Monday, February 22, 2010


I found a very good definition of the amount of control we have over ourselves in the book Happiness Hypothesis. It describes us as being two minds, the rider (who has a whip and a good sense of tactics and strategy), and the elephant (not slow, but hard to change direction, and generally knows what it's doing and follows the path of least resistance without input from the rider).

This idea of rider and mount doesn't just work for people, it also works for any other large scale operation involving a fast moving mind with a slower moving ultimate decision process. Business is definitely one area that it links very well (based on readings of Built to Last and Good to Great), government also, I think.

The importance of value in this view of life is not to be unappreciated. Value is the way of setting the goals of the elephant. If you want to make yourself do something, you can either use up a lot of energy (will power in constant use) thrashing your elephant to move in the direction you want, or you can change the elephants values (one shot use of will power to change values).
In business, you can adjust the direction by adding incentives and fines for certain types of behaviour, and the same for government.

So, if you want to change what you do, you have to change your values. But firstly, you have to find out what your values are. How do you do that? For starters, your rational brain won't really know what your elephant's values are, so you have to do a bit of observing. Watch what you spend time on, because that's a good indicator of values. If you find it easy to commit to something, then it's probably true that your elephant holds that in high regard. Once you have a handle on what your current set of values are, then you can start to think about what you might want to change to make your life a nicer one.

Values can be changed, but you really have to work at understanding the ones you already have, otherwise you might end up trying to add oppositional but orthogonal forces. A reasonable example could be smokers. Some won't give up because they really value their cigarette time, and even if they are rationally aware of all the dangers of smoking and how much better off they will be financially, they can't really give up because they enjoy the chatting with other smokers element of their life. A good way to move into a better quitting position might be to always stand away from the pack of other smokers, in order to reduce the positive effect of smoking. Take out the positive side and the elephant disconnects and can be taught to appreciate the healthier living afterwards.

Another might be television, if you feel you're addicted, then begin by recording TV, and turning off the television until a show you want to watch has finished recording, then skip all the adverts and announcements. This might help reduce the effect of "just one more show" that is prevalent amongst the couch potato generation. Also, plan to do something, anything, some DIY or read a book, just so you have something to do while you're not watching telly. Hopefully, the values of time spent can be changed through distracting your elephant.

Basically, you're trying to change the rules of physics. Any time you change the laws of physics, you change the optimal solution. Your elephant naturally tries to find the path of least resistance. The elephants in businesses are even easier to divert, just use money. Fine businesses for things you don't want them doing. Reward them for things you do.

Okay, so that sounds easy... why hasn't anyone done that before? Well, they have, but the corporations of the U.S. found a loophole. It's the same loophole that anyone that's done genetics to any degree has found. The Selfish Gene points out that many highly complex interactions can come about through the relatively simple process of reproduction with inheritance. Sometimes cheating is actually the best fit in a complex landscape. You have to be careful that you don't create artificial fitness landscape that fits cheaters better than people how are doing the right thing. Sometimes it's possible to find a local maxima that matches the true intention of the law givers, but more often than not, a badly thought out law can offer a terrifying maximal solution, that by all accounts, is judged fair on paper.
Fixing this usually means using less variables, lower the complexity of the fitness landscape. Omit any naturally occurring fitness rewards or fines (such as, transport costs or pr). Keep the laws simple, and massively promote open books so the media can contribute to the morality of the corporations involved.

Government has the hardest job, it's an attempt to change the actions of its people, by changing the values of its people, by changing laws that affect both its people and itself. To do this it has to find value in change, and change the opinion of its members to allow the introduction or change in the laws, which might mean it needs to create a situation with which to convince its audience. Hard work working a slow system from the second or third removed driving seat.

Happiness Hypothesis
by Jonathan Haidt
Built to Last and Good to Great
by James C Collins and Jerry I Porras
The Selfish Gene
by Richard Dawkins

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