By The Landlord
“The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits.” – Albert Einstein
“In politics stupidity is not a handicap.” – Napoleon Bonaparte
“My heart is broken in the face of the stupidity of my species.” – Joni Mitchell
“Stupidity has a knack of getting its way.” – Albert Camus
It is a popular misconception that lemmings undertake an act of mass suicide by jumping over cliffs. When population levels of these furry little mammals get too high, their biological urges sometimes cause them to seek new territory, and if doing so, they can swim, though some simply don’t make it to the next island. But humans? Such intelligent creatures with sophisticated communication systems and technology and vast knowledge, surely they wouldn’t commit mass economic suicide by voting for, and signing up for something about which they had no knowledge at all, would they? And then actually go through with it? Or ignore all lessons of the past? Or make some era-defining constitutional-changing decision, breaking and exiting, that would alter the history of their country for 50 years or more on the basis of misinformation and lies? Or cut off from friends and allies, and simply leap into the unknown, like a bunch of lemmings? Oh yes, they might …
So this week we’re looking for songs that talking about choosing the wrong path, whether that is about a relationship, an action, a person, a personal journey, and generally making a right old cockup and hash of things, and the consequences of this, and feelings – anger, regret, or perhaps even resigning yourself to it. But why do we make these blunders, gaffes and misconceptions? Is it because it is better than doing nothing? Is it because we are impatient or just reacting against the wrong things or people? Whatever the outcome of Brexit, or any other event, people always make bad decisions and almighty blind-alley mistakes. But why? And why, so often, do people fail to do the right thing?Let’s turn back the clock to 18th-century Holland to find out more:
There is actually a mathematical formula for this, and it was created by Daniel Bernoulli (1700-1782) a Dutch/Swiss polymath. This is a man who was probably aware of the Tulip Mania of March 1637, where supposedly rare species of tulip bulbs were bought at extortionate prices before quickly becoming worthless a week later, causing a massive economic crash. Among other achievements he was the author in 1738 of the Specimen theoriae novae de mensura sortis (Exposition of a New Theory on the Measurement of Risk), the basis of the St. Petersburg paradox on the economic theory of risk aversion, risk premium and utility. But wwhat does his theory mean? It is about how people work out, or fail to work out risk and value. In the words of Bernoulli:
“The determination of the value of an item must not be based on the price, but rather on the utility it yields…. There is no doubt that a gain of one thousand ducats is more significant to the pauper than to a rich man though both gain the same amount.”
A Harvard professor of social psychology, Dan Gilbert, has also put this in layman’s terms, and highlights how, in terms of money, we constantly make bad decisions because of behavioural psychology. In shopping, for example, if we see the old price against the sale price, we think the sale price is good value, even though it is still expensive, or because we seeing something even pricier next to it on the shelf. We convince ourselves it is a bargain. And we base that decision on past experience. Or for example, we have fixed ideas and beliefs on how things should work. If someone offers you a three-year job contract, of per year, £60k, then £50k then £40k, or instead, £35k then £45k then £55k, many would take the latter because they want rising salary rather than falling one. But take the former and you are £15k better off, and you have more money up front.
And what about gambling? If there are 10 raffle tickets at £1 each and 10 buyers, with the winner taking £10 prize, then the chance of winning is 1 in 10. Not bad. But let’s say one player has bought nine of the 10 tickets. Would people be inclined to buy the last ticket? Many wouldn’t, even though the odds of them winning would be the same. And as for national lotteries, where the chance of winning is one in 14 million or more, why play at all? Is that why the lottery is called the stupidity tax? Yet millions of people play around the world. That is because of experience. We only hear about the winners. The losers are never interviewed in the media.
So evaluating value and risk is very flawed. It is based on fixed ideas, hope, subjectivity and lack of knowledge. Another area that illustrates this is causes of death. Terrorism, fires, tornados and other sensational occurrences always produce higher figures in the public imagination than other causes because they are so prominently reported in the media. And yet the actual numbers are minusculeBut you don’t hear daily reports about the massive number of deaths from chronic lower respiratory diseases, heart disease, cancer or those related to obesity, especially in the US. And also gun-related killings and accidents are huge in number, from drowning in swimming pools to DIY. Accidents will happen indeed because of a bad decision that it’s worth the risk. Such as fixing a light over your swimming pool:
Or drilling in your swimming trunks:
Why not do some metal work?
Or crossing the political divide?
There's much talk of building walls, but instead bridges, but for any of this you need ladders, right?
Then again, decisions also need a cooling off period don't they?
But bad decisions come in all forms and at all levels of society. There is a misconception, that happens time and time again, that those who are clever and powerful know what they are doing. They are not clever, they are simply good at getting into power. I have for several years worked at a highly respected leftwing news organisation, with a reputation that’s well founded and in many ways deserved. But even there, I can remember regular examples of what is known internally as the ‘reverse ferret’, a major policy or senior management decision that has had to be reversed because it is basically proved to be a very costly or bad idea. We see the same at all organisations, and especially in numerous government U-turns, where the cost is not to the politician for his or her mistake but to the taxpayer. And, to the glee of at least of half of the US, Donald Trump has had to back down on his pig-ignorant and arrogant plan to repeal Obamacare. On the subject of Trump, the only thing he has achieved is to make his Republican forbears look more presidential. That really is an achievement.
Perhaps the reason electorates are so capable of making bad decisions, whether that is in the US, the UK or elsewhere, is because we are not designed to consider thinking on that level of scale. Our brains are still designed for living 10,000 or even 100,000 years ago, living in communities of no more that 120 people where everybody knows each other. Could that still be the case, even after all the advances in our technology and so-called civilisation?
But this is a song blog after all, and so here is a more lighthearted example from the Young Knives. The video shows the band taking an innocent walk in the woods, but it soon takes a dark turn:
This is of course a clever parody of all of those horror film cliches, the young woman going into the house at night, the four guys who go canoeing down the Tallahassee in Deliverance, and of course, the three students who decide to go looking for the Blair Witch without a proper map. Yes, it is all your fault:
And so then, weighing up all your suggestions of songs about bad decisions, and no doubt making excellent choices in creating playlists from them, our returning guest is the guru of gaffes and caretaker of cockups, the vivacious Violet Vivid! Place your songs on this topic in comments below by last orders on Monday evening UK time, for playlists published on Wednesday. The guru’s decision is final.
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