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We aren’t just eaters; we’re consumers. Cramming food into our mouths satisfies hunger, but even a balanced diet can leave a hollow feeling if it compromises our integrity. Responsible consumers override the fast system and let slow thinking take over, but that just leads to a paralyzing list of variables to consider. Can I afford to buy it? Do I really need it, or am I just being targeted by aggressive marketing? Or is it more subtle marketing? Are these health claims trustworthy? Is this fish really what it says on the label or is it a substitute species? Is this food an artificial substitute, like “dairy blend” instead of yogurt? The more information included on product labels, the more questions are raised.
Eaters may paralyze their decision-making by confronting ethical issues, starting with the realization that some people go to bed hungry. What’s the best way to feed them, charity or welfare? Should kids have subsidized lunches at school? Breakfasts too? Ethics is often involved in the choice of a vegetarian diet for those who ask: Are animals treated humanely? For that matter, are workers in the food industry treated fairly? Are farmers exploited? For instance, are they unable to feed themselves because it’s more economical to grow cash crops for export? Or does a food fad, like quinoa, raise export prices beyond the ability of locals to afford it? In the case of quinoa, the issue is complex and involves the entire economy beyond one commodity. Clearly, ethical eating extends far beyond the kitchen, supermarket, or restaurant.
Where food comes from raises new questions of ecology. Can fish and game be sustainably harvested? Will fish farms contaminate wild stocks? Do monocultured fields reduce biodiversity? What about soil conservation, water consumption, and waste runoff? Here’s a big one: how much does food depend on petroleum-based fertilizer and pesticide? And what will happen when fossil fuels run out? Is organic farming better? And why is everything wrapped in plastic? Can buying in bulk reduce the amount of packaging? Should I shop with a reusable bag? Which food wrappers can I recycle? How far did my food travel, and how much energy was expended in shipping? Do I live in a “food island” where all my food must be imported from far away? (For most Alaskans, the answer is yes.) How much energy went into processing, storing, or refrigerating? Does it take energy to prepare? What about the total energy of the food itself? That is, the corn that feeds a cow can feed ten times more people than beef from that one cow. Would guinea pigs be more efficient? What about systemic waste by farms, factories, and distributors? Considering these questions reveals that consumption involves more than just the morsels on our plates.
Consumers are voters, and every bite is a ballot. Food choices direct policies for the whole system, albeit indirectly and incrementally, as policy makers react to the market. However, these votes are often cast without consciously asking which policies are affected. How do purchases influence the business practices of stores and restaurants? Is this product “fair trade”? Do consumers deserve comprehensive labeling information? Should the law prohibit “food libel”? Can genetically-modified organisms be patented? (Note that I don’t lump GMOs in the category of health questions.) What happens when food production is concentrated into a few corporate owners? Would food be as available and affordable without crop subsidies? And for which crops? For example, the decision by the Nixon administration in the 1970s to prioritize low prices led to an abundance of corn, which has found its way into almost everything we eat. Consumers demanded low prices, but the low-price policy has in turn dictated the foods we can choose.
Conscientious consumers who take all these variables into account would be easy to spot. They would be the ones endlessly interrogating waiters or staring glassy-eyed at supermarket shelves. In reality, hardly anyone does that. There are too many variables, so we ignore the questions. Perhaps it has been this way ever since the Agricultural Revolution, when former foragers entrusted a subset of the population to produce food for everyone. As a result, most people are detached from where their food comes from. As long as it’s there and tastes good, there’s nothing to worry about. That minimal concern puts most consumers on the same level as babies and pets. Letting the stomach think for us instead of the brain is, in a way, an abdication of humanity.
To illustrate my ongoing discussion of fast and slow thinking, I would inevitably choose an image involving food. The stock photography genre of “Models Who Can’t Decide” is dominated by pictures of food. Katy Waldman laughs at the phenomenon, asking, “Who expends so much energy on such a trivial decision?” A recent Radiolab program about decision-making also relied heavily on food examples, such as choices between fruit and cake or the conundrum of the cereal aisle. The program discussed how the “slow” brain is distracted by weighing too many variables while the “fast” brain just says, “Gimme!” This suggests to me a tactic for overriding the fast decision: become angry at the junk being pushed on you. The emotion will distract the reactive brain long enough to deliberate the pros & cons. But the slow brain had better think fast because the list of questions that factor into food decisions is endless. It starts small when we’re young, but it grows as we age.
At birth, the most important question is, Can I get enough food? Almost immediately, the decisions become more complicated. Before they can even speak the questions, young children are asking themselves: What tastes good? Why must I eat yucky food? What’s wrong with being picky? Can I eat before bedtime? Or in bed? Am I eating too fast? Too much? Why do I have a bellyache? I put toys in my mouth, so does that make food a toy? Already, toddlers are nostalgic for a time when eating was easy.
