004, then in 2007 Kenya's M-PESA let you deposit send or withdraw money via your phone. Point is that ordinary users invent these apps, and the Telecoms have to hustle to keep up.

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Users don't even need a phone of their own - all they need is own SIM card and can share phones.

Innovation usually happens when an inventor sees the potential of an existing technology's previously neglected function. Recognizes that something which seemed to have a clear function was actually ambiguous. The telegraph was for sending data, until Western Union realized it could also be used to transfer money.

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Edison constantly questioning - how does this work? Is there anther way this could work?

Specialists tend to think deeply but not broadly. Dabblers think broadly but not deeply. Inventors do both.

Brazilian figured out that fill a plastic soft drink bottle with water (and bit of bleach), fit it into a hole in the roof, and the bottles give of the equivalent of a 50 watt lightbulb, dramatically reducing lighting cost.

The iceberg that sank the Titanic was 400 feet high and hundreds of feet long. The ship could have pulled along side and used it as a raft. But nobody realized that, so hundreds perished through lack of a life raft.

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Mark Twain reckoned that "travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness." This is bc both empathy and creativity spring from the same source: diversity. The path to embrace other cultures has to traverse the imagination. And it's why reading fiction, which puts us in other people's shoes, makes us more flexible and aware of multiple choices.

One way to generate creative solutions is to go to a thesaurus. If you look for a definition of adhere, you might be told it means 'stick two surfaces together'. But if someone is trying to solve a problem of material adherence the thesaurus will suggest synonyms like connect and fasten, which themselves have multiple synonyms.

Can do similar thing by translating word into another language. Window can be different words in French depending on whether it's in a room, a car, a bank or a shop front. If you then translate those French words back into English you get a range of not-quite synonyms which you couldn't generate from a thesaurus, and which could then suggest new possibilities.

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Study in Japan showed that the more diversity there was in society, the more creativity flowered two generations later. Diversity is initially painful but pays off decades later. While at first the immigrants occupy a marginal position in society, after a generation or two their culture becomes part of the melting pot, and we start eating pizza and sushi.

Stroop test - subjects tasked to read out lists of colours, but the some of the words printed in wrong colour - eg word black printed in red. People take noticeably longer to recognize the discordant word.

During the Cold War, the FBI use a modified version of the Stroop test to detect Russian spies. The words were in Russian, with some being a discordant colour. Theory that is someone was secretly fluent in Russian they would find it difficult to suppress the automatic impulse to read the word instead of the colour, and would perceptibly slow down.

(Science of Us)

Just about everyone dislikes the feeling of not knowing the answer to an important question about what's going to happen in the future. Generally speaking, waiting to hear whether you'll get an important job, or to find out about a loved one's diagnosis after a medical test, is a uniquely anxiety-provoking experience. It's not uncommon to hear people mired in these sorts of limbos say that they'd prefer hearing about a terrible outcome than continue waiting to find out. That way, at least they'd know, and a potent form of psychological tension would be released.

In his book Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing, Jamie Holmes, a Future Tense Fellow at the New America Foundation, takes readers on a tour of this human tendency, highlighting the voluminous research into both its upsides and downsides. 'If there's any takeaway, it's that we're programmed to get rid of ambiguity, and yet if we engage with it we can make better decisions, we can be more creative, and we can even be a little more empathetic,' Holmes told Science of Us.

Holmes was quick to point out that the feeling of ambiguity isn't an inherently negative one. 'It's not always unpleasant,' he said. It's more that uncertainty is 'an emotional amplifier,' as he put it. 'A lot of times it is threatening, just because of the content of what we happen to be facing: whether I'm going to be fired, or a physical threat, or the uncertainty of a medical diagnosis. But there's also great research that shows that if we're uncertain about whether someone's romantically interested in us, or if we're uncertain about whether something good or really good might happen to us, then those experiences are even more pleasurable than they usually are.' His book also highlights the many ways embracing ambiguity can make people more creative and better problem-solvers.

But it's the other side of the ledger that feels a bit more urgent: history, recent and otherwise, is replete with examples of catastrophic blunders made as a result of leaders' inability to deal with ambiguity. As Holmes explains in Nonsense, it's when we're stressed out - and particularly when we're faced with what we feel are existential threats - that our resistance to ambiguity grows strongest. For Americans, 9/11 appears to have a unique ability to ramp up our need to resolve ambiguity: As Holmes explains in the book, one study showed that simply reminding Americans of 9/11 increased their need for (cognitive) closure - an important psychological concept measuring, to put it roughly, one's level of comfort with ambiguity (as I wrote last year, need for closure can partially explain why some people were driven crazy by the first season of the blockbuster podcast 'Serial'). 'I feel like the entire need for closure of the country went up, and any uncertainty in general became more unpleasant,' said Holmes. He doesn't view it as a stretch to say that the invasion of Iraq, which was broadly supported by Americans when it first occurred, can be partly attributed to the country's need for a simple story of good and evil at a time great fear and uncertainty.

