Hoptellectual: The New Empathy of Right and Wrong

For those who watched the TED Talk by Kathryn Schulz in yesterday’s Suds today’s Hoptellectual seeks to build on her discussion about being wrong. Schulz concludes being wrong is actually a necessary and important step in our effort to create narratives which reflect reality. Whether it be creating a new scientific theory to amend its incomplete predecessor and explain a new phenomena or painting a night sky to express the beauty of a starry night, we are constantly writing new narratives to proclaim to the world. We yell at the top of our lungs, “Listen, this new way of thinking is right and that old, worn out version is wrong!” only to be topped by a more elegant story, pared down to its lovely essentials by an Occam’s razor.

But how does her example of foolishly mistaking a picture of a picnic table for a Chinese character have any value in its wrongness? Where does this n stem from and what, if anything, can we pull out of it? To help me answer these questions I will invoke two other TED Talks; talks I watched for my favorite course in college, Plants and Man. The first is by Malcolm Gladwell, a best-selling sociologist and staff writer at The New Yorker , and it centers on the subject of spaghetti sauce. Yes, that’s right–spaghetti sauce. Please take time to watch this captivating account of the search for the perfect sauce.

Spoiler Alert: his conclusion is that there is no perfect sauce, but there are perfect sauce(s)Or more appropriately, people don’t necessarily understand their desires and offering choice grants them a greater sense of satisfaction as it fulfills those unknown desires. But that is not the end of the story. Psychologist Barry Schwartz’s analysis of choice sheds a different light on its effects. Take a moment to watch this unintentional counterpoint to Gladwell’s compelling speech.

Another spoiler alert: Schwartz’s theory is that buying your jeans at a pants store actually makes you depressed. Or again more appropriately, increased choice from the producer of a product shifts the burden of satisfaction totally onto the consumer. No longer can we blame the jeans maker for not making a pair that fits us comfortably or looks good. There is every kind of cut (relaxed, skinny, carpenter, loose), different colors (faded, blue, black, washed, acid-washed), and different sizes to fit each consumer’s needs. Now, if a pair of jeans doesn’t look good on us, it’s because of some personal defect. But Gladwell’s argument seemed so compelling–so right. How can we decide who is right and who is wrong? Perhaps this is the wrong question to ask. Rather the question we should ask is how can both be right?

The answer lies in the narratives both men are telling, and in essence the narrative that Kathryn Schulz told too. Gladwell’s story began with the search for the perfect sauce and it ended with Prego, Ragu and every other brand producing multiple flavors and styles of spaghetti sauce to fit the desires of the consumer. This story is told from the perspective of the producer in relation to the consumer. Schwartz, however, tells his story at the tail end of Gladwell’s, when there are choices galore for the consumer to choose from and he tells it from their perspective, not the producer of the product. Gladwell’s story, then, explains how we can meet the needs of the public and measures success in terms of jars of spaghetti sauce sold, while Schwartz’s story explains the effects of this increase in the number of choices on our psyches and measures things in terms of emotions or feelings after purchasing a product.

The root of the difference between Gladwell and Schwartz is a difference in their levels of analysis. It’s as if Gladwell was studying the front of an elephant and Schwartz was studying the hind parts of it. They are talking about the same animal, but neither is fully taking into account the whole context. They are both discussing choice, but the scope at which they are discussing it is dissimilar.

What if someone took into account the whole context, would the other narrower narrative be wrong? I don’t think so. Instead, I believe that its value comes from the narrative’s predictive power or its ability to reflect reality in an important way. Take physics for example with its three different theories, which operate at completely different scales: Quantum Mechanics at small-scales, Newtonian laws at our scale, and Relativity at cosmic scales. Each is used in its specific context to predict behavior in reality and each does so with great efficacy. However, you cannot simply apply Relativity to quarks, nor Quantum mechanics to the laws of gravity. None is wrong, but all are right. This is the problem of our age.

There is a result of this problem which we should grasp a hold of with vigor and never let go. Empathy. If two different views can be right at different levels of analysis and both have an element of predictive power, then argument over the rightness or wrongness, that divisive power which drives man to anger and violence, no longer holds value. We are forced to understand each other’s views and see their value in their context. This call to understanding requires a great deal of patience and effort from us, but will at the same time endear us to each other in a way that could foster friendship and even innovation for the future. 

Have something to say on this subject or on something completely different? Let your voice be heard. We are looking for guest writers for our weekly Hoptellectual feature. Contact us via Twitter at @MidwestBeer, our Facebook page or via e-mail at mwbeercollective@gmail.com.

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