Modern Science and Literary Wisdom

and Human Nature and Its Biases and Rationality and The Two Cultures and Consilience.

Gregory Feeley, in a friends-only post on Facebook three days ago, linked the two items below and and made some generalizing comments about them.

NY Times, Kristin Wong, 26 Feb 2023: When It Comes to Money, Your Brain Can Be Your Own Worst Enemy, subtitled “Our cognitive biases can get in the way of saving for the future, especially for retirement. Here’s how to recognize and overcome them.”

In one sense this is a standard piece about managing one’s finances, but it’s combined with the nomenclature of modern cognitive psychology and its range of biases. These latter go back at least to the 1990s, and have been popularized through books by Kahneman and Pinker and Shermer and McRaney and many others, as reviewed here on my blog.

The article begins with a young woman whose debt on her credit card, acquired at age 26, quickly got out of hand.

Many of our financial struggles have more to do with psychology and behavior. And several kinds of cognitive biases can keep us from making smart financial moves.

If present bias could be summed up in a single word, that word might be “YOLO.” This bias describes our tendency to overvalue the present, often at the expense of the future. Research, including a study from the University of Rhode Island published in 2019, suggests that present bias poses significant challenges to saving money. Unsurprisingly, it often leads to overspending.

Does being aware of such a bias help overcome it? A later study suggests yes.

Then there is the status quo bias, the optimism bias, the bandwagon effect, the anchoring effect. Again, does being aware of them help avoid them? To an extent. (But recall how citing facts to dispel conspiracy theories usually fails, via the “double-down effect.”) Financial literacy helps too. The young woman whose story began the article now writes a blog.


The other article linked by Gregory Feeley is this one.

Slate, Jessica Stoya, 7 Mar 2023: I Always Make One Request of Men in Bed. But Then I Never Follow Through.

This concerns a young woman who asks her partners to wear a condom. None of them do, but she doesn’t follow through and insist.

It’s almost as if my perception of risk changes when I’m in the moment when the burden of it is shared—because he’s fine with it, I’m fine with it too. It’s not that I’m scared of talking about sex either, and in the past, I’ve made sure to have discussions about sexual safety, boundaries, and contraception before having sex. However, with these three men, I’ve jumped into bed early and I haven’t had the conversation in advance. It’s been an in-the-moment thing.

So what is this about? The inability of humans to anticipate danger and take measures to avoid it? (Like, oh you know, climate change and sea level rise, for the sake of the thrill of building along the beach and letting future generations deal with the fallout?) The advice columnist replies,

First up, your perception of risk—or, really, how much you care about risk—probably does change once you’re in the heat of the moment. Disgust tends to depress during sexual arousal. Justin Lehmiller talks about this; Jesse Bering talks about this; and from years and years of conversations with friends, fans, and lovers, I’d say that this concept is akin to stating that the sky is blue. It’s simply, apparently true. I’m also thinking of all the times I’ve finished having sex, only to realize that I’ve bruised my spine because, at that moment, I did not care at all about the wooden beam in the middle of my back, or similar.

(I’ve read a couple Jesse Bering books, but not that one. But I have a copy. The one that influenced me most profoundly was The Belief Instinct).


Back to Gregory Feeley, from his Facebook post that linked those two items.

Two articles on the most important issue humanity will ever face: the fact that humans cannot behave rationally, even when assessing their own interests, and that knowing this does not suffice to change things.

(The destruction of our environment and the looming fall of our civilization is not a “larger issue”; it’s an example of this.)

His post then summarizes the two articles, and concludes,

I don’t know when humans will actually go extinct—I would guess that there will be small populations, living in a pre-agriculture stage, for thousands of years—but this is why it will happen.


My point for today is that these are examples of human behavior that has not changed and is unlikely to change, short a species-winnowing semi-extinction event in which only the cautious, smart ones survive. (That’s how evolution works.)


My second point for today is adjacent. I haven’t read much of the “classical” literary canon, or even the modern mainstream canon, since high school. I do still occasionally sample both from time to time as a palette cleanser from SF and current nonfiction. And what I see, every time, is that the classical and mainstream writers knew, know, intuitively, all the quirks of human nature that the modern psychologists have only recently been documenting experimentally and giving names to (like “hindsight bias”).

I first noticed this whilst reading a Penguin 60 collection of four essays by Montaigne, back in 2016. He knew what the modern psychologists just seem to be discovering. (Of course it’s not quite that simple.)

I’ll discuss more recent reading in subsequent posts.


To broaden still farther. That the idea that the intuitive intricacies of human nature, seldom depicted or documented by anyone throughout history except by the great literary writers of fiction and essays (the great ones being Homer and Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Dickens and Steinbeck and on and on), has now come under the purview of scientists is what so upsets the humanities crowd. Thus the Two Cultures, thus the criticism of E.O. Wilson’s Consilience.

I am on the side of EO Wilson. We all live in the same world, the same universe, and there’s no reason why the causes and effects, both superficial and deep, shouldn’t connect in fundamental ways. And I think it’s science fiction that’s helping us understand this.

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