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The Twain Brain, or, Why Smart People do Stupid Things

February 28, 2014

 

“A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.” So said Mark Twain, printer, steamboat pilot, journalist, failed miner, entrepreneur, abolitionist, lecturer and supreme humorist. Twain is perhaps the greatest American storyteller and writer ever produced by the fifty states.

 

Whether attacking kings, hypocrites, or the literary offenses of Fenimore Cooper, Twain was famous for his razor-sharp wit and his allergy to BS. Yet that same man drove himself into bankruptcy, ignoring the council of his most trusted pals in favor of pouring his fortune into a series of disastrous inventions. He once invested the equivalent of 8 million dollars in the Paige typesetting machine, a marvel of engineering that dazzled crowds but also constantly broke and was obsolete by about 1884.

 

So why did a man renowned for not suffering fools pour his fortune into one fool’s errand after another? Could it be that Twain, like the rest of us, was seduced by a “magic bullet”? That wholly American notion that there is a shortcut out there to unmitigated wealth and happiness.

 

Whether it’s a diet pill (all-natural, of course) or a potion to restore skin texture to that of a six-week-old baby (all-natural, of course) or a book that promises to create a state of nirvana (no artificial additives) or a new-fangled typesetter machine, many of us are suckers for the shortcut.

 

We love the easy road, the secret sauce, or that ultimate financial tip (see Martha Stewart). In 2012, Americans spent a total of $78 billion on lottery tickets.

 

Our brains love shortcuts. The most primitive, basic parts of our brains are wired for them. Although these shortcuts lack precision and can create real problems, their saving grace is efficiency.

 

Still, this efficiency can suffer sometimes. Take optimism bias, the unfounded belief that things will turn out much better than the facts warrant.

 

It’s what allows smokers to believe they won’t get cancer, dieters to start their diet in the future, and all of us to procrastinate on our work because, as Twain noted, “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow.”

 

Even the great Twain fell victim to optimism bias as he traveled down what he thought was a shortcut to financial independence through a prototype-printing machine. The Paige typesetter was reported to possess more problems than actual moving parts, of which it had more than 18,000.

 

Ironically, many suspect that had Twain put more energy in writing and less in his pet get-rich-quick scheme, he would have gotten rich much faster, and with a whole lot less heartache.

 

But Twain, was plagued with one incurable problem: a human brain. If reasoning is currency, then biases and shortcuts are what the primitive brain trades in. And that brain is where the action is.

 

Perhaps rather than seeing biases and shortcuts as system flaws, we should instead celebrate that which makes our brains so unique and ‘predictably irrational.’

 

No one summed it up better than Mark Twain.

 

“Don’t part with your illusions. When they are gone, you may still exist, but you have ceased to live.”

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