Standard Stories Continued

Standard Stories Continued

“Is there anything wrong with standard stories?” asks Quassim Cassam in Vices of the Mind. “That depends,” he continues, “on one’s view of their two most striking theoretical commitments, individualism and their psychologism: they focus on a small number of individuals (‘designated actors’) and attribute the outcomes they want to explain to the psychology of these individuals.”
In almost any movie we see (I am particularly thinking about Disney movies here) there is a pretty small cast of characters. There are a handful of main characters who interact and drive the story forward, and then a few surrounding characters like co-workers, cousins, or fellow train passengers who are just in the background and don’t really contribute to the story. Standard stories flatten the world, and relying on them too much to understand our own worlds isn’t realistic because we have so many more people who play prominent roles in our lives, or who play important roles at different times, but are not consistently a main character in the story.
Cassam continues, “standard stories are, in this sense, personal and they have plots like those of a novel or a play. According to structuralism that is the fundamental problem. Because of their focus on individuals and their idiosyncratic psychologies standard stories forget that individuals only exist within complex social structures.” The narratives we create in our own minds and the stories we create for movies and television ignore the complex social structures (or at least fail to directly consider them) that drive a lot of our behavior and psychology. We attribute a great amount of influence and power to individual level decision-making. Specific character traits are elevated, describing and defining everything we need to know about an individual, and the correct set of thoughts and traits is all a character in a standard story needs in order to succeed and reach happily-ever-after. Again, this flattens our reality. The real world has complex social structures, institutions, and systems that are not always transparent, hard to navigate, and can limit many of the decisions in our lives.
Finally, Cassam writes, “what that means is that in many cases it isn’t individuals’ psychologies that explain their actions but the constraints imposed by the structures within which they operate.” Standard stories work well in our Western Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic¬† (WEIRD) culture in the United States. It highlights the power and possibility of the individual, elevating our decision-making, our hard-working ethos, and our beliefs that our thoughts and actions are what determine our success or failure in all that we do. Unfortunately, the world is more complex than what we see in standard stories. We become over-reliant on explanations for the world based on individuals and their psychologies, and don’t spend enough time thinking deeply about the structures and systems within which we live. Success in a standard story is incredibly rewarding, after all, it is all about you. However failure in such a story is crushing, because it doesn’t acknowledge the factors that limited your ability and decision-making. Standard stories place any failure entirely within the individual. they are simplified ways to understand the world, but are also inaccurate and leave us with a flattened understanding of what our existence is truly like.
Standard Stories

Standard Stories

No matter who you are, what you do for a living, or where you live, your life is made up of stories. We use narratives to understand ourselves and our places in the world. We imagine grand arcs for ourselves, for others, and for the planet. We create motivations for ourselves and others, impart goals to people and societies, and create meaning between events. But what does it mean for us all to live in stories?
In Vices of the Mind, Quassim Cassam looks at one aspect of stories, the fact that they are not perfect reflections of reality. They can only include so much, and they focus on certain aspects of life over others. He writes, “the problem with standard stories, it might be argued, isn’t that they ignore trivial situational influences on human conduct but that they ignore very far from trivial structural influence.”
This quote comes within the context of Cassam discussing situationists and structuralists. Situationists argue that who we are and how we behave is in many ways influenced by the particulars of the situations we find ourselves in. In our personal narrative we may be calm, rational, and kind, but in a stressful situation we may be impulsive, cruel, and rash. Contrasting situationists are structuralists, who look at larger social and systemic factors that influence our lives. We might be cheerful, energetic, and optimistic people, but being forced into a dead-end job to earn enough to get by could crush all of those character traits. Larger structural forces can influence the situations we find ourselves in, ultimately shaping who we are and how we behave.
What Cassam is specifically highlighting in the quote is the idea that our narratives often rely too much on the particulars of given situations and ignore the larger structural systems that shape those situations. Our stories highlight individual level motivations and desires, but those are in turn situated within a larger context that becomes the background of our narratives. We focus on the individual conflicts, struggles, and arcs without recognizing how larger forces create the environments and rules within which everything else takes place. Standard stories fall short of reality and fall short of helping us understand exactly what is possible and exactly what shapes our lives because they don’t recognize structural forces. Without acknowledging those larger structural forces standard stories can’t help us understand how to change the world for better.


