Questions without easy answers abound. But we humans hate that. Our brains like certainty. Tough, complex problems without clear solutions make us very unhappy indeed. In these situations, particularly where public pressure exists to find a fast and clean answer, we’re susceptible to a type of cognitive bias called substitution. Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, explains it this way, “If a satisfactory answer to a hard question is not found quickly, [our brains] will find a related question that is easier and will answer it.”
Since being sure of something is our preferred condition, our brains tend to do a lot to help us feel that way. We fight hard to preserve our version of events — even when we know we’re wrong. A story about onions is a good, if odd, example of this.
In 1955 an onion farmer and commodities trader named Vince Kosuga saw a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He and his business partner, Sam Siegel, secretly bought up almost all of the onions in the U.S. But they didn’t stop at buying the onions already harvested, they wanted ALL of them — including the little baby onions still germinating in the ground. They made deals with farmers, a common practice then and now, to buy the farmer’s crops at a fixed price sometime in the future. This is called a ‘futures contract.’ These two dudes now owned virtually all of the onions in the U.S. And it wasn’t because they loved the crunchy tang of beer-battered onion rings.
Because the men owned 98% of the onions, they used that power to both drive prices up, because they’d bet on higher prices, and then crash the market, because they’d bet on lower ones. It got so bad at one point, the cost of a bag filled with onions was actually less than the price of the empty 20-cent bag itself.
Normally, futures contracts help farmers by allowing them to sell their expected crops at a predictable price. But when Vince and Sam stepped in, the two men made millions, while lots of devastated farmers and others went out of business, some committing suicide. A congressman named Gerald Ford (yep, the future President) decided to act. He introduced the Onion Futures Act banning the sale of futures contracts on onions. The Act was signed into law by President Eisenhower in the summer of 1958.
To this day, 60 years later, onions are the only banned commodity in the futures market. The Act intended to stabilize the price of onions and address the concerns of the farmers hurt by Vince and Sam’s schemes. But volatility remains even now. In fact, agricultural economists say the act hurts consumers and producers, never really meeting it’s primary goal to insulate the market from manipulation and stabilize prices.
Despite the fact that extreme volatility in the price of onions continues, the ineffective Act persists. Could it be that the complex question, “How do we stop an unscrupulous and greedy few from ruining the opportunity for the many?” is just too hard? Do we want to have the answer so badly that we create a world of binary all-or-nothing solutions?
A personal wrong answer
I can think of many times when I’ve answered the wrong question. One incident with my son stands out. In that case, when he was eight, he’d locked the door to his bedroom because of a disappointment involving an ice cream treat. When I discovered the locked door, two things happened — fear and anger. We’d told him the door wasn’t to be locked, and it was. But more importantly, when I asked him to open the door I heard nothing but silence. Blind panic gripped my brain.
I had shouted for my husband, who came bounding up the stairs ready to demolish the door with his bare hands in order to get to the no-doubt lifeless child inside . . . . Seconds later, a wide-eyed eight-year-old stood in the doorway with tears falling from his cheeks. My body had so flooded itself with flight or fight hormones, I had just sense enough to feel the relief of seeing my perfectly healthy child before I turned on my heel and left my husband to deal with the situation.
“Take that door knob off, please,” I said as I retreated down the stairs to calm myself down.
So here’s the question: What problem did the removal of that door knob actually solve?
It definitely meant the kid couldn’t lock his door anymore, but was the locked door the real issue? No. The real issue is much more complex; I don’t want my son storming up to his room when his expectations of a treat aren’t met. There’s a life lesson there. But it won’t be solved by taking his door knob off. Similarly, banning the sale of onion futures doesn’t solve the bigger issue of corruption, opportunism, and market manipulation.
No one can deny we live in a complex world. We grapple with questions of local, national, and global significance. Our brains struggle with uncertainty and complexity, and yet almost every major decision we have to make as informed leaders and citizens on this planet is fraught with both. So what are we to do about it?
The philosopher Alan Watts sums it up like this:
“But you cannot understand life and its mysteries as long as you try to grasp it. Indeed, you cannot grasp it, just as you cannot walk off with a river in a bucket. If you try to capture running water in a bucket, it is clear that you do not understand it and that you will always be disappointed, for in the bucket the water does not run. To “have” running water you must let go of it and let it run.”
― Alan Wilson Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity
What we can do is stop to think, question our certainty, and right the wrongs created by the hasty decision-making of the past. When we peel back the layers of complexity to understand the real problem, we sign a contract with our future selves that serves us all a little better in the end.