As we become members of a culture, we are introduced to new questions. Which meals are appropriate for which times of day? Which foods are familiar and which are foreign? Which are for poor folks and which are high-class? What taboos must I observe? Should I eat insects, as the UN now recommends? Which organs or body parts does my culture consider disgusting? (Rectum? I breaded & fried ‘em!) Which are delicacies? Do we eat to live or live to eat? To whom should we be thankful for our food? What role do fishing, hunting, and gathering play in our culture? And don’t forget your table manners!
When kids hang around the kitchen, they become aware of food preparation issues. New questions arise: Do I know the recipe? Do I have the ingredients? For instance, can I substitute baking soda for baking powder? (Only if there’s acid in the recipe.) Do I have the right utensils to bake, broil, fry, or steam? Will this melt if I put it in the microwave? Do I have enough time? How about fast food? Chinese, Mexican, or pizza? Dine in or take out? Sit-down or on-the-go? Is it made with love or manufactured with chemicals? What is potassium benzoate anyway? Should I finish the leftovers before opening a new package? No wonder we sometimes stand paralyzed in front of the open fridge.
Children quickly learn that some foods are “good” and some are “junk.” The decision to choose the good over the bad is simple—provided we know which is which. Although the science seems to go back and forth every few years, there is a consensus on the basic rules: added sugar is bad, as are refined carbs; unprocessed food is best; trans-fats are bad; Omega 3 fats are good; more vegetables are good; vitamin D is essential; there’s no perfect diet for everyone; supplements can’t replace food; and diet alone is not enough to ensure health and fitness without other lifestyle changes. That just leaves the simple questions: Which foods have enough nutrients? Which have too much fat, salt, or sugar? Will this rot my teeth? Will it give me bad breath? Am I allergic? Is it toxic or carcinogenic? Is it spoiled or tainted? Is bruised fruit safe to eat? Is it dosed with antibiotics? Does it have caffeine added? Or alcohol? By the time we’re mature enough to contemplate those questions, we understand what it means to say, “You are what you eat.” Then it’s just a question of deciding what we want to be.
Empathy and emotion are two of the many pathways that lead humans to make decisions. Both could be considered “fast” systems, to borrow the terminology of Daniel Kahneman, whose work is coincidentally highlighted this week by Mark Kleiman. Kahneman tends to prefer “slow” thinking. However, analysis and deliberation are often a façade for decisions already clinched by fast systems, according to Jonathan Haidt’s “righteous minds” approach. Fast thinking is treated as shameful, especially where slow thinking is regarded as more reliable. Which system is more reliable is subject to debate: Malcom Gladwell’s Blink ascribes almost supernatural accuracy to snap decisions, and Esther Inglis-Arkell blogged over the weekend about how second-guessing often leaves people unhappy. But the studies she cites don’t show that fast thinking leads to objectively correct answers, just that people are more likely to stick with their first choices. This phenomenon could simply illustrate choice-supportive bias, similar to post-purchase rationalization. Happiness is the mind’s assurance that its fast decisions are not to be questioned. Indeed, lacking articulate reasons, fast decisions cannot be refuted. De gustibus non est disputandum.
If emotion and empathy are beyond dispute—and therefore unworthy pathways for important decisions—is common sense an acceptable substitute? No, common sense is just another fast system. I define common sense as incomplete reasoning based on incomplete facts. Most of the time, common sense is sufficient. In How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker treats common sense as a work-around for the brain’s limited processing power, “so instead of computing theorems it uses crude rules of thumb” (p. 344). The rules derive from patterns, which humans are very good at sensing, but the pattern-sensing mechanism fails when applied to complex problems. Carl Sagan always cautioned how common sense could lead to misconceptions; outside of the scope of everyday experience, “common sense and ordinary intuition turn out to be highly unreliable guides.” And how do we decide when common sense is applicable? Using common sense, which just compounds the flaw.
One area where common sense routinely fails, as Pinker points out, is the intuitive understanding of statistics. Humans are better conceiving of frequencies, he says, rather than comparing probabilities. This is what I was alluding to when I said in part 2, “Accidental deaths, it seems, are the price we pay for having guns around.” It seems to be that way, but we’re not actually paying the price; we’re simply ignoring it. My former KENI colleague David Totten sees the same phenomenon in his new profession of transportation planning, which has a blind spot when it comes to pedestrian deaths. Planners usually focus on reducing traffic congestion, yet pedestrian fatalities incur three times the estimated economic cost. On the other hand, I’ve previously cited people alarmed at deaths from falling TV sets, which are infrequent, while much more frequent drownings in backyard swimming pools are taken for granted. Even though safety policies for swimming pools, TV sets, pedestrians, and guns are all made very slowly and deliberately, the fast system decides whether they are worth deliberating in the first place.
