Superstitious Thinking

Superstitious Thinking

Would you consider superstitious thinking to be a vice? According to Quassim Cassam in Vices of the Mind, superstitious thinking is indeed an epistemic vice. That is to say, Cassam believes that superstitious thinking is a is reprehensible, blameworthy, systematically obstructs knowledge. By systematically obstructing knowledge, superstitious thinking causes people to adopt beliefs about the world that don’t match reality, leaving them vulnerable to poor decision-making that can have real-world consequences in their lives.
Cassam writes, “a gambler who sees a succession of coin tosses coming down heads thinks that the next toss will be tails because a tails is now due. This is an example of superstitious or magical thinking, thinking that posits a causal link between unconnected events, namely, previous coin tosses and the next toss.” This quote shows how superstitious thinking systematically obstructs knowledge. It causes us to see causal connections when none exist, distorting our perception and theory of reality.
A gambler making bets sees a causal connection between previous roles of a dice or spins of a roulette wheel and the next roll or spin. In reality, each time you flip a coin, roll a dice, or spin a wheel, the previous result has no bearing on the current probability. A coin toss is a 50-50 affair that does not change because the previous flip was heads.
This type of thinking is prevalent in more than just gamblers. Sports enthusiasts regularly see causal links that cannot possibly exist. The same kind of thinking also shows up in people who have lucky clothing, special rituals in aspects of daily life, or who avoid certain phrases or behaviors. In many instances, the causal links we identify are absurd but don’t incur real costs in our lives. Avoiding stepping on cracks in the sidewalk doesn’t cost you anything and growing a beard because your favorite sports team is on a roll might even provide some social benefits and save you time from not shaving. However, giving in to superstitious thinking, as noted before, distorts your view of reality.
The causal chains misperceived through superstitious thinking create false understandings of how the world works. While it is harmless to believe that you need to sit in the same exact spot for your sports team to play well, it is not harmless to believe that hiring a woman to do a certain job is bad luck, and it is not harmless to bet your life savings on a gamble because of superstitious thinking. What may be even worse is that superstitious thinking in one area could spill into other areas, creating a habit of seeing causal chains that don’t exist. Overtime, superstitious thinking will lead to worse outcomes and poor decision-making that will have real costs in our lives.
Epistemic Character Vices

Epistemic Character Vices

Quassim Cassam explores epistemic vices in his book Vices of the Mind to understand how certain vices can obstruct knowledge and why they matter. Such vices tend to be thinking vices, that is vices that relate to the way we think about and understand the world. They may impact how we view and perceive the world, how we communicate information, or whether we are able to retain and recall information when needed. For example, being closed-minded can inhibit us from taking in an accurate view of the world, being arrogant may prevent us from effectively communicating knowledge about the world, and being careless or easily distracted may limit our ability to remember and recall information.
However, some epistemic vices can also be understood as character vices. Cassam writes, “character vices actually have a dual use: they can be used to characterize a person or they can be used to describe their thinking, either in general or in a particular case.” Character vices are not just behaviors, but ways of being that are typical for a person, that embody some essential aspect of an individual. Instead of just describing an action or behavior to understand its consequence, we can use character vices to understand an entire string of behaviors and actions of an individual, to understand their larger life outcomes.
Wishful thinking is a good example of a character vice that can have dual use. If you watched more college basketball than normal over the course of the pandemic, then by the time the NCAA Tournament started, you may have engaged in wishful thinking, placing a larger bet than you should have on the outcome of some of the games. But being overconfident in a couple of bets and believing that the best possible outcome would truly come to pass is different than being characteristically a wishful thinker. Someone who we describe as a wishful thinker is likely to always see the upsides and believe that things will work out as desired. As a result, they may not be prepared when things go wrong, and may not be able to overcome or avoid obstacles.
Wishful thinking as an epistemic character vice can describe your individual action or it can describe you as a person. Either way, it is helpful to see that epistemic vices can operate on multiple levels. Studying epistemic vices so closely helps us understand our thinking, our behaviors, even our personalities. They help us connect specific behaviors or traits to real-world outcomes, hopefully allowing us to see the harms that can come from actions, behaviors, and traits that obstruct knowledge.
Case Explanations Versus Structural Explanations

