22 September 2014

What important truth do very few people agree with you on?

A very interesting question was raised by +Yonatan Zunger which thankfully, I haven't been asked in a job interview (I most certainly would have been stumped). 

"What we know is a drop, what we don't is an ocean." - Isaac Newton

It's a brilliant question, one that's important in terms of self-reflection and honing the awareness of what is around us -- two very important and underrated skills. In any case, as usual, an interesting question leads me to focus inwards and determine where I stand. I do plan on addressing this question myself. In fact, I have been pondering it all morning and am at this point unsatisfied with what I have written so far. So, this post will just focus on Yonatan's response. My own will be bookmarked for a later date. 
In a recent book, Peter Thiel noted that when he interviews people for a job, he likes to ask them: “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” I like this question; it can tell you a lot about how a person thinks, and where they're willing to argue with people. It also got me thinking about my own answers to such a thing (as a good question will always do), and while I could probably think of a few dozen answers, here's one that came to mind quickly.

I believe that people aren't actually stupid.

... My unpopular idea is this: people tend to be specialist experts in the circumstances of their own lives. If someone is unemployed, a job is available, and they aren't taking it, I'm going to start from the assumption that yes, they are aware that jobs pay money and they need money, and they probably know something I don't. (For example, that job would require that they stop providing child care to a relative's children, or the cost of getting to that job would eat up all the pay, or any number of other things) If someone is voting for a political candidate who seems directly inimical to their needs, then I'm going to assume that they have some other needs as well which this candidate does serve, and that those are more important to them....

It's more complicated than simply agreeing or disagreeing, but if a I had to choose one, it'd be the latter. Overall, people are stupid, but not in a way that leaves us as unsuccessful or unable to learn content or develop abilities. Obviously, social progress indicates we are as a whole, incredibly intelligent.  

The biggest concern is that the traits and motivations brought forth here are not actually associated with stupidity. "Specialists in circumstances" is another way of saying narrow-minded and short-sighted -- or to be more emphatic -- self-centred and ignorant. These may not be attached to the idea of stupidity, and I suppose this is another question worth pondering, but in my opinion they should be. People are not nearly as rational as Yonatan implies. If this were true, then logic would lead to everyone making evidence-based evaluative decisions almost all the time - at least most of the time, even the unemployed person who wants a job and needs a job but isn't making moves to get one. 

Although I understand the point, and agree if the emphasis is that people are very knowledgeable when it comes to their very specific individual bubble, I disagree with this meaning that they are intelligent. If you only know, and therefore are only able to make rational decisions on the things that absolutely fit in with the direct effects of your experience, you are not intelligent. Such nears the definition of self-centred and ignorant. 

That is not to say that I think most people are stupid, human capacities and the ability to learn and retain knowledge and synthesis it to better one's life and the lives of others is very high with most people. The problem is the self-centred ignorance I speak of. People too often do not making rational decisions based on evidence. Instead, they let fear and emotion outweigh objective observation. Whether it's engagement in wars, civil rights, career success or relationship dynamics - we all are guilty on an individual and on a societal level of making decisions we ended up regretting because they prioritised emotions and rhetoric over historical, expertly reviewed evidence.

Yonatan's original post in full can be found here: https://plus.google.com/103389452828130864950/posts/K7RW8jBKAoX