By this point, I’ve thrown around a lot of terms that could confuse my meaning. In part 1 alone, I stitched together the observation that “moral intuitions (which may align with temperament) dictate ideology, which is the gatekeeper for empathy." What on Earth do I mean by all that? First, “moral intuitions” is borrowed from Haidt, who lumps them into five categories: harm/care (or kindness), fairness, loyalty (or tribalism), authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. The latter three are distinctly split from the others according to what I’m calling temperament. This includes deep-seated personality traits as revealed by psychological studies, whether originating from genetics, development, environment, or learning. These traits seem to precede moral intuitions, which are applied practically as values (as I define them), which in turn are collected into constellations I’m calling ideology. Ideological decisions are sometimes influenced by values not directly related to the question at hand; I once explored the example of the presidential pocket veto. In this way, ideology can override other decision-making pathways, such as empathy. Empathy is an information-gathering system, not capable of rendering decisions itself, but it contributes to other decisions. I used the term “narrow empathy” to refer to that which is scarcely indistinguishable from self-interest. Wider empathy, which extends beyond first-hand experience, is essentially the same as altruism. Empathy is not the same as emotion, although it can sense emotions such as pity or joy. In this way, empathy can be part of deliberative thinking, such as a cost-benefit analysis where the costs and benefits may increase or decrease happiness. What makes people happy circles around again to temperament. Ultimately, all these systems are the brain’s way of keeping itself happy.
The pursuit of happiness is the reason why we don’t let machines make decisions for us. (One SMBC cartoon shows what happens when a machine is programmed to create maximum happiness.) Decisions made for humans must account for what humans need. Elected officials are not supposed to ignore feelings. Legend has it that George Washington described the U.S. Senate as a place where passions are cooled, as tea is cooled in a saucer (I don’t drink much tea but I’ve never seen a saucer used that way). Yet there is such a thing as too much deliberation: Senate filibusters (which
The saying “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people” puts too much emphasis on intention. Certainly in a metaphysical sense any assemblage of gun parts is harmless until a human intervenes. But the aphorism understates how often people are killed by guns unintentionally. Just this week, a 5-year old girl in
Accidental deaths, it seems, are the price we pay for having guns around. In Scientific American, Michael Shermer musters statistics that show, as of 1998, four people died from gun accidents for every one time a person used deadly force in self-defense (not counting how many times guns were used for hunting or recreation). Since Shermer normally writes about how thinking goes astray, he uses the statistics to show how the risk of firearms is underestimated. But Shermer must also be aware of another possible fallacy: using rational arguments to justify a snap decision made by emotion. News of meaningless deaths of children and soldiers surely arouses emotion. That emotion motivates changes in government policy, opposed by a different set of emotions resisting change.
When he appeared visibly angry by the defeat of a watered-down gun control bill, Pres. Obama claimed emotion as a valid basis for the policy. Obama said of the families of victims of gun violence, “Do we think their emotions, their loss is not relevant to the debate?” He was responding to accusations (by Charles Krauthammer and others) that he was using “emotional blackmail.” Not to be confused with regular blackmail–in fact, the New York Times suggested the president could’ve turned Sen. Mark Begich if he had threatened to bar the new Interior Secretary from visiting
I have many times before invoked the “righteous minds” model, which shows that logic is overrated while less reasonable decision-making processes are in control. Despite this, our culture favors logic to the extent that emotional arguments generally lose by default. Logic is supposedly objective; everyone can agree on premises and conclusions. Emotion is subjective; no two individuals have the same experience. So it is a standard slur to accuse an opponent of being too emotional. For instance, ex-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ support of gun control was blamed by one blogger on “being shot in the part of the brain that controls logic/reason.” Granted, I have also argued that opponents of gun control—and conservatives generally—are motivated by fear, a pattern also perceived by Ed Kilgore. In my defense, I’m not trying to invalidate arguments, simply observing the universality of emotional decisions. What invalidates arguments is the hypocrisy of ridiculing emotion while ignoring one’s reliance on it.
