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February 18th, 2021

Upton Sinclair once said that It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.  Sinclair is right, but the point goes even deeper than money and salaries, it’s about incentives, and how our beliefs are aligned with those incentives.


A ubiquitous example is fitness, and the laughable excuses that pop up in an effort to justify avoiding some hard won sweat and exhaustion.  “It doesn’t work for me,” is probably the quintessential example, perhaps because it shows such blatantly lazy thinking.  


Aside from all the counter arguments, like have you tried for very longWhat exactly were you doing? Did you try different things for long enough to see if there was an effect?…..’s perhaps better to look at the incentives for such a laughable excuse.  Does any person determined to achieve a certain end ever say something like “It doesn’t work for me?”  If such people do say this, it is almost immediately followed by a fresh strategy and more effort to make it work.


There is really only one incentive for believing that such elemental activities can’t do someone good, and that’s laziness.  The incentive is really that simple.  Laziness incentivizes opinions that allows someone to remain being lazy.


Notice how it works in reverse for something like determination.  A determined individual trying to achieve a certain end is incentivized to keep trying in the face of failure because a feeling of determination incentivizes for this.  The comparison is almost laughably obvious.  So why are such incentives not obvious when it comes to other things, like Sinclair’s man who can’t understand something because it would put his salary at risk?


The unfortunate truth is that such incentives are only obvious if we are removed from them and see them in other places.  When we examine the incentives of others they reveal themselves without much effort.  But if the incentive is alive and strong within our own person, it’s effect on our own behavior is anything but obvious, much in the same way that it’s easy to see how tall a tree is when looking at it from afar, but when actually up in the tree, it’s perhaps not so easy without someone down below for scale.


A third person perspective is a privileged perspective.  This is one of the slippery tools of cancel culture.  It’s very easy to cast a stone at someone else’s misdeed, especially when it’s in the past and it’s well recorded.  Much harder to actually be that person in that moment.  The context could scarcely be farther apart, and yet we pass judgement as though they are the same.  


It’s a bit sad, though interesting to wonder how such cultural stone throwers might look in the future.  Do poor incentives right now drive convenient opinions that result in behavior this is less than honorable?

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