Bob Engel | Counter Steering: Crazy is fine


There is relatively new field out there called Behavioral Economics. Is it news to you that almost all of us are really pretty dumb with our money, our expensive stuff, and how we make (monetary) decisions? We do things like driving miles (at 54 cents a mile) to save 37 cents on gas, buy something more expensive than we would have when someone shows us something even better, or refuse to accept something for free when we feel we're getting less than we deserve. Happily, we are more rational about physical necessities like food where we behave about as well as a blue jay or a monkey.

Well, I'm delighted to report that in a recent essay Jennifer Kahn reports that there is a new way to help yourself become more rational about your money, your career choices, and your perch on the tree of life. Ms. Kahn illustrates our money-over-mind problem by pointing out that we love to put a check in the bank, but then scrimp on paying credit card bills with the attendant interest penalties and late fees. Could such a mind-set also plague the clear heads in Silicon Valley where a handful of college drop outs have won big and have spawned financial empires that are sirens for the best and brightest?

Enter CFAR, the Center for Applied Rationality. The primary idea here is to make us more functional by exposing our rational, more cognitive selves to the zany, unself-conscious, intuitive person also sharing the skull. This is a two-minds spinoff, a clear application of Daniel Kahneman's very successful recent book, "Thinking, Fast and Slow."

You pass "Go" by jumping right into the four-day "CoZE" sessions. You do some weird stuff (take off your shirt and ask to be touched, stick your hand in the curry bowl, or break out in song), thereby "peeking over the fence" at your crying-for-inclusion, wilder side so it can startle and inform the focused, rational you. It's $3,900, if you're interested.

There is nothing rational about riding a motorcycle, plunging out of a plane (with two parachutes), or SCUBA diving. This is exactly where some annoying statistician points out that there are much better odds in collecting stamps, writing novels, jogging, or flying to Europe.

Fine, but the irrational part of me still rides a motorcycle. I do make a modest effort to warp that riding into something vaguely reasonable. Why not use the scoot instead of the car? Better milage, right? Sure, but also way more fun(!), so groceries and many chores take place via motorcycle. However, like any addict, I then dream up trips that I wouldn't undertake in the car at all. "Hey Mallory, why don't you go see Ann for the weekend. Have some wine, talk about the disadvantages of the Y chromosome, and I'll ride up to say 'hello' the next day." Or, "Why not take your new work down to Will's (an art gallery owner) and I'll join you for lunch at Zen." Notice that two vehicles are involved? I do, too. But that's why they make denial.

Humans are amazingly thoughtful apes, but we benefit and suffer from a brain that was built in brief spurts, with new or bigger stuff loosely tacked onto already existing bits. You still have a big hunk of crocodile brain in there, just under the wrinkled, executive function part. Sorry, but it's in change of (or plays a large role in) a lot of what your mind decides to do. Thus, we make a lot of "interesting" choices. Humans also tend to think in "physiological time" — we're much better at planning lunch than we are at thinking about retirement or climate change.

So sure, stick your hand in the punch at a party, jump out of a plane, or ride your moto. Apparently we get sharper by doing crazy things.

Bob Engel lives in Marlboro with his motorcycles, wife, and cat.


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