Monday, November 29, 2021
HomeCOVID-19We’ve been fooled so now we’re Carpeing the Diem

We’ve been fooled so now we’re Carpeing the Diem

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‘The fool, with his other faults, has this also – he is always getting ready to live’ – Epicurus 

‘For this world is what we make it, and
We’re a deuce of a long time dead’
 – John William Sargent

‘All the gold in the world cannot buy a dying man one more breath – so what does that make today worth?’ – Og Mandino

THE full quotation is ‘carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero’– ‘pluck the day, trusting as little as possible in the future’.

I’ve always thought the Marshmallow Test was bs. Everyone is familiar with the set-up: the dude in a white coat gives you a marshmallow and if you can hold off eating it for long enough he’ll give you another. This is supposed to predict success in life or gullibility or some such. The problem is that you can’t trust behavioural psychologists. There’s no telling whether or not that b*stard in the white coat is coming back. Before you know it, he’ll be trying to persuade you to electrocute somebody or to wear an ineffective cloth mask on your face for 18 months. The Milgram experiment tells you more about social psychologists than it does about human beings. For those unfamiliar with Stanley Milgram, he managed to dupe unsuspecting college students into administering fake electric shocks to ‘learners’ at up to what would have been fatal levels. Milgram thought he was demonstrating obedience to authority. The unexpected consequence here was the long-term psychological affect on the deceived participants, many of whom received support for years. The only thing Milgram proved with any certainty is you can’t control all variables. There’s a lesson for our own Nudge Unit here. What are the long-term effects of masking people, especially children? What are the long-term effects of using fear to guide behaviour? The unexpected consequences and second order effects of all this nudging are completely unpredictable and could well be waiting around the corner for us with a baseball bat.

Eat the first marshmallow. Who knows if there’s another one coming? Like most behavioural psychology experiments, once you control for reality the test is just intellectual ego projection. Human beings live contextually, circumstances are always different and never perfectly knowable. Mark Twain: ‘It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.’ The real world is messy, scientists are the same flawed humans as we all are, they pursue agendas, they design experiments to get the results they want. Hence the reproducibility crisis across so many of their so-called classic results. 

Brian Nosek overturned the table for the social psychologists in 2015 when his lab replicated 100 studies published in psychology journals and were unable to reproduce a large proportion of the findings. We should all be deeply concerned with the flaws in the foundations of behavioural psychology as its adherents are the very same lunatics who are attempting to dictate the way we live our lives. 

In real life people promise you stuff all the time and then disappoint you. There’s no controlling for that. Our Government have spent the last 20 months telling you they are not going to take your freedom away then doing precisely the opposite. They’ve spent the last 20 months telling you to defer your happiness. The truth is they ain’t coming back with another marshmallow. They’ve tucked into the ‘reward for patience’ marshmallows themselves and found a way to tell you it’s for your own good. There’s a reproducibility crisis in politicians’ promises. The breaking of them remains remarkably consistent.

I’m starting to detect that a significant part of the population has worked this out and decided to Carpe the Diem out of life. You have to love unexpected consequences. Everyone has a plan until your best friend turns up with a tray of tequila shots. Personal disclosure: this piece was inspired by a photo my wife’s friend sent me of the lovely Mrs Driver downing her first tequila shot of the century. Now there are some who would argue being married to me necessitates the regular intake of alcohol but I think there’s more than that going on here. I was at a ‘tax lunch’ a couple of weeks ago (yes, there is such a thing) which dissolved through several bottles of red into a significant number of Old Fashioneds and hours of belly laughs amongst people who were previously mostly only acquaintances. And some of them were accountants.

If you’ve tried to buy a house or a car lately you’ll know these markets are on fire. Try to get a table at a decent restaurant and they’re booked weeks in advance. Renting a holiday cottage in Cornwall requires advanced knowledge of the works of Sun Tzu.

Bars are full, people are spending, people are Carpeing the Diem everywhere you look.

It appears that 18 months of scaring people has some unexpected consequences. Aren’t people supposed to be afraid of a deadly virus? If we can’t trust behavioural psychologists to tell us what’s going on who can we turn to? The pollsters? To quote the original Mad Man, David Ogilvy, ‘The trouble with market research is that people don’t think what they feel, they don’t say what they think and they don’t do what they say.’ Opinion polls are bunk. The pollsters either design the questions and the audience to get the answer they want or people don’t reveal their true motivations. Surprisingly, economists might help us out here. The Theory of Revealed Preferences is the economist’s way of saying ‘look at what people do, not what they say’. The revealed preference here is that people want to live their lives and they want to cram as much of it as possible into today. 

Back to the full ‘Carpe Diem’ quotation, it seems the unexpected second order effect of repeated broken promises and flawed nudging is that people now ‘trust as little as possible in the future’. There are two ways to look at this phenomenon. The optimist I really want to be might see it as the natural exuberance of humanity expressing itself despite the best efforts of our leadership/nudge class. Unfortunately history might disagree. What happens when societies go full Carpe Diem? I’m not sure it always ends well. According to the historian Sir John Glubb in The Fall of Empires (1976), there are six stages of a civilisation; the decadence stage is the final throw of the dice before collapse.

In the meantime I’ll be headed to ‘early’ drinks with a group of other rebelliously minded people on Thursday evening and I bet we don’t finish at the advertised time of 9.30pm. I’m self-diagnosing myself with Carpe Diem Syndrome. Tequila shots all round.

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Michael Driver
Michael Driver is CEO of boutique investment bank Convex Capital. He is based in Manchester.

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