“Situational factors are often better predictors of behavior than personal factors,” writes Quassim Cassam to quote John Doris from his 2002 book on character. Cassam argues in his book that the adoption of epistemic vices and the development of epistemic virtues are important factors for humanity and that they can shape how people behave. Cassam’s argument runs against the quote from Doris.
To present his argument, Cassam lays out arguments from situationists writing, “one would think that curiosity, creativity, and flexibility are intellectual virtues, yet studies suggest that people are more likely to reason creatively, flexibly, and curiously¬†when their moods have been elevated by such seemingly trivial and epistemically irrelevant situational influences as candy, success at anagrams, and comedy films.The argument is that our minds are flexible and adaptable depending on the situation. We might be disciplined, open-minded, and patient when we are sitting in front of our computer at 9 a.m. for work, but when we are in a hurry and someone spills something in front of us at the grocery store, those traits no longer matter. If something as simple as a plant in our office, the smell of cleaning solutions, and the number of a building can change our mood, how well we tidy up, and whether judges assess large or small fines on a business, then we are not really in control as much as we think. Situations control us more than we recognize.
Cassam takes the argument to its conclusion by writing, “Situationists conclude that people don’t have robust character traits like compassion and courage, and that how they behave is often better explained by other factors.” But for Cassam, this conclusion is overreaching. People really do behave differently based on individual character traits. Epistemic vices and their study demonstrate that people who are more open-minded make consistently better decisions than people who are closed-minded. Similarly, people who are gullible, arrogant, and prejudiced will systematically behave in ways that are more detrimental to themselves and society than people who do not display those character traits. Situationists, Cassam argues, give to much weight to the environment and not enough weight to individuals, agency, and the power of the human mind to be considerate and self-reflective.
Personally, I find myself to lean more toward the situationists than toward Cassam. I agree that laboratory studies involving confederates and environmental studies demonstrating that trivial factors which influence behavior are limited. They don’t truly capture reality, just a brief and normally unusual snapshot of our lives. However, I think in our general daily thinking we error too far in assuming that individuals truly control their lives. It is a useful fiction, but I think we would do well to recognize the power of our environments and be more considerate in shaping the structures, institutions, and situations which guide our lives. We can learn lessons from the impacts of seemingly trivial factors that influence our behaviors. We can see that we have the capacity to change dramatic traits about ourselves from situation to situation and better structure how we interact with the world around us to produce more virtuous behaviors. Assuming that humans are consistent and that virtues or vices are more a matter of control than a matter of situational context ignores the reality that we live within institutions that shape how our minds work.
Behavioral Consistency

Behavioral Consistency

An interesting observation that Quassim Cassam highlights in his book Vices of the Mind is summed up with a simple sentence from the author, “some vices require a great deal of behavioral consistency while others do not.”
The technical term for describing a vice or a virtue that requires consistency is fidelity. When we think about virtues, we probably think of characteristics, traits, and behaviors that necessarily must be consistent within an individual across time, space, and circumstances. To be a generous person, you must be generous in all aspects of life. To be kind, loving, trustworthy, and brave require the same. Vices, however, seem to be more on the low fidelity side, at least for some.
Cruelty is an example that Cassam uses to highlight a low-fidelity, or low-consistency vice. You don’t have to be cruel to everyone and every living thing you meet, but if someone sees you be cruel to another person in a stressful situation, or be cruel to an animal, a single instance of cruelty is all that may be needed to brand you as a cruel person.
Other vices, like laziness or gullibility, seem to exist more along a spectrum. I’m sure that many of us know people who are incredibly hard working in one aspect of life, but very lazy in others. Perhaps you know a great athlete who is too lazy to apply themselves fully in their professional career, or a motivated professional who seems to lazy to get to bed early so they can get to the gym in the morning. These people are harder to categorize broadly as lazy, and instead are categorized as lazy in certain regards. Cassam shows that the same can be true of someone who is gullible. People can be gullible across the board, gullible in narrow and unusual situations, or only occasionally gullible.
When we think about whether we or other people are virtuous or full of vices, we should consider whether our virtues or vices are high or low fidelity. Should we consider wealthy business owners as greedy or cruel because they laid off their employees, or should we take a larger view of the economic and structural decision-making? Should we consider the wealthy donor to our hometown university as generous with just a single large donation? Thinking about behavioral consistency within virtues and vices can help us better understand or own behavior and better contextualize the behaviors of others, hopefully helping us better think about good or bad behaviors in society.
Ignoring Conspiracy Theories

