Jacob is a golden retriever. Like many goldens, his favorite activity is retrieving a tennis ball. We throw the ball; he brings it back and drops it at our feet. It can go on for hours. Actually, we don’t know how long it could go on because we always give up before he does.
But Jacob sometimes gets stuck when we play this game at my in-laws’ pool. This is because of two fixed, internal rules he has. The first rule is that he must stay on land until he is as close as possible to the ball and then swim the rest of the way. The second rule is that he must enter the water gradually. He won’t jump in from the side. This makes playing in the Pacific Ocean easy, but the pool presents a problem. If the ball is closer to one of the edges of the pool than it is to the steps, all he can do is run to the closest edge, look at the ball with trembling excitement and bark.
Cognitive scientists call this kind of difficulty “sphexishness” after the behavior of the female sphex wasp. She will sting and paralyze a cricket, stash it in a hole in a tree and lay her eggs on it. When the eggs hatch, the baby wasps have fresh cricket to eat.
But the mama sphex also has an internal rule. When she brings a cricket to the opening of the hole, she always goes inside for a look around before she drags it in. If an experimenter moves the cricket a few inches away while the sphex is in the hole, she will repeat the process, bringing the cricket back to the opening and going inside for a look. If the experimenter moves the cricket again, the wasp will repeat the behavior.
Her internal rule calls for her to look in the hole before she drags the cricket inside, and that is what she will do. If the experimenter moves the cricket 40 times, the sphex will repeat the behavior 40 times. We don’t know how many more times she would do it because the experimenters always give up.
It’s fun to observe sphexishness in animals. The trick, of course, is to be able to recognize it in ourselves. What behaviors do we humans senselessly repeat over and over because of some unquestioned internal rule? What entirely avoidable loop of stupidity are we stuck in? Here are a few candidates:
We continue to think that Americans, no matter how crazy, should be able to buy guns, no matter how lethal. Columbine had no effect. Virginia Tech, no effect. Lunatic after lunatic, senseless murder after murder, nothing changes. Somebody like Jared Loughner, who doesn’t appear to know whether he’s afoot or on horseback, can wander into a sporting-goods store and stumble out with a semiautomatic weapon almost as easily as he can buy a sleeve of golf balls.
We continue to believe that business can regulate itself. Wall Street greedheads nearly blow up the world economy with their pointless, synthetic financial instruments, and we continue to believe that government regulation of financial markets would stifle innovation. We spend hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer money to try to fix the consequences of their most recent innovations, and yet we persist in the belief that regulating the industry would be un-American. We can’t even summon the political will to pressure companies to reduce the salaries and bonuses of the most egregious malefactors.
We persist in throwing endless blood and treasure into the endless, pointless war on drugs. After 40 years, untold billions of dollars and countless lives wasted in prison, it’s still easier for a teenager in Detroit to buy a bag of cocaine than a six-pack of beer. How much richer is organized crime as a result of the fact that drugs are illegal? How many children have been killed in this war?
We continue to believe ― against all logic, all evidence and all experience ― that giving money to the for-profit insurance industry is the way to provide health care for the poor and sick. There isn’t enough money in health care for not-for-profit institutions to make a go of it, but adding a layer of investors to skim off the top will make it work.
We continue to believe in the fantasies of smart bombs, surgical strikes and limited wars.
And we continue to imagine that a government funded by corporate lobbyists and dedicated to no higher principle than lower taxes is going to be a guardian of the public interest.
These ideas are not working this time. They didn’t work last time or the time before that. We have no idea why. And we all just stand here barking.
By Barry Goldman
Barry Goldman is an arbitrator and mediator and the author of “The Science of Settlement: Ideas for Negotiators.” ― Ed.