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Aphorisms and Research

January 11, 2014

“Life is short, art long, opportunity fleeting, experience deceptive, judgement difficult.” “Lost time is never found again.”

Ah, aphorisms. Those common words of wisdom that reflect some pithy observation, to quote,  “A tersely phrased statement of a truth or opinion; an adage”, much like truisms, ring so true and accurate of our experience in life – that’s why they came about. Aphorisms reflect some part of our lives. That much is obvious about aphorisms. It is also evident that aphorisms are a very concise, useful way to convey ideas that we generally consider to be. You know… why give a long winded explanation or investigate such simple concepts for years when these aphorisms will do?

Social scientists are often ridiculed for proving such aphorisms. As Ross Gittins, always excellent, discusses in his article, a large office design firm found that focused work is the most important aspect of a job and that “Co-worker interruptions, auditory and visual distractions all combine to make focus work the modern office’s most compromised work mode” .

As Gittins sarcastically said, ‘Who could have known?’ You know… why is some firm spending hours to prove such a trivial result?

Because not all aphorisms are true. Those that aren’t true still tend to be true to some limited extent – experience can be deceptive for instance – but they mislead us to what the real truth, the real explanation is.

Gittins’ article is actually an assault on the practice of ‘hot-desking’ and such. Imagine I said to you ‘collaboration is good. Teamwork is necessary.’ We’d all agree that’s true, wouldn’t we? ‘We need to break down artificial barriers and get people collaborating, working together.’ And then, ‘Everyone goes to their set desk and ignore others. What we need to do is give less desks than workers so that people can’t have their own desk. They’ll be forced to collaborate, they’ll…’

What was that about focused work again?

It turns out that focused work is the key predictor for all other effectiveness. Research by the same firm found that those who can focus better were 57% more percent likely to collaborate. Many other benefits were found to focused work. What we see here, is that yes both aphorisms are true – collaboration and focused work are both useful to productive working. Yet, it’s clear that the aphorisms don’t convey the depth and prioritisation of modes of working necessary for us to actually optimally use our time. Aphorisms aren’t entirely true.

They’re also sometimes downright false.

Ever people say something like ‘people make moral decisions by a cost / benefit analysis’ ? You probably have, especially by those cynical of altruism who’d say something like “he’s not really being altruistic he just knows that the other actions results in less benefits for him.” Or the idea that we don’t commit criminal actions because we don’t like jail. It’s a common, skeptical aphorism… that’s wrong.

Research by behavioural economics and psychology professor Dan Ariely shows that with regards to matters of integrity “Essentially, we cheat up to the level that allows us to retain our self-image as reasonably honest individuals.” That result is decidedly different, more subtle and nuanced than a ‘cost / benefit analysis’ or “we’re all greedy and immoral”. What is goes to show is that proving aphorisms true or false through rigorous research is so very important.

Just quickly, Ariely’s research as a whole is really interesting, the results fascinating, and results that ring true. If you’re looking for a summary of his research and it’s implications you can’t go wrong with this/ link. If you read the post you’ll find the other 3 posts in the ‘related posts’ section at the end of the article. Really, it’s fascinating stuff, and it’s a big reason for the cautious optimism we hold here at The Holistic Thinker.

What both these examples show is that we really need to investigate these matters ourselves – although we should use aphorisms to guide our lives, for there are many useful principles, we must be selective in the choice of principles we follow. Research can help us find what aphorisms and truisms are really true. And it’s so critical to conduct that research. Otherwise you just descend into exchanging loaded phrases like ‘red tape’ – there’s a reason, as the lovable Bernard from Yes Minister once tried saying ‘red tape holds the nation together!’ isn’t said much – and that’s meaningless. None of that is to say we should spend our lives researching. No, no.

What it should serve as is a cautionary tale to temper our trust of aphorisms at first, and then build a firmer belief in them. ‘This too shall pass’ , ‘the child is the father to the man’ . I believe these words firmly because of the evidence supporting them on top of their prima facie accuracy.

Go find and affirm the aphorisms that are true.


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