Case Explanations Versus Structural Explanations

In Vices of the Mind Quassim Cassam asks whether we can understand the behaviors of an individual based on individual characteristics or if we have to rely on larger structural and systemic explanations for their behavior. The question is important for Cassam because his book focuses on epistemic vices, which are vices that get in the way of knowledge. If such vices change people’s thoughts and behaviors in predictable ways, then they are something we should think about and work to change in ourselves and others. If, however, they don’t make a difference in people’s behaviors because larger structural explanations exist, then they are not worthy of our attention.
Given that Cassam wrote an entire book about epistemic vices, it is not surprising that he believes that they are useful in explaining behavior. He writes, “Epistemic vices are obstacles to knowledge that can in appropriate cases explain how people think and what they do. Sometimes, though, structural or systemic explanations are better.” This sentence feels a little weak, as though Cassam is admitting that epistemic vices can take a back seat to structural factors. However, the sentence is a useful summation of how we should think about individual level factors and larger structural and systemic factors.
Our lives are shaped to a great degree by large structural and systemic forces that are beyond our control. Family structures drive specific types of behaviors. Markets produce predictable outcomes. The rules of a sport determine what actions can and cannot be taken. However, within these larger structures and systems there is room for individual variation. Cassam’s argument is that we can understand some of the individual variation within larger structures by understanding epistemic vices.
Case explanations can include individual choices, characteristics, and epistemic virtues and vices to help us understand behavior. These explanations can be built on top of structural and systemic explanations which shape the range of possibilities and narrow some of the individual variations. We cannot entirely define someone by their individual choices and differences, but we can view them within a system and ask how their choices within a system differed from others, whether their differences were positive or negative, and why.
Exploring Level Confusion Through Vices

Exploring Level Confusion with Vices

Level confusion is an incredible challenge, and one that I grapple with all the time. I am never quite sure when to pin something on personal responsibility and when to pin something on structural factors. It is not just vices and negative aspects of an individual I often struggle to attribute to either personal or structural factors. I often cannot tell whether I should praise someone for the good that they do, or praise the structures and systems which allow the individual to do such good. My challenges with thinking about personal level versus societal level responsibility are an example of level confusion and why it can be an important factor to be aware of when we think about the world. According to Quassim Cassam in his book Vices of the Mind, I am not alone in this dilemma.
“Vices themselves,” writes Cassam, “have a deeper explanation in the social circumstances of their possessors. … It could still be true … that some doctors are overconfident but to explain what is actually a systemic or structural phenomenon – medical error – in such personal terms is to be guilty of what might be called a level confusion.”
Vices are in many ways personal. We are often to blame for vices and often have control over whether we acquire a vice or whether we improve our behavior and eliminate vices. But how often we can pin a particular harm or bad outcome on our individual vice is hard to say. Certainly any of us who are called out for our vices could come up with numerous structural factors which enabled our vice or compelled us toward such a vice. Cassam’s quote shows that this can be done within medicine. How much can an individual medical error be pinned on a doctor? Arrogant doctors can probably be expected to make more errors than humble doctors, but how often can an individual error be pinned on a doctor’s arrogance rather than another factor that allowed the error to take place?
Cassam continues, “this discussion brings out just how difficult it can be to decide whether a particular outcome is best explained in personal or structural terms. Having said that, it is also true that the personal and the structural are often intertwined, and that one and the same phenomenon can sometimes be explained at both levels.”
Level confusion is going to always be unavoidable given how complex and intertwined our world is. Ultimately, what I think is important is that we step back from our preferred view, either the personal or the structural, and think more deeply about the alternative role in the outcomes we see. If we typically blame people for their outcomes, then we must step back and recognize the structural and systemic forces that make some decisions and outcomes easier for some and harder for others. If we typically adopt a structural view, then we must step back and recognize the importance of personal responsibility and the necessity of personal responsibility in decision-making. With such level confusion we may never be able to agree on how much personal or structural factors matter, but we can accept the complexity and at least begin to address those factors which allow people to take more personal responsibility, initiating the changes we want to see within the larger structures.
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.
Situationists

Situationists

“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.