Perhaps the most carefully laid-out example of the real-world consequences of the need for closure in Holmes's book is his recounting of the U.S. government's disastrous handling of the Branch Davidians, a breakaway Christian sect whose leader, David Koresh, was wanted by the government on weapons charges. In February of 1993, the ATF attempted to raid Koresh's Mount Carmel compound outside Waco, Texas, so as to capture the fugitive, but Koresh was tipped off beforehand and the raid failed spectacularly, leading to the deaths of five Davidians and four ATF agents. The FBI was called in, kicking off 50 days of negotiations between the Bureau and Koresh - an attempt to resolve the siege without further bloodshed. On April 19, the FBI, its decision-makers tired of negotiating, followed through with a plan approved by then attorney general Janet Reno, punching holes in the compound and filling it with tear gas in an attempt to drive the occupants out. Instead, the Davidians set the compound on fire and it burned to the ground on national TV. As Holmes writes, 'over seventy Davidians died, including twenty-five children, leading to a tragic national embarrassment.

This terrible outcome, writes Holmes, was partly the result of two very different attitudes held by those working to resolve the dispute during the 50 days between the initial raid and the fire. On one side was Gary Noesner, a talented hostage negotiator who had been called down to Waco to speak with Koresh. The two struck up a relationship, and Koresh appeared to gradually grow to trust Noesner, which helped lead to Koresh's agreement to allow a steady stream of Davidians, mostly children, to leave the compound (each Davidian who left peacefully, of course, made the government's job easier and reduced the risk of Davidians being harmed).

Unfortunately, as Noesner worked to resolve the conflict peacefully, the head of the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team, Dick Rogers, was growing impatient. Rogers, aka 'Sergeant Severe,' grew particularly incensed when Koresh reneged on an agreement to leave the compound on March 2 if the Christian Broadcasting Network aired a message he had recorded about the Book of Revelation, which it did. Noesner 'was used to negotiating with all sorts of people, and he knew not to overreact. The bottom line was that the negotiations were working. He and his team had gotten a steady stream of people out of Mount Carmel safely.' Rogers and those working with him, however, saw things differently - the episode further confirmed their views that Koresh was an evil snake who was not to be trusted, and who could only be dislodged from the compound by force.

These views gradually won out, and even as Noesner continued negotiating with Koresh he found himself regularly undermined by Rogers's decisions to, for example, cut power to the compound, angering Koresh. The eventual results were catastrophic for everyone involved. Holmes explains that Noesner, whom he interviewed for the book, agreed to take a shortened version of the standard test psychologists use to measure individuals' need for closure, and scored extremely low, which isn't a surprise - he was able to hold in his head the conflicting ideas that Koresh was a bad guy who had hurt people, but also that he was worth negotiating with for a protracted period, even if there were slipups along the way. It's safe to say Rogers sits at the other end of the spectrum.

It's one thing to identify the problems posed by humanity's distaste for ambiguity, Holmes writes in Nonsense, but it's another to actually overcome these hurdles. At the organization level, there are some (in theory) simple fixes. 'Beyond hiring more people like Noesner,' writes Holmes, 'organizations can ... also create a culture that respects ambiguity' by, among other things, 'underscoring the consequences of bad decisions' and, in times of crisis, making sure everyone envisions a wide range of responses and outcomes rather than quickly narrowing the scope of discussion. What all these recommendations have in common is that they will help prevent the sort of black-or-white thinking that so often leads to bad decisions, particularly during periods of heightened fear or more general emotional arousal.

Nudging people away from poor, need-for-closure-driven decisions at the individual level is tougher, but Holmes had some some suggestions there as well. One is to simply be deliberate in your decision-making, not just writing down, say, pros and cons, but listing as many potential consequences of different decisions as possible. It's also important to realize that your need for closure can vary depending on the circumstances at the time. 'You can kind of have a rough self-check - what is my need for closure today, this week? Have I been under a lot of pressure? Is there a lot of uncertainty in my life?'

Finally, there are a couple of broader options for people who want to better handle ambiguity, although Holmes admits they're a bit less practical. One is to simply read fiction: 'Reading fiction has been shown to lower people's need for closure. I think that's partially because it's safe, and you go into this other world, and it's kind of broadening our categories because we’re thinking about how other people make decisions.' And the other is 'positive multicultural experiences,' which appear to have the effect of lowering need for closure for similar reasons.

None of these personal or organization tweaks are panaceas, of course. Humans aren't going to stop making knee-jerk decisions out of a resistance to ambiguity anytime soon. But Nonsense is still an extremely useful primer for anyone who wants to better understand the complicated ways ambiguity affects human decision-making.

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