the con artist in your head

It seems like the main difference between reality and fantasy is omission. The mind is mad, desirous, story-spinning factory, and the less true information there is, the more coherent the story, the better the fantasy. The more details and pieces there are, the more difficult they are to assimilate and fit their jagged edges together. When all you see is a couple of things, it’s simple to draw a straight line between them.

Take an elegant example from D. Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, which I will now abbreviate and bastardize:

Fact 1: Halifax experienced torrential downpours.

Fact 2: One month later, flood damage was so bad, many residents had to move.

The story is crystal clear. But it’s only clear because we know almost nothing, so the causal story is easy.

What if the torrential rains caused no flood damage whatsoever, but levees on the edge of town broke weeks later due to a malfunction in the type of mortar used, along with a stoppage in the dam’s drainage system? Perhaps the rains aggravated the issue but did not cause it directly. We’re not sure. It’s complicated.

There’s another reason the lack of info also spins a more compelling narrative. The mental space unpopulated by facts, theories, and information is instead crowded with emotion. The emotion is happy to fill void left by facts in order to gives the sense of a full picture. And the emotion is, of course, not the result of what is, but what one wants to be true.

Return to Halifax’s very wet fictive problems for a moment: what if I then told you that the head of the levee building company is notoriously greedy, stingy, and used a cheap mortar. Now we have a causal story motivated by a sense of injustice. That capitalist bastard.

But what I just told you doesn’t take into account that the mortar his company used is used safely and successfully in hundreds of dams all over the world. So maybe it wasn’t the mortar? But enough about dams. You see how with every additional detail, the clarity of the situation recedes and becomes murkier.

It seems that a powerful illusion of understanding is heavily reliant on a lack of information. Beware of this system— it’s one of the many resident con artists living in your head. But this one’s particularly nefarious; he’s also responsible for the most poisonous crushes and boundless professional envy.

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