Random Thoughts, Automated Thinking, and Default Decisions
I have been staring into space for almost an hour now. Staring some times at this page, some times out of the window, some times across the room and into the kitchen. It’s not that I have nothing to write about. Nor am I starved of thoughts or the inclination to express myself. It’s just that there are too many thoughts – as usual. Too many thoughts about too many different things and they are all clamouring for my attention. And yet, they are, teasingly, flying away as soon as I start concentrating on them. Here’s one flying in from the right about the state of society and what should be … and here’s another about how … okay that’s gone too. Now I am thinking about the need for restructuring at the company I work and how the management just can’t see it! Ah! That’s one thought completed!
And then I am too exhausted. Sleepy even. I don’t know how other writers write. I have too many exciting thoughts and they are all tormenting me all the time. But I am going to stick to it. This time, I am determined to write something concrete. I am going to sit here like a good fisherman, wait for the right thought and then reel it in till the thought grows up into a story. Yep. Meanwhile, maybe we can talk about other things. You know – small talk. Let’s talk about things important to you, or things that should be important to you. Okay. So maybe we will talk about things that are important to me. Like where am I going? Have you given that a thought? I mean, do you think about where you are going? Ever? I think about it a lot. I even wonder whether I should be trying to get anywhere at all. Maybe the direction of my life is wrong. Maybe I should try something different. Like, maybe I should wait tables. No stress in that job. Just wait on customers, take their shit, serve them food, smile at them, and go home after my shift. No complications. But I have already done that. And all I wanted to do when I was waiting tables was to dump hot soup on the dumb-ass people with smart-alec social graces. I am going to make up a statistic here: Seven out of ten customers in a restaurant are insensitive morons.
Okay, this is not getting me anywhere. Maybe I should just stand here. Why should I go anywhere? I refuse to run the rat race. Or even walk it. I am going to stand right here and I am going to watch the world go by. Forever. Till I die. I am going to be a passive spectator. Yep, I think I have found my purpose in life. I will be an observer. I’ll just be and observe. I’ll observe and keep my mouth shut. When people observe and talk, they end up talking and forget to observe. So I’ll just ‘be’ and observe. It’ll be difficult not to give my opinion, but I’ll have to do it. Someone has to. There are too many people giving opinions anyway.
I have decided then. I’ll just stay put and observe. I am serious. I am not going to give you any opinions. Nor am I going to tell you what I observe. Okay maybe just this one. You know, I have been working for two and a half decades now. And one thing I know for sure (probably): we all want answers. Don’t protest – you know you want the answers. Well, I do anyway. At least I have wanted answers till very recently. Most of us don’t realise it, but what we want most above everything else, are answers. We want the answers without having to ask the questions. We are in an age where everybody wants to pretend they understand everything – so they can’t ask. But they want to be told the answers anyway. They don’t want to ‘figure it out’ themselves. This is one of the peculiar expressions of this age: ‘Figure it out’. It hints at intellectual involvement but hides the lack of intellectual capacity.
Last year I met this college student who was sitting at a coffee shop. I knew him from somewhere so we got talking.
“What are you doing these days?” I asked him.
“Stuff, you know – maybe college.”
“Umm, maybe college?”
“Yeah. You think I should do an MBA?”
“It depends. Do you want to do an MBA?”
“No. I think I will make music albums.”
“So what’s stopping you?”
“You think I should play music?
“Do you want to play music?”
“What do you play?”
“I am thinking of learning the guitar. You think I should do that? Or should I go for keyboards.”
Right about then I started wondering what was going on. So I asked him: “What do you want to do?”
“I am figuring it out.”
That was last year. A few days ago I met the guy again and he is still figuring it out. In the meantime, he’s been hanging out at places and giving it thought.
Very few people realise that ‘figuring it out’ is not a way of speaking, but a manner of thinking. It is not an expression that defines cool. It’s a state of being that denotes a thought process. That’s my take on it anyway.
“Let me figure it out.”
“I’ll figure it out.”
“We’ll figure it out.”
I hear these expressions so many times every day that I feel I am always on the threshold of a revolution. I feel that any moment now, someone is going to solve some social or economic problem that has been vexing mankind for centuries. At work I keep feeling that someone is just about to find a solution that is so brilliant it will change the way we work forever.
Why do I get this feeling? Well, because when someone says I am “figuring it out”, my tiny brain thinks they are thinking things through. Giving situations deep thought; looking at the same problem from different angles; considering different perspectives and solutions. But that’s not what they are doing. They are just buying time and procrastinating. And so nothing ever happens. No revolution. No miracles. No path-breaking solutions. No improvement. No intelligent conversation even.
This expression is cool and popular because it hints at intellectual involvement and because it has the power to mask the lack of intellectual capacity. In reality, people just want to be told that this is the direction to take. Or that is the action to perform to succeed. We don’t want to ask the questions that will lead us to the answers. Asking questions is a difficult job. If you have the desire to ask questions, then you are also saddled with the burden of deciding which questions to ask, who to ask them of, when to ask, which answers to believe in and so on. And that’s tedious and boring and too much trouble. Of course, the few who have the desire to ask questions usually learn that existential questions are not to be asked of others but of one’s own self.
