Opposite thinking

Opposite thinking vs the consensus

From soothsayers in the 1st century CE to modern-day TV pundits making forecasts about the future, over the centuries it’s obvious that our enthusiasm for wanting to see into the future hasn’t waned.

However, if there’s one thing we can be sure about humans, it’s this: we are terrible at predicting the future. Our predictive powers are no better than random. Yet that doesn’t curb our enthusiasm for listening to the thousands of experts who tell us what’s going to happen. We can’t wait for things to happen so we’re enthralled by the barrage of speculation that fills our screens and airwaves. We obsess about knowing the future.

We rarely consume what has happened and instead consume what “coulds” and what “ifs” or depending on how good the expert believes their supernatural powers to be, they often tell us what “wills”.

Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the financial media. Guests being interviewed will be asked: “What’s your prediction for the Bitcoin price?” or “Where’s the oil price heading?”. These attempts at predicting the future are understandable as it’s how money can be made. The problem is — close to no one is any good at it.

The butterfly effect

The problem with our attempts at predicting the future is that our logic is often linear: “If this happens then that happens” but the world rarely works like that. We’re only capable of considering the known knowns — it’s only crystal gazers that can see the unknown knows. Another reason why predicting the future is so difficult is because of the butterfly effect or chaos theory. Most of us are familiar with the former which tells us how tiny changes (the flapping of a butterfly’s wings) can compound and cause something massive (like a tornado).

In chaos theory, this is referred to as “the sensitivity of initial conditions” where a system’s behaviour can diverge massively (causing extreme unpredictability) from minuscule differences in the starting conditions.

There’s no better example (that I can think of) of how a tiny change can have a massive effect than when a driver took a wrong turn and caused World War I. Some history buffs may argue that WW1 was inevitable regardless, but it’s hard to dispute that Ferdinand’s driver taking a wrong turn which lead to Ferdinand’s assassination created a colossal chain reaction.

So when you consider the unknown knows and tiny changes causing massive effects, it’s easy to see why attempting to predict the future for a simple system let alone a complex one like the economy, your love life, or what you’ll be doing in 12 months time is futile.

With that being said, it doesn’t stop me, you and everyone else from doing it on a daily basis.

“Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.”

Niels Bohr

Before doing something or when thinking about a big decision, I often use my mind to travel into the future and put myself into a certain situation to see what happens. Maybe I encounter something wrong or it doesn’t feel right, so I decide not to do it or maybe the opposite so I decide to go ahead and do it.

The problem is, things nearly always turn out differently from how I had expected. I’m nearly always wrong.

My thinking is nearly always linear which gives me an outcome of x but it ends up being y. It happens time and again. Seinfeld fans may remember an episode where George Costanza decides to do the opposite of whatever his instincts tell him. According to George, every decision in his entire life has been wrong so the opposite must be right.

“if every instinct you have is wrong then the opposite would have to be right”

Science is filled with examples where the opposite answer would have been correct — the expansion of the universe being one of them. Cosmologists had assumed the expanding universe was slowing which for most people is a rational idea, however, observations later showed that the opposite was true and the universe’s expansion is actually accelerating. So who knows … maybe George was on to something.

How could you make your life worse?

In an effort to combat linear thinking when problem-solving, there’s a technique that sounds like George Costanza’s philosophy called opposite thinking (or reverse thinking). It’s exactly what you think it is. For example, instead of trying to come up with ideas on how to improve a situation, come up with ideas on how to make the situation worse.

Most of use linear thinking when we give thought to what makes us happy — if you want to escape this then use opposite thinking. Try thinking about what would make you unhappy (how could you make your life worse?). Some examples might be: having less money, living in a smaller home, moving here or there, doing this or that job role, having/not having children, being/not being in a relationship … etc.

Hype trains & the mainstream

The opposite of opposite thinking has to be mainstream thinking. According to the Collins Dictionary, “If someone or something is mainstreamed, they become part of the most typical, normal, or conventional ideas or activities.”. Mainstream (or consensus) opinions are often socially acceptable and feel fathomable which could be a sign that they are based on linear logic. For example, at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the popular belief was that machines would dispel workers and instead there was an increase in the supply of jobs and overall wages.

The media we consume inundates us with mainstream views of how the future will pan out, however, the next time the media’s hyping something up — remind yourself of their appalling record of hype not living up to expectations.

Just ask yourself, whatever happened to blockchain? Wasn’t that supposed to be the latest disrupting technology? Maybe it will disrupt and I just need to be patient. My bet is it was another fad that has come and gone. I’ve attended conferences and watched numerous Youtube videos and not once has anyone explained in a convincing manner why this technology is worth all the attention.

I still remember the Y2K bug hype and all the doomsday scenarios which included planes dropping out of the sky. Maybe all the consultants charging astronomical day rates fixed all the bugs, or maybe it was another mainstream view that was wrong.

How about crypto? The feverish enthusiasm seems to have waned, however, it’s still bubbling beneath the surface (maybe not for NFTs). Bitcoin’s been around for over 13 years but you still can’t use it to pay for your groceries.

