Sunday, October 19, 2014

Just-so stories are just human

We love narratives. We produce and consume just-so stories all the time.  In today's NY Times, Konika Banerjee and Paul Bloom ask "Does Everything Happen for a Reason?" They add, "Of course not. But studies suggest we have a natural urge to think so."  We are pattern-seeking. This is a very practical tendency acquired via evolution. It has the well known downside that jumping to conclusions entails risks. Nevertheless, Banerjee and Bloom wind up this way:
Some people are more prone to find meaning than others. In large-scale survey studies also reported in the journal Cognition, we found that highly paranoid people (who tend to obsess over other people’s hidden motives and intentions) and highly empathetic people (who think deeply about other people’s goals and emotions) are particularly likely to believe in fate and to believe that there are hidden messages and signs embedded in their own life events. In other words, the more likely people are to think about other people’s purposes and intentions, the more likely they are to also infer purpose and intention in human life itself.
WHATEVER the origin of our belief in life’s meaning, it might seem to be a blessing. Some people find it reassuring to think that there really are no accidents, that what happens to us — including the most terrible of events — reflects an unfolding plan. But the belief also has some ugly consequences. It tilts us toward the view that the world is a fundamentally fair place, where goodness is rewarded and badness punished. It can lead us to blame those who suffer from disease and who are victims of crimes, and it can motivate a reflexive bias in favor of the status quo — seeing poverty, inequality and oppression as reflecting the workings of a deep and meaningful plan.
Not everyone would go as far as the atheist Richard Dawkins, who has written that the universe exhibits “precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” But even those who are devout should agree that, at least here on Earth, things just don’t naturally work out so that people get what they deserve. If there is such a thing as divine justice or karmic retribution, the world we live in is not the place to find it. Instead, the events of human life unfold in a fair and just manner only when individuals and society work hard to make this happen.
We should resist our natural urge to think otherwise.
We have also developed the scientific method of inquiry whereby we seek to do better than be "just-so" storytellers.

Just-so storytelling is the way most people discuss the everyday price gyrations on asset markets. Stock markets have had a bad October -- and there is no end of explanations.  Also in today's NY Times,  Robert Shiller discusses, "When a Market Theory is Contagious ... Is the world suffering 'secular stagnation'? Yes or no, the idea alone keeps hurting stocks." Shiller notes the prominence of "thought viruses."

These viruses and many other just-so stories are always out there. But buy-and-hold investment strategies are too boring for many. They flock to the casino with predictable results.