In Indian politics and civic administration, this expression has different avatars.
“We are monitoring the situation.”
“We are studying the problem.”
“We have set up a committee to investigate the matter.”
“We are studying the findings of the committee.”
“We have set up another committee to investigate the first committee’s report.”
“We are monitoring the situation.”
Meanwhile, budgets are drawn up. Money is set-aside for committees. Money is set aside for studies. Money is set aside for study trips. Budgets are revised. Years down the line, problems stand compounded from the state they stood in at the time of previous budgets. Infrastructure deteriorates. Other committees are set up. More money is set aside.
And while all this action is happening in running the country, people like you and me figure things out our own way and trudge to work day in and day out. And pay taxes so that governments can set money aside for studying situations.
Now I am starting to think I ought to take to figuring things out the way the government and the cool people do it. I am setting up a committee to figure things out on figuring things out. I’ll let you know as soon as the report comes in. Then we can study the report and deliberate on when to set up the next committee.
Anyway, coming back to what I had started saying, I have too many thoughts and if I were to chase every one of them, I would never get anything done. But thankfully the human brain has managed to solve this problem of thinking through too many thoughts. The human brain basically has evolved over the centuries to ensure that we don’t spend life trying to decide what decisions to make. Generally, there are little thoughts flying around at random in our heads all the time. Here’s a sample of the thoughts running through my head while I am writing this:
“I’ll have noodles for lunch today – I don’t want to cook. Or maybe… I hate this project! It’s too boring! Why did I come through the Law College Road anyway? I know the roads are bad … I have to complete that damn project by evening… Where can we go this weekend? I need to get out of here and see new places… I hate that ring tone! Whose phone is that?”
Now these thoughts are doing their own thing while I am struggling to write. I have no control over these thoughts. The trouble starts when you have to latch on to one particular thought and think it through to a meaningful conclusion. For example:
“Okay, do I want to eat out today evening? Or do I want home-cooked food? If I eat out, do I want to go out and eat? Or do I want to order in? But if I order in, I will have to order the same boring food from the same old restaurant because they are the only one providing home delivery. I need change! Okay, okay, wait. So we can go out. But after a long day, the traffic will be a bother. So we can’t go far. If we don’t go far …”
By this time, I give up and go with the default decision, which is practical. The default decision is to order from the same old restaurant. And suffer in silence.
This is pretty much what happens in every sphere of human experience. If we start concentrating on every little thought, all the time, we’ll never get anything done. That’s why over the course of evolution we have developed this ability to automate all the little things we need to do regularly, including taking decisions related to everyday life. Automated thinking gives us the luxury of default decisions.
This is also how we approach our work and social responsibilities. We work in complex organisations and need to take decisions at every step. Decisions about people, tasks, relationships, and we have to do all of that every single day. When we are faced with a new situation we stop to think about it and then take a decision, which may become the instinctive choice (default) in a similar situation later. Thus, the default defines our reaction.
The trouble with default decisions is that sooner or later our understanding, of the world and our own selves, changes. And then we need to think afresh. Meanwhile, our inaction (going with the default decisions) has influenced the decisions other people take.
So how does this affect society? Well, every society is an organisation of individuals who have submitted to a certain order (law) deemed essential for the survival of the individuals. If you accept that definition, then it follows that the wilful disregard of the order by individuals might affect the existence of the society at some point.
For instance, the municipal corporation runs the administration of the city or town you live in. Over the decades, the corporation has learned that everybody is not thinking about what’s good and what’s bad all the time. Experience also tells them that protests, against bad decisions and poor administration, are sporadic. The corporation’s default reaction, therefore, is to ignore public opinion till matters get worse. And then take short-term measures.
Similarly, a rise in crime in the city is about the responsibility placed on the police and the people’s tolerance of inaction. We read about crime in the papers, feel disoriented or shocked maybe even scared, and then move on with life. Over time, all that changes in our reaction to crime is the perception that the authorities are not doing their job. The erosion of belief in law and order is gradual and the effects accumulate till lawlessness becomes the norm and you start wondering whether it is safe to go out for a late dinner.
Every act by an individual affects the society and its culture. A positive act strengthens the culture; a negative act challenges the culture. What we have to examine is the manner in which we deal with both these situations. What are we doing when someone is not obeying the laws or when some authority is not fulfilling its duties?
We are living in an exciting time because villages are expanding, towns are becoming cities, cities are growing into metros, metros become planets in their own right; societies are changing, standards of living are undergoing rapid transformation, ethnicities are morphing, and so on.
But we are also living in a dangerous time; a dangerous time because the edifice of social order is showing signs of crumbling around us; a new one does not appear anywhere on the horizon as yet. There are no tolerant cultures left in the world. And if they are, they are probably ‘off the grid’ (that’s another great buzz phrase these days).
Whatever the changes, I also know that the default of public reaction has changed in the past half decade. We may now be reacting every second, every minute on forums that have no teeth, and getting together in a manner that leads to tangible change only when matters come to a head or when things affect us personally.
Meanwhile, here’s another thought coming through with potential …
(This piece was originally written in 2003, edited and expanded in 2005, in 2006 (a short version was published in a newspaper column), and again now in 2016)
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