Ignoring Conspiracy Theories

Knowledge deals with facts. In order to have or to gain knowledge, you need to understand, gain experience in, or directly learn accurate information. You cannot have knowledge of things that are not true. Therefore, beyond knowing that a conspiracy theory is factually inaccurate or understanding its origins, you cannot have knowledge of a conspiracy theory. Importantly, what this means for us is that we can ignore implausible conspiracy theories.
In his book Vices of the Mind Quassim Cassam asks whether it is closed-minded to ignore conspiracy theories and whether ignoring them is an epistemic vice. However, Cassam explains that epistemic vices inhibit knowledge since knowledge only deals with truth and facts. Conspiracy theories such as moon landing hoax theories do not deal with facts, so ignoring them does not hinder knowledge.
Cassam brings up conspiracy theories when discussing closed-mindedness and addressing an argument that people occasionally make in favor of closed-mindedness. The argument is that closed-minded people won’t be swayed by implausible conspiracy theories, and therefore some dose of closed-mindedness rather than universal open-mindedness is a good thing. Regarding this opinion, and diving into the heart of conspiracy theories, Cassam writes the following:
“If I listen to them long enough I might change my mind and lose the knowledge that I already have. I should do everything possible to avoid or ignore [conspiracy theories], and that looks like a way of saying that the way to protect my knowledge is to be closed-minded. However, the real reason I am entitled not to listen to the conspiracy theorists is not that their views are inconsistent with my prior conception but that they are unlikely to be correct given the available evidence. Only the evidence can justify a policy of non-engagement.”
I previously wrote about analysis-paralysis and when it is ok to stop investigating something and to make a decision. At a certain point we have to judge that we have sufficient knowledge and understanding to move forward with our lives. We cannot spend time investigating every possibility, because we will run out of time and never make a decision for what to wear, who to vote for, and what to eat for dinner. Fortunately, as Cassam shows, our decision-making can and should be limited by fact and plausibility given the available evidence. Possibilities that fall far outside what is likely to be plausible can be ignored. We might be wrong once in a while, but systematically this approach is not going to inhibit knowledge. We don’t have to investigate every possible conspiracy theory. We can ignore choices, opinions, and different possibilities when they don’t match the evidence and fall outside plausible ranges. This helps reduce our cognitive load, give us an actionable way to move forward, and establishes a baseline of accuracy from which any decision, idea, or possibility must have roots. Conspiracy theories can be ignored without us being closed-minded because they don’t reach such a baseline.
When to Stop Thinking

When to Stop Thinking

My last post was about closed-mindedness and focused on how closed-minded people fail to make appropriate inquiries to gain the necessary information to make good decisions and accurately understand the world. What the post didn’t ask, is when we should stop thinking and make a decision, versus when we should continue our investigations to gain more knowledge. A serious problem, and one we avoid when we are closed-minded, is often referred to as paralysis by analysis. It occurs when you lack confidence in decision-making and continually seek more information before making a decision, potentially delaying your choice or any action indefinitely.
Writing about this idea in Vices of the Mind, Quassim Cassam writes, “our investigations can be open-ended and there is often, though not always, scope for further investigation.” Sometimes we are asking questions and doing research on continually evolving topics. Sometimes we are working at a cutting edge where changes in politics, markets, social trends, and scientific breakthroughs can influence what we do from day to day. There never is a final answer, and we have to continually seek new information in order to adapt. However, this doesn’t mean that we can’t make important decisions that require thoughtful deliberation.
“A good investigator,” Cassam writes, “has a sense of when enough is enough and diminishing returns are setting in. But the decision to call a halt at that point isn’t properly described as closed-minded. What allows us to get on with our lives isn’t closed-mindedness but the ability to judge when no further research into the question at hand is necessary.”
Closed-minded people make decisions while ignoring pertinent information. Open-minded people make decisions while ignoring extraneous information. Over time, for each of us if we practice long enough, we should improve our judgements and become better at recognizing the diminishing returns of continued research. We might continue to learn a bit more as we continue to study, but the value of each new bit of information will be smaller and smaller, and at some point won’t truly impact our decisions. A novice might have trouble identifying this point, but an expert should be better. A closed-minded person doesn’t look for this optimal point, but an open-minded person does, continually updating their priors and judgements on when they have enough information to make a decision, rather than rigidly locking in with a specific set of information. This is how we avoid analysis paralysis and how we improve our decision-making over time to get on with our lives as Cassam writes.
More About Closed-Mindedness

