Method in the madness

Taking up the point that the Philosophick Fables are a collection of interesting brain-science exhibits rather than eternal truths: it’s curious that a number of the lessons of psychology at first sight are contradictory. For example, ‘The Fat Baboons’ relates the Semmelweis Effect, whereby we’re liable to discredit our peers’ obvious attainments for the sake of our own ego; yet ‘The Unsung Star’ concerns the concept of “basking in the reflected glory” of our successful kinsfolk. That the lessons may appear contradictory does not at all mean that one of them is wrong, any more than that humility cannot exist because there is also vanity. Certainly any individual may be much more inclined to the one than the other; but it’s also true that they can co-exist in any one of us, and come to the fore differentially according to the circumstances. Though we like to think of ourselves as having one brain, one consciousness, one set of beliefs, and one code of conduct, the human mind actually comprises countless sub-routines, most of them unconscious, that have evolved at different times and for different and sometimes clashing purposes. Our forebrain serves to resolve such conflicts. When it cannot, anxiety is often the consequence.

I included one very obviously clashing pair of lessons precisely to suggest this point. They are ‘The Bower Bird’ and ‘The Errant Seabird’. The difference between the two birds is that the former is given a list of four things to collect but remembers only the first (the ‘primacy effect’), and the latter is told three ways to travel and unwisely picks the last (the ‘recency effect’). Can it be true that we best recall both the first and the last in a list? Yes, it can, and we do; the two phenomena are normally linked together under the title ‘serial position effect’. It’s not hard to work out why the items at the beginning and end of a list get most attention. What this should tell you is that, if you don’t want to get noticed, the best thing to do is to stay away from the edges of the crowd.




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