From Punchlines to Baselines: Lessons In Thinking Better (essay)

There’s an old Henry Youngman joke that goes, “how’s your wife?” The punchline (I have to make you wait at least a second) is: “Compared to what?”

It may help to borrow Daniel Kahneman’s framework of System 1 and System 2 (from his book, “Thinking Fast and Slow”) to break this down. System 1 is our fast, automatic processing system. System 2 is our slow, deliberate processing system.

System 1 is full of default settings, evolutionary reflexes, and mental shortcuts. System 2 is what we engage whenever we slow down and say, “wait a second…” System 2 is still influenced by system 1, but it’s where we go when we need to REALLY think and break a problem down.

Comedians like Youngman made entire careers out of tripping people’s System 1’s up with a System 2 engaging surprise. Every person knows that to respond to “how’s your wife,” you usually insert a canned answer like, “fine.” You rarely need to think about that answer (apologies to wives everywhere, feel free to swap this for “hows your husband”) unless the person asking has some specific info they’re looking for. The great comedians ask “compared to what” in order to find that one surprising twist, which short circuits your auto-pilot System 1 expectations and makes us smile.

In comedy, often just proposing that there is a “what” goes far enough for a laugh. Seinfeld succeeded with “a show about nothing” for a reason. Mitch Hedberg was one of the greats with System 1 short-circuiting lines like, “rice is great if you’re really hungry and want to eat two thousand of something.”

Perhaps less funny, but even more important is the natural follow-up: how should we choose the “what?” Whether we call them our benchmarks, baselines, or comparisons, the “what” really does matter greatly.

The very first step is realizing how automatically the “what” is mostly chosen for you. The next step is to start training yourself to not let System 1 exclusively answer the question.  Think of it like forming a new habit. Even Kahneman said that it’s somewhere between impossible and really hard, but just stopping to ask – like a good comedian – can change the way you see the world.

Rory Sutherland (in his Spectator column) asked why water has no taste. He explained that from an evolutionary perspective, our taste buds have been calibrated over the millennia so that we can sense away any variation from pure water.

Defensively, it’s far better to quickly say, “ick” and stop drinking than to have your water taste like Dr. Pepper and mask any foul stuff. Explicitly, our perception of the taste of water has evolved to NOT drink the pieces of rotting carcass 100 yards up stream. Evolution has already done most of the dirty work so you don’t have to think about it. The evolutionary result for an essential life input like water is therefore tastelessness.

But if our taste buds are calibrated to “zero” around the taste of water – what else have we evolved in a similar way? What else are you not detecting / sensing? Effectively EVERYTHING that is interesting. Even that Dr. Pepper is telling your brain, “mmm good” without you thinking deeply about it.

Most of the time, your attention is a threat detection machine. Safety first, pleasure second, and function is an afterthought (function here meaning the taste of water, or anything else that is uninteresting and therefore unimportant in its purist form).

All marketing is based on this understanding. Your automatic (System 1) instincts can easily be hijacked by deviations from normal. The more Dr. Pepper something tastes, the better it will be at getting your attention. Your logical (System 2) reasoning will usually just agree with that your instinct suggests.

In other words, we’re helpless unless we stop and ask, “compared to what?” Not to kill the fun in your life, but to understand – especially when it’s important – why our instincts are being guided in the way that they are.

We can notice function and separate it from the deviations if we are aware enough to slow ourselves down. To be clear, in most of life this isn’t completely necessary. Your intuitions aren’t all bad (hopefully). However, understanding why something is interesting to us, or how we can make something interesting to someone else has profound value, both ethically AND monetarily.

It all starts with how the automatic “what’s” are calibrated. You can be attentional and intentional once you understand the speed at which information will be analyzed.

Pain is another example of a naturally occurring baseline in our brains. We all have our own “threshold for pain,” and can picture the famous hospital “pain assessment tool.” We know about the tough guy who cries over a hang nail and the Black Knight who loses his arm and says, “Tis but a scratch.” Besides acknowledging that pain is experienced individually, we also can use this metaphor to understand how our internal baselines can actually move.

When we feel pain, we ask ourselves, “compared to what?” Pain is a sensory signal. “My back hurts more than it did yesterday but nowhere near as bad as the time I threw it out.” We feel, we compare. That is how humans are hardwired. Pleasure is a sensory signal too. “This is salty and good (sea-salt caramel) that is salty and bad (a mouthful of ocean water).” Again: we feel, we compare.

