Updated: Dec 18, 2019
I have often grown envious of those that could see the world with simplicity. Those that can be happy not trying harder to understand life's many complexities; instead accepting what is is and what should be should be. I am reminded of the phrase "ignorance is bliss". Yet, I have continued with this notion that I should try and understand how and why things work so that way I can use it to my advantage. Perhaps it is in the nature of humanity to be curious (Silva 2012). After all, learning new things reduces uncertainty. Humans hate uncertainty (de Berker et al 2016).
So I keep striving to connect the dots, to put the pieces together; as, I'm sure many of you reading this have done, and will continue to do. And I, like many of you, have found myself wondering, why is it that knowledge can be so...frustrating. Why is it that when I become more versed on a topic it requires more and more face-palming to discuss that topic with others; enter Facebook and political rants and raves. Why is it that when some people become knowledgeable they seemingly become more wrong. Why is it that when I learn more about scandals, trade deficits, military spending, corruptions, and nepotism; I really wish I hadn't. Why does the adage of "ignorance is bliss" still ring true through the years? Maybe because there's some truth to it.
Millennials are by far the most educated cohort at this time (I'm sure the next generation will top us eventually, but at this time). We have been, in large numbers, busting out college degrees like it's our jobs. Pew research (link below) showing Millennials with 39% Bachelors and above versus 24% in the Boomer generation. Yet, it seems we are not getting much more relaxed with less uncertainty. Instead it seems the opposite and that our anxiety is increasing according to American Psychiatric Association polls (link below). What is doing us in here? Is it really because we are smarter? I think so.
First, let's ask what does it mean to be more intelligent? Does it mean we are more filled with some semantic knowledge such as how cells divide through mitosis, or how a modern car engines should't spend time warming up in the winter as the ECU module injects more gasoline into the chamber causing premature stripping of the piston walls due to lack of oil lubricant? No. I think we can all agree that being full of facts doesn't make one more intelligent. How then should we define intelligence?
In a recent paper Wissner-Gross & Freer (2013) talks about a formulaic way in which to measure intelligence. The authors are interested in how we can program and/or measure intelligence of systems, and not necessarily on humans, but I think we can work with it. Long story short, they conclude that intelligence is, essentially, the maximization of future potentials (there is an awesome TED talk on it, check it out). Basically, those with intelligence are maximizing their future possibilities. They are maximizing their future choices. In what way is that a bad thing?
Well, humans are weirdly complex beings. We suffer from something known as "the paradox of choice". Schwartz & Ward (2004) talk about it in their paper (also in a TED talk, again, worth the watch). If you are unaware of the paradox of choice, essentially it is that humans become more anxious when faced with decision-making in a scenario that they have too many choices in. The kid-in-the-candy-store paradigm. Three candy choices? No problem. 3000, well...how will I know if the one I pick will be the "RIGHT" one? The "PERFECT CHOICE" ?! News flash... you don't, won't, can't and it doesn't matter for your happiness, statistically speaking.
Put it together and what do you have? Well, you have some dots that seem to make sense together. We are intelligent, thus we set ourselves up with more choices. Too many choices causes anxiety.
Sure, this blog isn't providing some experimental idea, nor am I testing anything, but I am saying. It makes sense. Here we are. Probably some of the most intelligent folks to live (or maybe it's my superiority bias [Hoorens 1993]), yet even as we eliminate uncertainty, and have access to every fact and bit of knowledge available to date through the internet, and are able to better keep our futures bright and full of opportunity. We are still living the same, if not more, distressed and anxious lives as our predecessors.
How do we handle this? It would be foolish to throw away education. Foolish to push aside information and say that it is irrelevant to our happiness. Information is never inherently good or evil, it just is. So what do we do? Personally, I have tried to reform my perspective on the beauty and subjective nature of choice, and less on the outcomes of the choice. Essentially taking some subjective and arbitrary happiness from the fact that I can even make choices about my own future, rather than focusing on the future happiness or sadness of the choice's outcomes. But that's just my choice.
Some of you may not take my viewpoint, nor will it work for you. Some of you may be stuck here, with your degrees, your intelligence, your capabilities to make wondrous things come to fruition in a world of opportunity. Some of you will continue to be...
Wissner-Gross, A. D., & Freer, C. E. (2013). Causal Entropic Forces. Physical Review Letters, 110(16), 168702. https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevLett.110.168702
Schwartz, B., & Ward, A. (2004). Doing Better but Feeling Worse: The Paradox of Choice. In P. A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.), Positive psychology in practice (p. 86–104). John Wiley & Sons Inc.
Vera Hoorens (1993) Self-enhancement and Superiority Biases in Social Comparison,European Review of Social Psychology, 4:1, 113-139, DOI: 10.1080/14792779343000040
de Berker, A., Rutledge, R., Mathys, C. et al. Computations of uncertainty mediate acute stress responses in humans. Nat Commun 7, 10996 (2016) doi:10.1038/ncomms10996