Friday 5 February 2016

ne nonne num

One of the perils of talking, and even more of e-mailing, is that your words get taken up wrong by the other person. We are much more willing to accept additional information that agrees with our current position than anything contradictory: changing our mind requires work.  Literally: changing our thought patterns costs extra molecules of glucose and ATP.  This is apparently true for 'multi-tasking'.  We none of us do that, but by rapidly inching forward two separate tasks in turn we can appear to be doing two things at once.  The flic-flic-flic changes are ruinously expensive energetically.  The Organized Mind, which I've been reading since Christmas says [Chapter 5 Section the biological reality of time] that in an hour's daydreaming or watching the telly, the brain consumes 11 calories = 15 watts.  Reading a book  over the same time takes 44 calories and sitting in class trying to follow Dr Bob explaining the functions of the kidney is even harder work - 65 calories.  This is because the central executive functions of the cortex are involved.  Multi-tasking is more like studenting than being sacked out on the sofa.  Here's some advice: if you have important decisions to make, address them after breakfast [oatmeal porridge, toasted almonds, honey and buttermilk] when you have energy reserves rather than later in the day when your thinking capacity has been depleted by use.

We can structure a question in such a way as to elicit an agreeable answer, and come away mistakenly believing that we have achieved consensus.  This is the peril of Mr Big surrounding himself with Yes-men.  Famously the apparatchiks of the newspaper magnate in Evelyn Waugh's satire Scoop had only two possible answers to the boss's statements and questions: "Yes, Lord Copper" and "Up to a point, Lord Copper".  The latter being used when the old buffer was demonstrably wrong-headed or daft.  Latin has three sorts of interrogative:
  • Neutral using ne. Do you want to join the team?
    • tune id veritus es? Do you fear that?
  • Question expecting the answer yes using nonne.  Surely you wish to join our team?
    • nonne me amas? Surely you love me? 
  • Question expecting the answer no using num. You cannot want to join that team.
    • num dubium est? Is there any doubt?
English, as you see, requires more elaborate phrasing to convey the subtle differences. Note also the potentially emotive change from the team to our team to their team. Does this make a difference in real life? Well framing questions or information in a particular way can certainly yield different responses and this has been shown with many large samples of people being given the same data in different ways.  A typical scenario, nicked from Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow via The Organized Mind, is when medical patients are divided into two groups who have their options explained to them thus:
  • Group 1
    • Of 100 people who have surgery, 90 live through the operating theatre and 34 are alive at the end of 5 years
    • Of 100 people undergoing radiation therapy, all live through the treatment and 22 are alive at the end of 5 years 
  • Group 2
    • Of 100 people who have surgery, 10 die under the knife and 66 are dead within 5 years
    • Of 100 people undergoing radiation therapy, nobody dies during the treatment but 78 are dead within 5 year.
These options are identical in mathematical probability but emotionally and psychologically they are different.  In the first "frame", Surgery is much preferred because the 5 year survival is much better.  In the second "frame" radiation is preferred because nobody dies the day you check into for treatment.  In such cases, you really don't want to be buffeted by your emotional brain, you want accurate numbers from studies that include people like you.  It's also relevant in less life-and-death situations.  When the Head of Department casts his eyes round the meeting room table and says "So we're all agreed on that are we?".  It takes assertiveness to demur or ask for the heads of agreement to be explicitly stated or written up on the white-board.  Especially if the meeting is now running into everyone's lunch-hour.

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