One of the most daunting aspects of the opioid epidemic is that when these drugs are used over time, they actually move the baseline. Opioids work by hijacking the network that senses and translates pain in our body. They block the pain signals and also replace them with a reward signal. Because of this dual purpose of blocking pain and replacing it with a reward, our bodies start to look for that reward like Cookie Monster looks for cookies, or I look for sea-salt caramels – subconsciously ignoring the long-term ramifications.

An inverse scenario is the Jelly Belly game BeanBoozled. They give you a box of normal looking jelly beans and sometimes you get a red one that tastes like strawberry-banana smoothie, and other times your red one tastes like dead fish. Its extra amusing if you don’t tell someone they’re playing the game and let them try a handful. Once they realize you’ve replaced a reward with a penalty, they’ll start avoiding your candy dish like the plague.

In both scenarios, the frustratingly crazy part is that our internal baseline – our benchmark – is being moved as a result of our sensory experience. Most of the time we think of our perception as it drifts on its own from a fixed point, like on a scale. All we know is that we’re still asking, “Compared to what?” However, those fixed points are frequently just myths to begin with. Our perception of the experience can actually shift without us even realizing it. What do we do?

For jelly bean “addiction” (please note, I’m not belittling addiction, just illustrating a point), BeanBoozled could be an answer. Likewise, imagine if Cookie Monster was handed an equivalent “nasty” cookie instead. He’d be thrown for a real loop. The unexpected sensory response will trigger a reevaluation of the baseline.

For opioids, the answer is much more important and far less clear. All we know is that it is likely buried somewhere in an understanding of how our senses influence the vicious cycle, and how they can be used to stop the baseline-decline and hopefully reverse the course. See the Scientific American article, “Case Study: When Chronic Pain Leads to a Dangerous Addiction,” from March 1, 2017 for a look at how researchers are addressing this problem.

The key here is that when we ask, “Compared to what,” we also need to be aware of if that “what” is actually stationary. In many cases, it is not – so we should consider what impact our sensory triggers will have on the baseline over time. Pain and pleasure can have different impacts, which mean we need to be extra conscientious of the effects of repetition. Whether opioids or jelly beans, know that senses can shift baselines.

So we ask, “compared to what,” come up with an answer, study the parameters on if it moves or not, and then we’re done, right? Not even close. There’s a bigger meta-problem here, and understanding it is how you move from good to great (extra Collins emphasis).

The world has a surplus of answers, and a shortage of questions.

Now, you might be thinking that “random” question asking, as Google search histories can attest, is surely a commodity. After all, the cost of asking a question is now effectively zero. How much effort does it take to say, “Siri/Alexa, what restaurants are near me?” We must have a million questions with a million answers, right?

Actually, for every question, we have (for just that question above as an example) 23.7 million answers. The ratio is just a bit lopsided.

Our search for better answers therefore starts with better questions. Good questions and the people that are good at asking them are in extra-short supply.

Cal Fussman told James Altucher (on James’ podcast), “When you think about it, there was no Google back then. Now, just about any question you have, you could put it into Google, or Quora, and you’re gonna get an answer. So, if you’re looking at the laws of supply and demand, the supply of the answers is filled. We got answers up the ‘gazoo. But how many great questions do we have? How many people who ask great questions do we have? There’s much more demand for that.”

Consider “fake news.” Something being patently false is still an answer! It’s Calvin’s (as in Calvin and Hobbes) dad telling him that wind comes from the trees sneezing. The only way to get around uncovering how false something actually is, is to have better questions. You have to falsify it as Karl Popper would say. “Fake news” needs good people asking good questions as much as you need to figure out what kind of food you are hungry for from that list of 27 million options.

Therefore, a key component of the falsification process is that A. anything that matters should be able to be proven false by some criteria (if trees are sneezing, then they must also breathe) and B. you get to ask more questions (so where are their lungs? Is there wind in the desert? In the ocean?).

Good questions mean we are asking, “Compared to what?” and “is that baseline assumption stationary or moving?” Do trees sneeze like humans? Where else does the wind come from? Why are some days windier than others?

Good questions are our only path to better answers. They may start with “compared to what,” but they may also never end – its as limitless as curiosity itself.

Look around you, see the surplus of answers that can be delivered with the help of your smart phone, and ask, “what questions do I have to ask to reduce the 27 million to 1 ratio to something more useful?” Where’s your curiosity in turning over an amusing observation like Henry Youngman? Where’s your willingness to test with the depth that the opioid studying scientists are testing? If you learn the question asking craft, to James’ observation of Cal’s skills, that’s a real superpower.

The real opportunity is not in having better answers, it’s in having better questions.

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