My parents are smart, well-educated people. But as they hit their fifties and sixties, they started having fearful views on flying. They’re both still frequent flyers and not afraid of flying per se, but they became very particular about which airlines and planes are “safe” and which aren’t. When the Boeing 737 Max safety debacle happened, they were drumming about it for weeks – talking about never flying Boeing again – even though boarding the 737 Max was still obviously statistically safer than driving, or crossing the street. They understood the stats, but somehow emotion had them gripped tight.1
I found it strange to see my parents become irrationally afraid over the years. But as I’ve become older, I’ve begun to see hints of the same in me.
Two years ago, I became afraid of heights. I’m not sure why. It happened almost overnight. Before, I could walk over bridges with thin railings and steep drops, sit on chairlifts of absurd heights, and dance on forty-storieth balconies. These days, the same scenarios put me in an anxious panic. That feels very weird: for most of my life, I’ve been in control of my emotions, generally unafraid of anything. And all of a sudden, mid-way through being 28, deep anxiety over heights starts dictating how I live my life.
More recently, I’ve been thinking about going vegetarian. My position on meat has always been that animals carry zero moral value, i.e. eating chicken isn’t different from eating beans. But the idea of eating animals is becoming more and more gross to me. My moral position is unchanged, but almost inexplicably, it’s the idea of the animal itself – an alien but familiar lifeform, living, breathing, getting slaughtered, and so on – that is becoming uncomfortable to me. The more it’s on my mind, the more of a visceral repulsion I feel. Rational? No.
Overall, it feels like my rationality of thought is very slowly being replaced by emotional compulsion. I have a hunch this is symptomatic of information overload, as if my thinking is becoming unclear, polluted with too much stuff.
As a child and young adult, I navigated reasonably simple universes of information. I was highly rational (probably unusually so), and extremely consequent in how I made my decisions – I didn’t really think about anything other than what I was trying to optimize. Inadvertently, I cut through the noise.
Today, the noise is too thick to cut through. I’m sitting on the emotional accumulation of decades of life, a mass of experiences and information cluttering my mind. I’m distracted all the time by notions of second-order effects, what-if edge cases, weird traumas, and social virtue signals. I suspect that when there’s such a morass of information that it becomes difficult to navigate, emotions take over as a shortcut to analysis.
But it’s neither surprising nor necessarily bad that we rely more on our emotions as we age. When we’re younger, we have no experience, so we (should) have to reason about things from first principles. As we get older, we accumulate experience, which gives rise to valuable but intangible things like taste and intuition. These are emotional internalizations of lessons learned.2 It is very satisfying when you can do very precise, very correct work just on intuition from years of experience. The danger is that as you get older and older, eventually you’re running entirely on intuition, not reason, and the experiences that created your intuition become outdated. You haven’t had to think in a long time, and usually you were right, but slowly, you’re wrong more and more often. If you’ve let yourself rely too heavily on intuition and haven’t kept flexing your thinking muscles, you’re in trouble.
Successful thinking is clear thinking, and clear thinking is simple.3 That requires structuring a huge mess of thoughts, and cutting through them cleanly to get to the core. The huge mess of thoughts only becomes larger as we become older, and more inundated with information online. Somewhat ironically, the more information you ingest, the harder you have to work to maintain clarity of thought.
What’s interesting is that they seem afraid not so much for their own lives as for the lives of their adult children. My parents are happy to fly together. But if my siblings and I are on the same plane, my parents will be very upset. “What if the plane crashes? Then it’s all for nothing!” In their minds, losing their children at this stage in life is a fate worse than death. I suspect that having children has a large, evolutionary cognitive effect on how we view and prioritize risk that it is a big part of aging into irrationality. ↩
Some might call these curve fits to empirical data observed. The more data, the better the curve fit. But such curve fits (intuitions) usually have a lifespan: very little real-world time-series data has patterns that are permanent. ↩
There’s been a recent scandal in the press about Peter Thiel having $5B in his Roth IRA. It’s a perfect and funny example of successful, clear, and simple thinking – putting startup stock in a self-directed Roth is very easy and extremely valuable to do, but very few founders do it. I suppose it is just an “unusual” thing to do – power to those who cut through the noise and go for it. ↩