(Continued from yesterday's post.)
Oh, how fun it was. My library talk on The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time was every bit as enjoyable as I had expected. The audience was well-read and responsive, the autism expert was far more willing to pull strings on Bub’s behalf than I had ever dared hope, and there was even a generous gift certificate for the campus bookstore to add a bit of frosting to the cake.
As promised, I’ll provide an additional excerpt from my talk.
The focus of my argument was on the reader’s problematic relationship to Christopher, and I began by cataloguing my own responses: I like Christopher, I feel protective of him (sometimes overwhelmingly so), and I laugh, often and affectionately, at jokes he is not at all conscious of making. All of these responses are generous and kindly meant, but there is a certain hierarchical superiority implicit in them. That hierarchy is disrupted, however, by Christopher’s savantism: in addition to liking, pitying, and laughing at him, I am also not infrequently intimidated by him. He labels his chapters using prime numbers, and while I puzzle over why the number 1 isn’t counted as a prime number, he performs dazzling feats of mathematical brilliance. It is disconcerting, again and again, to find myself noticing that this autistic boy, towards whom I feel so protective, is actually much smarter than I am.
My uncertainty only gets worse when Christopher introduces what is known as "the Monty Hall problem." You’re given a choice of three doors: two have goats behind them, one has a car, and you’ll win whatever is behind the door you choose. Once you’ve made your selection, the host opens one of the two remaining doors, revealing a goat. The dilemma is: Do you stick with the door you chose at the beginning, or do you switch?
The purpose of this exercise is to show the superiority of logic over intuition: to show, in fact, that Sherlock Holmes is a better detective than Miss Marple. Intuition tells us that there’s a 50-50 chance the car could be behind either door – and intuition is wrong. Christopher is able to demonstrate that the car is twice as likely to be behind door #2 (the door you didn’t choose initially). This solution is counter-intuitive but demonstrably correct.
What Christopher’s solution overlooks, however, is the psychological aspect of the problem. When I consider this dilemma, I am not merely trying to figure out where the car is – I’m also trying to protect myself from the disappointment that will ensue if I make the wrong decision. Assuming that the car is equally likely to be behind either door, I feel a strong impulsion to stick with my original choice. Partly that’s based on superstition (it seems like it would be bad luck to switch), but mostly it’s based on my anticipation of how I will feel if I end up with a goat instead of a car. If I stick with my original choice and win the goat, I’ll be disappointed, of course … but if I switch, and then discover that the car was behind my original door all along – well, then I’ll really be kicking myself.
As Christopher demonstrates, our intuition isn’t especially good at figuring out probabilities. But what about the emotional and psychological side? Apparently our intuition is wrong there, too: in Stumbling on Happiness, Gilbert suggests that my instinct to stick with my original choice is not at all unusual. He cites a study based on switching investments: Which feels worse – to lose money after switching to a new investment, or to lose money after forgoing the chance to switch? Nine out of 10 people assume that they will feel worse if they make a mistake (like switching doors or switching investments) than if they stick with the status quo and face the same consequences.
[The tenth person is, apparently, my husband. When I explained this part of my talk to him, he was incredulous. Why would you react differently to losing the car depending upon which door you chose? All I can say is that a roomful of vigorously nodding spectators seemed to know exactly what I meant.]
This is an aspect of the problem that Christopher never even considers: he doesn’t have the ability to imagine situations and determine how he will feel in them. For him, the Monty Hall problem is purely about mathematics and logic. One might think, then, that we are better equipped than he is to protect ourselves from the feelings of regret that would ensue from making the wrong choice. Maybe we don’t understand probabilities as well as Christopher – but at least we know ourselves, we know our feelings.
Not so much. According to Gilbert, our strongest regrets are for the opportunities we miss, not for the mistakes we make. When we take a risk and it backfires, we’re usually pretty good at rationalizing our decision. We say, "Well, that didn’t pan out, but I had good reasons to do as I did." We’re not nearly as good at rationalizing inaction, and so we kick ourselves hardest when we sit back and do nothing, letting opportunity pass us by.
[This rings true for me. The thing in my life that I should most obviously regret is my first marriage. But I can’t say I spend a lot of time beating myself up about it. Based on what I knew and how I felt at the time, I understand why I did what I did. And it didn’t turn out so badly after all. Being married to the wrong man kept me off the market until the right man reached the age of dateability. (The age gap between us was vast when I was midway through my M.A. and he was graduating from high school. A few years later it had narrowed considerably.) On the other hand, I’ve kicked myself black and blue in recent years for failing to dot my i’s and cross my t’s during my maternity leave after Bub was born, an apparently minor administrative omission which ended up resulting in a significant loss of job security.]
As much as we might like to think that our psychological intuition redeems our lack of rigorous logic, we may not be right. Christopher’s (often misplaced) confidence in his own rationality can – and should – shake our confidence in the reliability of the faculties we rely on as well.
In last week’s session, we looked at Ian McEwen’s Saturday and I commented that there is a degree of intimidation in most people’s relationship to the protagonist of that novel (a neurosurgeon). Brain surgery has become a euphemism we use for "stuff that’s really, really hard." If something is easy enough to be accessible to ordinary people, we say, "It’s not brain surgery" – or, alternatively, "It’s not rocket science." It’s no coincidence that Christopher wants to be an astronaut – that is, a rocket scientist. Math, like neurosurgery, has that intimidation factor: for those of us who are not neurosurgeons or rocket scientists, math ability tends to generate that kind of awe.
(Snip. Omitted section on the novel’s double ending, which balances readers’ emotional needs against Christopher’s esoteric interests, appealing to our protective instincts in one breath and then intimidating us in the next. Skip to the conclusion.)
Christopher’s mathematical brilliance is not a parlour trick, something he could use to win big money in Vegas – instead it functions as a key element of the relationship between narrator and reader. It keeps us off-balance, and it enables Haddon to use Christopher’s flawed perspective as a standpoint from which to make us more critically aware of our own.
I thought about asking what your biggest regret is. But that's not actually as fun a question as it initially sounds, so I'll broaden out. Do you kick yourself hardest over the things you do, or the things you leave undone?
Friday, May 18, 2007
(Continued from yesterday's post.)