More About Closed-Mindedness

“As an intellectual character trait that obstructs effective inquiry,” writes Quassim Cassam in Vices of the Mind, “closed-mindedness also looks like a trait that gets in the way of knowledge systematically.”
Cassam writes that closed-mindedness has been extensively studied, which is relatively unique among the epistemic vices that Cassam considers in his book. He uses a deep dive into closed-mindedness to help demonstrate how epistemic vices obstruct knowledge, how they do so systematically, and how epistemic vices can describe people’s actual conduct.
Closed-mindedness is a general obstacle to knowledge by hindering effective inquiry. Being closed-minded or engaging in closed-minded thinking means that we are not making honest and complete efforts to investigate the world around us and answer questions. Instead, we hold onto specific answers that are preformed, that match what we want to believe, or that support another motive of ours. We don’t look for information that may contradict what we want to know and believe, and we discredit such information if presented to us. We fail to truly take an objective and comprehensive view of the situation before making a decision when we are closed-minded.
Closed-mindedness is an interesting epistemic vice because it can be an individualized behavior and also a character trait. As an individual, you might generally be open-minded, making good efforts to think critically about the world around you, however, through biases or other errors, you may from time to time engage in closed-minded thinking. Specific situations and some context-dependent decisions may draw out closed-minded decision-making in otherwise thoughtful individuals.
On the other hand, you can generally be a closed-minded person. You might be someone who always wants to have the last word, to always feel like the smartest person in the room, or to believe that your view of the world is correct and that there is no room for change. In most of your decisions, thoughts, and behaviors, you can be closed-minded, failing across the board to make full inquiry into the world around you. You might be open-minded in some situations or thoughts, but on the whole, you can tend to be a closed-minded person.
Whether it is a single decision or your general epistemic approach to the world, closed-mindedness is likely to obstruct knowledge, and to systematically lead to worse outcomes. A closed-minded army general who won’t acknowledge new information is going to leave his army vulnerable to an attack that he did not expect. A closed-minded sports fanatic is going to place unwise bets that won’t pay off. A generally closed-minded mother is not going to help her child when she fails to accept their errors, creating a situation that could compound small flaws into larger tragedies. Closed-mindedness prevents us from seeing the world clearly and leaves us vulnerable to decision-making based on poor information on a systematic level. As Cassam closes his thoughts on closed-mindedness, he writes, “Closed-mindedness, then, is an intellectual character trait constituted by intellectual dispositions that aren’t subject-specific.”

The Need for Closure

Humans have a need for closure that varies from individual to individual. Some of us don’t mind too much if the internet cuts out before the last minute of a March Madness game while for others of us, the madness would multiply far beyond the basketball game. Closure helps us conceptualize, frame, and learn lessons from events in our lives. A lack of closure leaves things open and ambiguous, with unclear conclusions and conflicting lessons to be drawn.
In Vices of the Mind, Quassim Cassam writes about the need for closure and how it can build into the epistemic vice of closed-mindedness. He writes, “The need for closure comes in two forms, non-specific and specific. The non-specific need for closure is the desire for a confident judgement on an issue as compared to confusion and ambiguity. A need for specific closure is the desire for a particular answer to a question.”
Closure can build into closed-mindedness because once we have made a judgement, we don’t want to accept new information. Once we feel that we have a specific answer, we don’t want to take on new perspectives, reconsider information in a new light, or listen to others who may disagree with us. The more certain we feel, the more we strongly we wish to hold to our conclusions. According to Cassam’s quote, the greater our need for closure, the greater the potential for us to become closed-minded in our decision-making.
“Open-minded individuals have a lower need for closure,” writes Cassam. More open-minded people are less likely to be paralyzed by a lack of information. They are more likely to accept ambiguity, make progress, and adjust when new information arises or as new perspectives are formed. In other words, they can facilitate knowledge by adjusting and adapting to new information and data. Closed-minded people obstruct knowledge by adopting a stance of certainty and ignoring new information as it becomes available.
The need for closure itself isn’t a bad thing. An open-minded person can still feel a need for closure, and that need can drive them to seek more information, to learn more, and to develop new lessons to use in future situations. It can be a motivational driving force for good. At the same time, it can push people to become recalcitrant, to adopt simple and incomplete answers, and to drive people into self-destructive behaviors seeking closure that can never be attained. Our choice (or unconscious disposition) to be closed-minded or open-minded can greatly influence whether our need for closure drives us toward virtue or vice.
Situational Vices