Humans will be eradicated by AI if you believe half of the hype of the latest hype train. I’ve used ChatGBT a couple of times, and while the conversational responses are impressive, more often than not — the answers it gave me were wrong. Are we really on the precipice of an AI revolution? If you believe Elon Musk then you’d think so, however, I struggle to take him seriously (having previously done so) as it’s clear he has a problem with telling the truth. I’m still waiting for the driverless cars we were promised some time ago.

Will AI be influential? Sure. Will it live up to the hype? History would suggest not.

Believing the opposite

There seems to be a growing part of the population that doesn’t believe anything the mainstream media tells them (I know a couple of people like that). If the media says this then it must be the opposite. They may classify themselves as freethinkers but you’re not free if you’re taking an opposing view for the sake of it, or because you don’t like the opposition party. While I certainly don’t believe everything I’m being told, it’s a slippery slope to assume everything is part of a conspiracy. If I was to guess, I’d say that the poor track record of governments and the news media with telling the truth is at least partially to blame for Flat Earthers who are taking the opposite of the mainstream view to an extreme.

Aside from whether the earth is flat, where I believe it’s healthy to be sceptical or to hold a contrarian view is with any prediction of the future. I remember (not that long ago) that low-interest rates were here to stay and inflation was a thing of the past. Whenever we are told what’s going to happen, it’s not unwise to assume it’s wrong. The same can be said about our own predictions — however we think our life will end up, we’ll most probably be wrong about it.

My favourite opposite thought

The term “bungalow legs” was coined to describe the decline in muscle mass brought on by living in stairless homes. A Japanese study involving 6,000 people aged 65 and over showed that stairs in the home held back age-related decline. It’s logical to think that living without stairs would be safer for the elderly, however, it’s another example of linear thinking gone wrong.

Something many of us aspire towards (especially in retirement) is living a comfortable (easy) life. A comfortable lifestyle with few challenges sounds perfect. The common/mainstream view is that this will yield happiness, however, I am confident it doesn’t and in fact is a boring (and possibly a miserable) existence.

Anyone that has worked from home for a prolonged period of time will know what I mean. On the surface WFH sounds luxurious — you literally don’t step outside of your front door, in fact you don’t need to get changed after waking up. This extreme form of convenience should make us happy, so why doesn’t it?

For most of human existence, we’ve lived in a world where we’ve struggled and needed to adapt. Our DNA is still drawn to the path of least resistance (an easy life) because it’s concerned about energy conservation. But with abundant food supplies, this is no longer a concern, in fact, the opposite is now an issue (we’re not expelling enough energy).

Opposite thinking tells us that a comfortable life is a flawed aspiration. I have a higher conviction towards this idea after recently listening to a podcast with Anna Lembke about addiction (Lembke is a psychiatrist and appeared in the 2020 Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma and is the author of Dopamine Nation). In the transcript below, Lembke talks about how boring modern life has become since all of our survival needs have been met. Lembke argues that because life has become so easy, it’s actually harder than it’s ever been before.

[Transcript from Huberman Lab Podcast #33]

[Anna Lembke:]

I think that life for humans has always been hard, but I think that now it’s harder in unprecedented ways.

And I think that the way that life is really hard now is that it actually is really boring.

And the reason that it’s boring is because all of our survival needs are met, right?

I mean, we don’t even have to leave our homes to meet every single physical need, you know, as long as you’re of a certain level of financial wellbeing, which frankly, you know, we talk so much about, you know, the income gap, and certainly there is this enormous gap between rich and poor.

But that gap is smaller than it’s ever been in like the history of humans. Even the poorest of the poor have more excess income to spend on leisure goods,
than they ever have before in human history.

If you look at leisure time, for example, so people without a high school education have 42% more leisure time than people with a college degree. So my point here is that life is hard now in this really weird way, in that we don’t really have anything that we have to do.

So we’re all forced to make stuff up, you know, whether it’s being a scientist or being a doctor, or being an Olympic athlete, or, you know, climbing Mount Everest.

And people really vary in their need for friction. And some people need a lot more than others.

And if they don’t have it, they’re really, really unhappy. And I do think that a lot of the people that I see with addiction and other forms of mental illness are people who need more friction.

I touched on this topic when I wrote “Life has become too easy”, however, after listening to Lembke, a more apt title would have been: “Life is hard because it’s too easy”.

Nearly everyone wants more money so they can have an easier, more comfortable life. The belief is: we’ll be living more contently. It’s the consensus view. Which means it’s probably wrong.

That’s my favourite opposite thought.

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2 thoughts on “Opposite thinking

  1. Hi Richard,

    I’ve been thinking (and writing) lately about what a meaningful life looks like in the second half of life. One of my relatives recently passed away at age 92. It seems like such a long period of time to live a boring existence. I’m still mulling over the whole topic, but I agree with you. The most meaningful life is probably not the most comfortable or easy one.

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