By Jim Taylor
I was born without a theory. About anything. I didn’t know up from down—literally, since I had just emerged from a watery and weightless womb.
But from that instant on, I started creating theories to help me make sense of the world I found myself in. Everyone does. We figure out that moms are warm, soft, and soothing. Floors are hard. Smiles make big people smile back.
As time passes, we develop theories about everything. As we amass more experience, those theories get more sophisticated, better at predicting outcomes. We figure out that compliments generate more support than criticism, for example. That men and women are different. That blue-chip stocks are a safer investment than snake oil or swampland.
And, for the most part, we modify our theories to take account of new facts as they emerge.
Seth Godin’s marketing blog got me thinking about our theories. Suppose, he wrote, you catch the 7:20 a.m. train every morning to go to work in the city. You develop a theory that the train comes at that time every day. Your theory works fine. Until you get called to work one Saturday, and there’s no train at 7:20.
“Now you need a new theory,” Godin wrote, “that the train comes at 7:20 on weekdays only. And you’ll keep working with that new theory, and most of the time, it’ll get what you want.”
But, as Godin noted, we can get too attached to our theories. We start to believe they’re infallible. When reality doesn’t agree with our theories, we’d rather reject the facts than revise the theory.
What we actually do, I think, is invent new theories to explain a train’s failure to arrive when we expected it.
• Mexican immigrant rail workers.
• Corporate corruption. Or global trade pacts. Beyond our control, anyway.
• The president promised to get trains running on time, and he will. Trust him.
• The train is actually on time; the clocks are wrong.
• Direct consequence of planetary conjunctions.
• Black cat crossed the road, on your way to the train station.
You see, instead of re-examining the evidence and revising our theories, we find someone to blame. We accept assurances from authority figures. We hunt for contrary evidence. We clutch at superstitions.
“We double down on random causes and unrelated effects,” as Godin put it.
Granted, train schedules are a superficial example. But the reactions aren’t. I see them being applied, every day.
In politics and in business.
In passionate opposition to climate change, evolution, or vaccinations.
Even in our belief systems. Perhaps, because of early teaching or life experience, you think of God as a divine judge, dispensing rewards to the good and punishments to sinners.
Then your spouse gets cancer. You know she did nothing to deserve a premature and painful death.
Do you amend your theories about God? Or do you “double down” and insist that God must be right, must know something you don’t, it will all work out in heaven, the Bible tells you so?
Seth Godin’s point is that these are all theories. All of them. They’re a way of making sense of the world. If they no longer make sense, they need to be modified.
Author Jim Taylor lives in Lake Country: firstname.lastname@example.org