For the record, I prefer logic over emotion, too. I distrust emotion, and I resist it when it tries to take over. The idea that emotions steer my decisions prior to rational thinking makes me very angry! Emotion can introduce biases into our thinking, but there are plenty of non-emotional cognitive biases as well (one of them is called “empathy gap,” or underestimating the influence of emotion). Any number of them, including the statistical fallacy highlighted by Shermer, can be found in gun control debates. David Frum (via Ed Kilgore) identifies another fallacy, “that gun owners can be neatly divided into two classes: bad and good.” Left to itself, logic can run just as wild as emotion. Both must be tamed to avoid errors. Just as the regrettable existence of cognitive biases does not ipso facto invalidate logical arguments, the bias inherent in emotion should not automatically invalidate its influence. Logic and emotion, like guns, are tools that must be handled with care. If we don't respect their power, someone is liable to get hurt, despite our best intentions.
To be concluded, I hope, in part 3.
Just to prove Congress can actually accomplish something, the U.S. House and Senate responded with lightning speed to fix the delays caused by furloughed air traffic controllers. Of all the effects of the sequester, this one wins the popularity contest. The automatic budget cuts have, as Steve Benen notes, hit “everything from the economy to cancer clinics, the military to education—but so far, GOP lawmakers only seem to get worked up about White House tours and flight delays.” To be fair, it’s not just Republicans; even Sen. Mark Begich acted more quickly to fix flight delays than the other harms. Why? Among a list of reasons, Kevin Drum figures it’s because those things affect middle-class voters who complain directly to Congress. Members may even have felt the hardship themselves, recalling a recent comic strip: “GOP Senator Experiences Hunger.” Again, bashing Republicans, but the entire Congress is, to some degree, removed from the concerns of common folk. As Ed Kilgore observes, the composition of the Senate is mainly “old, white men,” so those are the voters whose interests receive first consideration. Reminds me of when Rush Limbaugh strongly opposed the quality of empathy when Sonia Sotomayor was appointed to the Supreme Court. Her background might lead her to pick sides, he worried, not realizing that everybody picks sides all the time. Usually they pick the side they’re already standing on.
Empathy is the basis for representative democracy. We see it in campaign ads: “I have a family, just like you. I live here, just like you.” Geographic proximity is a marker of shared interest; if it weren’t, elections could be based purely on merit, just as executives may be hired from far away. But the system does not ensure that politicians automatically have empathy for their constituents (not only because the constituency includes a variety of interests, some mutually exclusive). Which is just as well. I already discussed how intuitions are useless for some policy decisions, such as oil taxes, and empathy likewise is no help when setting tax rates. That’s not what empathy is for. Empathy is part of the system for making fast decisions, as I previously discussed. For deliberative decisions, it should be reserved for a situation when “How much would a person suffer as a consequence?” is the most relevant question.
The old saying goes, a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged (to which Thomas Wolfe added, a liberal is a conservative who’s been arrested). Empathy precedes ideology, in other words, and is shaped by life experience. Case in point, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman ended his opposition to gay marriage after he learned his son is gay. This led Steve Benen to gripe, “Why must empathy among conservatives be tied so directly to their own personal interactions?” As if to illustrate, Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss declared, “I’m not gay, so I’m not going to marry one,” which inspired Jon Walker to extrapolate, “Chambliss isn’t unemployed, so he is not going to need unemployment insurance.” Likewise, Georgia Rep. Paul Broun reasons that because he doesn’t want a sex-change operation, nobody should get one. This is not peculiar to
There are cases where ideology trumps empathy, of course. For example, even though Arizona Rep. Matt Salmon interacts personally with his gay son, he still hasn’t “evolved to that station” like Portman. His ideology is shaped by values, not just empathy. He’s not the only one. Lack of empathy is less of a factor than differing values, says Will Saletan, who also cautions that narrow empathy is omni-partisan, a feature of human psychology called “contact theory.” Saletan’s observation also fits with the “righteous minds” model that I’ve found so useful in explaining political decisions. That is, “moral intuitions” (which seem to align with temperament) dictate ideology, which is the gatekeeper for empathy. After all, I don’t automatically love my neighbors just because my house shares a wall with theirs.
Empathy doesn’t have to override all decisions, but a narrow empathy can lead to decisions which harm our neighbors. That’s why Fred Clark sagely advises that everyone should learn to draw their circle of empathy wider than themselves, their families, their tribes. The next step, he says, is to “strive to listen and to learn and to see the world through others’ eyes so that I can better understand the world without having to experience every situation, every injustice, every ordeal personally.” Empathy that coincides with personal benefit is indistinguishable from selfishness, he says. Decisions made on such grounds never address the underlying problem. Even if, say, suspending the sequester for the FAA benefits air travelers (squeaky-wheel voters and members of Congress alike), the policy comes from an insincere place that doesn’t address the pain felt more widely. That, as