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October 17th, 2020
Stories function as shortcuts for thinking. Create a story in someone’s mind around a topic and then the framework for that story becomes a hotkey that can be pressed by reference to indicate how someone should interpret and understand a similar circumstance.
Notice how this sort of hotkey cognition could lead us astray in our assessment. Say for example an individual has had the disappointing experience of learning about a partner’s infidelity and consequently ending the relationship. And as a result of that experience, this individual replays the past on repeat in their mind as we are so often likely to do. The past is combed clean of clues and signs to understand how and why this unsavoury circumstance came to be, and inevitably one of the details is how often this partner would be absent, perhaps giving all manner of reasons for being late, or having last minute plans come up - all the sorts of slippery statements that a liar is bound to concoct. This becomes, not just history, but a structure, a template, a story. Imagine this same individual entering into a wonderful new relationship, and after a number of months the same signs start popping up: late getting home, always sneaking away for odd times. It would be entirely natural and completely understandable for this person to begin to suspect that something unsavoury is going on. It’s natural and understandable because this individual has been primed to see it this way with the cognitive hotkey composed of the story-view of the past.
It’s all in that ominous phrase: I’ve seen this before.
Then of course it turns out that this new lover has been sneaking away to a woodshop to build a beautiful gift in secret. The story once founded on deception and betrayal is now erroneously applied to white lies in the name of a beautiful gesture.
Notice further how easily this sort of hotkey cognition could be used purposely for nefarious causes. We need only reverse the order of this person’s experience. Say they first have a partner who sneaks away to do nice things for them, and their next partner does the same but for less honorable reasons. We might imagine a worse scenario involving an entire nation. It’s easy for isolated incidents to be captured in some sort of digital form and then spread to an enormous number of people. Depending on how the incident is framed by the format, it’s likely that the large majority of people are going to interpret it similarly, despite the fact that the incident might look completely different had one been present or if it’d simply been captured from another angle. Such majority interpretations become the cognitive hotkey for that majority of interpreters - a hotkey which can then be used in the future to press those people for a similar reaction by mere mention and reference.
Social media has super-pumped this phenomenon to such a degree that examples of this hotkey cognition being active on a mass scale occur several times a year, if not several times a month. The original context of an issue carries over to the next like incident, despite how radically different each circumstance might be. This represents a process of tradeoff between nuance and speed. We forfeit the prior in order to have some sort of understanding faster, despite how wrong it might be.
We gain experience only when we’ve hard tested stories for their utility. Naiveté occurs when we believe in a story without testing it against multiple like-circumstances and finding the places where the story’s effectiveness for understanding cracks against a different applied instance.
Wisdom in this case is merely a form of self-awareness: knowing which stories are well-tested, and which other stories have had little time in the field, despite how loud those stories are in the mind.
Taking a step back, from the subject at hand here, wisdom can be redefined as an analysis of which cognitive shortcuts are valid and which are not - it is, in essence, not taking the shortcut, pausing, and deciding if the narrative upon which we are acting is sensible.