Are we looking for meaning in all the wrong places?
Last spring, all my friends were in love. Kathryn had a boyfriend. Jesse had a girlfriend. Lauren had a boyfriend. Ryan had a girlfriend. Carl had a girlfriend. Shary had a boyfriend. Rick had a girlfriend. I had a boyfriend. And these were all people who were reputed as being finicky, coy, crabby, self-involved, idealistic, ambitious, needy and insecure. Clearly the gods were looking down upon the lot of us and saying, Enough.
So we talked about it a lotin emails and over the phone and at brunch. What did it mean? Were we all growing up? Had we collectively learned something? Perhaps the weather was great. Or ’cause George Bush was finally gone. How long could it last? Forever, we agreed, stars in our eyes.
But if it wasn’t to last, we whispered in twos, who would be the first to break the spell? We all agreed: Kathryn. She was the most fickle, coy, self-involved, idealistic, ambitious, needy and insecure of the bunch. Unless I was, and when I was out of the conversation, they agreed it would be me. In any case, the worries bubbled up over coffee and eggs: if the spell broke for one of us, would it break for the rest of us as well, and like dominoes we’d be knocked back down to our norm, base, single state?
Thankfully, Leonard Mlodinow was coming to town. A few months earlier, we had been passing around his book, The Drunkard’s Walk. The book is about randomness, and its central thrust is that humans, almost biologically, are incapable of grasping the laws of randomness. Even mathematicians have trouble understanding how it works. But its laws live in everything. And I wondered, as I climbed on my bike to go see him, whether randomness wasn’t the main actor in this sudden shift in the love lives of my friends.
The Drunkard’s Walk begins with Mlodinow’s hope, his stated purpose: to help us “immunize ourselves against our errors of intuition.”
“So,” I began, unfolding my incredibly large sheet of notes, almost blocking my view of him with it.
We were sitting in the bright, warmish air at a stone table, on wire chairs, in the outdoor pavilion beside the offices of the Toronto CBC. Upstairs in the building, my friend Kathryn (in love) was working hard, and Jesse (also in love) was working one floor below her. And here I was (still in love), sitting across from Leonard, a man in his fifties with lots of dark hair and the sympathetic face of a best friend’s father.
He had written other books, which I had read: a history of geometry and a memoir about his mentorship under the great physicist Richard P. Feynman, during which time he decided to abandon physics to write (his true love).
My huge page of notes flapped in the wind.
“We have ideas or intuitions about things,” I began, “or we make connections and we believe that they’re meaningful, but in fact we’re looking for meaning in all the wrong places?”
“Sometimes,” he corrected.
“Sometimes. So how can a person tell where to look for meaning and where not to look for meaning?”
“Well, that’s why I wrote the book,” he said, smiling. “Even though Los Angeles and Canada and other parts of the world are in some ways the wild, they don’t necessarily correspond to where we developed evolutionarily, so sometimes these intuitions that our brains have evolved lead us astray. Scientists call these cognitive illusions, and the best way to fight them is to be aware of them and to consciously say to yourself, Wait a minute—I feel like this is true, but is it really true? ’Cause I know that I tend to make these mistakes.”
He gave an example of a cognitive illusion at work. “In one study of Yale university students, researchers flipped a coin a number of times and had the students call out whether it was going to be heads or tails. If you asked a student directly, Can you foretell or control the way the coin is going to land? of course they would say no. But the researchers asked them slightly more subtle questions afterwards, and the answers showed that the students did feel they could control or predict what was going to happen. For instance, researchers asked, Would you get better with practice? and forty percent of the students said yes! If you said, Hey!, and slapped them around, maybe they would have changed their response, but their feeling was that they could.”
I chuckled knowingly, even though I would totally have fallen into the even smaller category of students who, when asked directly if they could foretell or control the way the coin was going to land, would say, pride wounded, Of course!
He went on: “We have to be aware that we do this, but even then it’s hard. One of the insidious things about cognitive illusions is they tend to happen on a subconscious level, so even if you can consciously say, I know it’s XYZ, you could behave differently unless you were careful.”
“What would you say if I told you that suddenly all of my friends are in love?” I suddenly asked.
He thought for a moment, then said, “I tell the story in my book of a small town in America. These people were supposed to attend a church meeting, and not one of them showed up on time. They were all fifteen minutes late. Well, ten minutes after the meeting was supposed to start, the church blew up. Some sort of gas thing happened. They would all have been killed, but they all came fifteen minutes or later, and of course they thanked God. Now, that’s an improbable event, but if you look through the whole country and the whole world which is generating these stories, it’s going to happen somewhere, right? What does it prove?”
That God exists, I thought quietly, on both a conscious and subconscious level.
Then another question rose within me: would my current love end the way my past ones had? Because one inevitably looks upon one’s past experiences and says, Therefore I shouldn’t do this, or Therefore I should do this, or Things, for me, tend to turn out this way. Raising my face to Leonard as one would to a fortune teller, I asked the man with randomness in his eyes about the likelihood of my current love ending in the way of all my twelve loves before.
He thought for a moment, then looked down at his hands, which were folded into a ball on the stone table between us. He said carefully, “In statistics there’s a law called the law of large numbers, which says that if you take enough data, there’s a very good chance that the data will reflect the underlying probabilities. Now, psychologists have something they call the law of small numbers. I actually call it the illusion of small numbers, because I’m a scientist, and scientists don’t like calling something a law if it’s not true. So this is a sarcastic law. It says that you can apply the law of large numbers to small numbers. But you can’t, okay? But people do, and there’s a natural tendency in life to do that.”
You can’t, I told myself, biking home, narrowly avoiding each car. One’s past isn’t a great enough statistical sample to accurately predict one’s future. This made me so happy. I was free! The past was no indicator because the past was so small. The future was much bigger!
When I got home, I called up Kathryn and told her about my meeting.
“The law of small numbers is no law?!” she exclaimed, giddy.
“Sure it’s not!” I said.
And sure enough, several months later, we were the only two dominoes to fall.