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Friday, January 2, 2009 -- 8:31 pm

One topic I've been spending a fair amount of time reading about lately is the irrationality of the decision-making process. Lately I've been focusing on political psychology and how people make political decisions, but there are also interesting observations you could make about people's economic and even just interpersonal behavior. Ultimately the goal is to summarize all of this into some grand monograph on politics. But as one banal and unremarkable starting point, we often find ourselves in a situation where we can't dictate our ideal outcome, but instead are confronted by a nearly infinite range of imperfect choices. Even where the potential consequences are momentous and life-changing, there comes a point after long deliberation where the whole decision-making process seems arbitrary, and where the outcome seems to be determined by trivial or even petty rationales. We might even privately admit that we would have been happier with fewer choices. Although I know, deep down, that the workings of my own mind are profoundly chaotic (this does not trouble me, to the exasperation and/or great amusement of others), the continual repetition of this experience can be rather disheartening if you like to assume a pretense of rationality. Ultimately, the vast majority of people, the vast majority of the time, seem to make decisions in a completely uninformed and unsystematic way.

I suppose there's a perfectly sensible explanation for this rooted in evolutionary biology, which I needn't elaborate at this time. But culturally, and behaviorally, it appears that the days when this sort of haphazard decision-making process was at all acceptable or even compatible with our long-term survival have long since passed, and instead are likely to doom us to self-destruction. I don't know that there's an easy way to remedy the situation, because simply exhorting people to "be rational" will accomplish nothing.

We might also think that this would bode poorly for the prospects of democratic forms of government to remedy our problems, given the folly of crowds as compared to wise philosopher-kings, but I don't think that's actually true. Although a democratic citizenry does a lot of stupid things, and they always have, on average it doesn't do any more stupid things than a monarchy or oligarchy. I haven't examined this in detail, but it does seem that the mechanisms of collective action allow a democracy to avoid some of the more venal and corrupt episodes that typically mark the other forms of government, while providing such wisdom as the crowds may deign to share. And just like we've developed routines and rituals in arithmetic to ensure we get an accurate answer every time, bureaucracies do tend to generate rules and regulations to systematize the decision-making process on an administrative level to provide some semblance of logic and transparency to the proceedings.

The real problem is that there's rarely any kind of useful equivalent on a personal level. We have no real way of assigning weight to our competing desires or wishes, of deciding what's more or less important to us (or to others), or to plausibly gauge the long-term consequences of any decision we make. There are rules of thumb, and you can seek out advice or experience, but there really doesn't seem to be a science of decisionmaking that allows us, in a systematic fashion, to evaluate the worthiness of different criteria and to build a process, from scratch, that will assure us that the decision we settle on is correct. If we had such a process, I imagine that people would be inclined to try it everywhere, and the old divination techniques, ranging from superstition to astrology, what rapidly lose their attraction.

Thursday, January 1, 2009 -- 8:58 pm

I've been spending a fair amount of time over the past few years trying to learn Mandarin Chinese. I have quite a bit to say about that, naturally, but one point that's been bothering me of late is the actual nature of the tones. As someone with quite a few years of training in music theory and performance under my belt, I find it quite startling that when a native speaker of Chinese gives examples of a word or syllable bearing a particular tone, for example first (high, level) tone, the actual pitch of his or her voice will not be the same from one occasion to the next, even when uttering the same syllable repeatedly as an exemplar. Now, I gather that tone as it's used in language is generally a matter of either pitch contrast or directional changes, or both, and that the actual pitch of the syllable is probably more or less irrelevant. But the fact that it's irrelevant seems quite surprising given that how crucial precise pitches seem to be, at least in Western music.

Are precise and consistent pitch levels vital to music in the abstract? Something tells me that they probably aren't -- and that tuning is probably more an artifact of mechanical instrumentation and polyphony than something necessarily inherent in the experience of beauty in music. We all know how moment's lapse of attention can cause a singer to inadvertently modulate into some outlandish key, or for amateur performers of any stripe to go sharp or flat without really being aware of it. So my surprise, which is based on my musical training, probably isn't grounds for any particularly deep insight about tonal languages or about language in general. For that matter, I recall reading that people with perfect pitch have extra grey matter in the speech areas of the brain, presumably corresponding to their having acquired the ability to attach words to an acoustic experience. It would appear to be going about things the wrong way to say that reliability in the pitches we use for linguistic tones is essential to language, when you need better than average language ability (as indicated by more grey matter) in order to have that reliability in the first place.