Don’t get trapped in a saying

Sayings can be very useful ways of briefly capturing important elements of wisdom. For example, the idea of ‘better safe than sorry’ has no doubt helped many people to avoid making rash decisions or launching into situations unprepared. So, they clearly have an important role to play as elements of whatever culture we are brought up in (different cultures will have different sayings, but there will, of course, be many common themes).

But, it isn’t all good news. This is because, for one thing, sayings can be contradictory. Compare ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ with ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder’. Sayings therefore have limitations, and so we need to be careful and critical in how we use them. They are simplified representations of complex realities, so they can easily mislead us if we are not careful.

What can be particularly problematic is when a saying is used to justify unwise or unethical behaviour, and that is what I mean by ‘getting trapped’ in a saying – limiting ourselves to a very simplified understanding. For example, I have come across many occasions where people have used ‘Charity begins at home’ as an excuse for not supporting a worthy cause. Now, of course, we can’t support all the worthy causes out there, so people obviously have the right to choose which charities they support and which they don’t. However, charity begins at home can be used as an excuse not to support any humanitarian efforts at all.

Another example would be ‘Boys will be boys’ being used as an excuse for unacceptable behaviour. It also has sexist implications, of course, in implying that there are, or should be, different standards of behaviour between boys and girls. So, we have to be careful to make sure that we don’t allow the very familiarity of certain assumptions to mislead us into thinking that they are therefore valid assumptions.

A further idea expressed in a saying that can be problematic is that of: ‘The grass is always greener on the other side’. This warns us that we should be wary about making changes on the assumption that what we are changing to is better than what we already have. Of course, it is very wise not to get too excited about something until you know more about it and have had chance to weigh up carefully whether it is indeed better than what you already have. But, there is also the danger that adhering too strongly to this saying can make us unduly cautious and conservative, not willing to make changes or try new things. In other words, it can hold us back unnecessarily.

So, what I am definitely not saying is that we should never use sayings, that we should banish them or anything quite so extreme. But, what I am saying is that we have to be careful not to be seduced by the simplicity and familiarity of these adages or allow them to relax our critical faculties and be taken in by ideas that, in certain circumstances at least, can lead us into difficulties. So, when you come across a saying or you find yourself using one, just give a little bit of thought to what assumptions go with that saying and consider whether you are happy to be making those assumptions.

Sayings can be useful as quick summaries of established wisdom, and so they can be very helpful at times. But, we need to be cautious and not give them more credence than they deserve. We have to do our own thinking and not allow a saying to do our thinking for us.


Beware of single cause explanations

As human beings we are very effective information processors. Our senses are exposed to a huge amount of data every minute we are awake. If you don’t believe me, just look around the room that you are in. Look at the colours, the shapes, the textures. Add to that what you can hear, what you can smell and what you can touch. And, of course, the raw data is just the surface – we also need to look below that surface to take account of the meanings we attach to each of those bits of sense data (and how those bits fit together to make a coherent whole).

So, on a daily basis we are processing and filtering a huge amount of information. In order to remain sane we need to be able to work out which bits of information are important to us and discard the rest, or at least put it to one side for now. We do that by processing the information through two sets of filters, rational and emotional. The rational filter tells us which bits of information matter to us in terms of what we are trying to do, whatever activity we are involved in. For example, if we are reading, as you are doing right now, we focus on the text in order to make sense of it and filter out other information – the keyboard if you are reading on a computer, and so on.

The emotional filter will focus on what matters to us in terms of our feelings, giving attention to those things that appeal to us (at one extreme) and those things that threaten us (at the other). For example, as someone who gets great pleasure from music, I will tend to ‘tune in’ to any music I come across, whereas others who are not great music lovers may not even notice there is music in the background.

One of the implications of all this is that we are perpetually simplifying the complex world around us, constantly finding ways of making hugely complex situations intelligible. This is a necessary part of dealing with the information overload we face on a daily basis. So, this is a good thing. However, there is a danger associated with it – namely, we can try to explain very complex situations in very simple ways. This is where single cause explanations (or monocausal explanations, to use the technical term). It is very rare that that things happen for a single reason. It is usually a combination of factors.

The key term here is ‘confluence’. It refers to how different forces come together to produce a single result. For example, imagine a conflict developing between two people. It could easily be explained monocausally by saying simply: ‘Here are two people who don’t get on’. But, if you look at it more closely, that leaves a number of causal factors out of the picture (not least why they do not get on with each other). Consider the timing. If they don’t get on, why did the conflict arise today, rather than yesterday or tomorrow? Why has it arisen at all? Many people who do not get on simply bypass one another and avoid conflict. And so on.

The notion of confluence means that we need to think holistically – that is, to look at the big picture (what is sometimes called helicopter vision – the ability to rise above a situation). Without this, a reliance on monocausal explanations can lead us into all sorts of difficulties because it involves oversimplifying – and therefore distorting – whatever situation we are involved in.