Situational Vices

In Vices of the Mind Quassim Cassam acknowledges that our personal epistemic vices cannot be used to explain and account for all of our mental failures. They can explain a lot of our behavior and decision-making, but they don’t explain all of our decisions and don’t universally lead to negative outcomes in all of our interactions and choices.
Cassam acknowledges, “sometimes our conduct has much more to do with the situations in which we find ourselves than with our supposed virtues or vices.” Expanding out and viewing a situation holistically can help us better understand our behaviors and choices and can help us see the degree to which our virtues or vices shaped our responses. Epistemic vices may set a baseline for our behavior or give us a general default for how we see and understand the world, but certain situations can overrule our vices. The same can also be true for our virtues.
A person who is typically closed-minded might become far more considerate when they have to make a difficult personal health decision. Their fear and the gravity of the decision may create a context where they recognize that they don’t have all the answers and that they need to seek out more information. Alternatively, someone who is usually more open-minded may not display open-mindedness when they are insulted by someone who is more powerful than they are. The individual may become defensive and in any interaction with the more powerful individual they may automatically dismiss anything the person says out of closed-minded dislike and distrust, even if the other person may be correct.
“Explanations of our intellectual conduct are almost certainly going to have to be multidimensional,” Cassam writes.¬† “The role of epistemic vices shouldn’t be exaggerated but nor should it be underestimated.” We can expect characteristics about us, our general habits, and general ways of thinking to explain a lot about our behaviors in any given context. However, many specific factors can lead us to abandon our virtues or overcome our vices in unique and complex situations. Major, unusual, and unexpected events can shift us dramatically, but small and seemingly trivial details that we might not consciously recognize can also alter our behaviors in ways that vices and virtues cannot predict.
Rules of Thumb: Helpful, but Systematically Error Producing

Rules of Thumb: Helpful, but Systematically Error Producing

The world throws a lot of complex problems at us. Even simple and mundane tasks and decisions hold a lot of complexity behind them. Deciding what time to wake up at, the best way to go to the grocery store and post office in a single trip, and how much is appropriate to pay for a loaf of bread have incredibly complex mechanisms behind them. In figuring out when to wake up we have to consider how many hours of sleep we need, what activities we need to do in the morning, and how much time it will take for each of those activities to still provide us a cushion of time in case something runs long. In making a shopping trip we are confronted with p=np, one of the most vexing mathematical problems that exists. And the price of bread was once the object of focus for teams of Soviet economists who could not pinpoint the right price for a loaf of bread that would create the right supply to match the population’s demand.
The brain handles all of these problems with relatively simple heuristics and rules of thumb, simplifying decisions so that we don’t waste the whole night doing math problems for the perfect time to set an alarm, don’t miss the entire day trying to calculate the best route to run all our errands, and don’t waste tons of brain power trying to set bread prices. We set a standard alarm time and make small adjustments knowing that we ought to leave the house ready for work by a certain time to make sure we reduce the risk of being late. We stick to main roads and travel similar routes to get where we need to go, eliminating the thousands of right or left turn alternatives we could chose from. We rely on open markets to determine the price of bread without setting a universal standard.
Rules of thumb are necessary in a complex world, but that doesn’t mean they are not without their own downfalls. As Quassim Cassam writes in Vices of the Mind, echoing Daniel Kahneman from Thinking Fast and Slow, “We are hard-wired to use simple rules of thumb (‘heuristics’) to make judgements based on incomplete or ambiguous information, and while these rules of thumb are generally quite useful, they sometimes lead to systematic errors.” Useful, but inadequate, rules of thumb can create predictable and reliable errors or mistakes. Our thinking can be distracted with meaningless information, we can miss important factors, and we can fail to be open to improvements or alternatives that would make our decision-making better.
What is important to recognize is that systematic and predictable errors from rules of thumb can be corrected. If we know where errors and mistakes are systematically likely to arise, then we can take steps to mitigate and reduce those errors. We can be confident with rules of thumb and heuristics that simplify decisions in positive ways while being skeptical of rules of thumb that we know are likely to produce errors, biases, and inaccurate judgements and assumptions. Companies, governments, and markets do this all the time, though not always in a step by step process (sometimes there is one step forward and two steps backward) leading to progress over time. Embracing the usefulness of rules of thumb while acknowledging their shortcomings is a powerful way to improve decision-making while avoiding the cognitive downfall of heuristics.