URSABLOG: Hopeless Choices?

I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news. You know all those self-help books, memes and videos you see on LinkedIn and elsewhere encouraging you that you can change into the person that you really want to be? That you deserve to be? That all you need is to have a little perseverance, a little grit, a little will-power? That you can be the agent of change? That all you have to do is cut out those irritating bad habits and replace them with good ones? Well, I’m afraid to break this to you but don’t even bother trying. It will ultimately be a huge waste of time. You are an organism whose actions are dictated by a combination of your genetic make-up and the environmental factors you experienced when you were growing up and there’s nothing you can do about it. Worse than that, you have no free will. Your choices are already made for you by your unconscious mind before you consciously think you make them, and all you can do is justify them consciously after you have made them unconsciously.

Says who? Says the behavioural scientist Robert M Sapolsky in his latest book Determined: A Science of Life without Free Will. And I for one, find the conclusions reached by him rather depressing, especially as apparently it’s science, not just an opinion. What have I been doing all these years, trying to make myself a better broker, a better person when by the time I realised that I had choices, those choices had already been programmed and hard-wired into me, by genetics and by my childhood? Is there no escape? Is there no hope?

But I kind of knew this already. The choice to have just one more glass of wine rather than go home, to sit on my couch and read (or worse scroll social media) rather than go on a bike ride or do good works for charity seems to have been made for me. I can excuse myself, I can justify my actions by saying the company is great rather than my appetite just one more glass of wine is unlimited, or I need to relax a bit more, to give myself some ‘me time’ rather than get some well needed exercise, or do some good for others. I will then feel bad, hungover, lazy, and resolve to change in the future. But I find it difficult and get very frustrated when the change I want is not immediately achievable. But now I understand my frustration, because – according to Mr Sapolsky at least – it was never going to happen any other way.

In my broking life, why do some deals get done, and some deals don’t? A combination of at least three different parties – buyers, sellers and brokers – have different makeups, and different relationships with each other, makes things interesting to start with. But if our choices are predetermined, whatever the outcome of the deal, those choices (and how often have I as a broker despaired at a wrong move during negotiations, including my own) were always going to be made, so what can we do? We were just unlucky.

But – however comforting I may find this during a hangover, after a period of laziness, or even in the ruins of a failed deal – I cannot accept this way of thinking. What is the point of being alive if we cannot do stuff to change our lives? Are we always going to be bound to our genetic make-up? To how we were raised? This sounds an easy way out to explain the injustices of the world, and it has – to me at least – a smell of apologism for prejudice and even racism. That person – or those people – will always behave like that; why bother trying to change things? Just look after yourself and your own needs. And so you can stay on the sofa, with a bottle of wine and a smartphone, complaining about the world. But this is not how I wish to live.

And the evidence for positive change in the world, through history, through different cultures, even in my own life too, surely disproves this. If people did not have free will, why would they choose to try and make things better for themselves or the people around them? You cannot surely argue that whole societies were born ‘lucky’ or ‘unlucky’ due to genetic and environmental conditions during childhood without then saying that those lucky or unlucky people will always be getting progressively better or worse, respectively, over time.

But this is what Mr Sapolsky says, and provides examples – not entirely scientific to my taste – to prove it. Luck is not random, he says, that evens out over time, but instead it compounds. The lucky remain lucky as their place in the world improves. Bad luck compounds, meaning that many who are born “unlucky” have little chance of getting ahead. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer and that’s it. But it isn’t: huge inequality is not good for society, for the world. That’s why we have political systems in place, democratic or otherwise, to address these differences, in one way or the other.

I am one of five children, and all of us have the same parents, and were brought up by them in the same place. But we are all different, hugely different. Some of us look more like some of the others, and an outsider could point out the similarities if we were all lined up together. But I doubt if someone who knew my younger sisters would immediately recognise me as their brother if they met me independently in a different context, either by looks or behaviour. Our lives are completely different, as are our personalities. Sure there are similarities, but as time has gone on, and our different life choices and experiences have diverged, we have not become more alike, but more obviously diverse. Happily so.

You may argue that it is the unique genetic mix of a person, even one of a pair of twins, that creates our individuality, and I would agree. One twin, even an identical one, will have a completely different sense of themself than another, and even allowing for the bond between them, they will make different choices in life, choose different things, for good or bad. Being who we are, and who we become, is mysterious and beautiful, and not predetermined.

But I think that my resistance to the idea that there is no such thing as free will, even though it can justify our own failings, is that it is so hopeless. ‘We are who we are, and that’s it’ does not explain, or excuse, our behaviour. Apart from almost immediately putting most psychotherapists out of business at a stroke, it also cannot explain our evolution, as a species, or as a collection of societies.

Eugenics, back in the 1920s and 1930s, was a pseudoscientific set of beliefs that became very popular, even in ‘progressive’ circles, and tried – through a misreading of Darwinian theory – to alter and ‘improve’ the human gene pool. This led to, or excused, the sterilisation and euthanasia of many ‘undesirable’ – or just unlucky – elements of society, even in many ‘advanced’ societies. That this set of beliefs did not survive the second world war and the horrors of holocaust and extermination speaks for itself. Behavioural science – or at least some corners of it – is at risk of putting too much emphasis on genetics, and ‘how we were raised’ to blind us to the reality of the messy, beautiful, painful, terrible and joyful experience of being alive as unique, imperfect human beings.

We have knee-jerk reactions, instinctive reactions, to situations we find ourselves in, but if we find that the results of our actions are inappropriate (I am obviously being gentle here) do we not try and understand and learn from those actions? And then change our behaviour? I cannot imagine myself as a broker after noting that either my aggression, timidity or missteps led to the failure of a deal, and then not trying to learn lessons from it to be put into action. To just put it down to my genetic make-up and upbringing, ignore the lessons that could be learnt and just move on to the next one is not part of my genetic make-up and upbringing. It’s also not profitable. And there is the paradox.

There will always be a balance between accepting who we are and trying to change things – including our own behaviour – for the better. The tension of this dichotomy probably leads to a lot of the perplexity (again I am being gentle) we experience in our lives. This tension also leads to much of the beauty and horror of human experience. I strongly believe that the choice to do good or evil is not just based on our genetic make-up and upbringing, however strongly influenced it is by it. Our choices are not down to whether we are born good or bad. The record of human experience, and the random nature of the beauty and horror we create as the unwitting consequences of our actions, speaks otherwise.

In the end, for me at least, it comes back to a prayer said at the end of every Alcoholics Anonymous meetings:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Most of us have the choice, in greater or lesser measure, on decisions we take in our lives. We also have a brain, a mind, and wisdom. Some decisions are very hard to make. But we make progress. We grow. We fail. We find peace. We lose it. But to have that choice taken away from us, to be denied the use – even scientifically – of free will, will soon make us realise how valuable a gift we have lost. We will not just be unlucky, we will be without hope, unless we decide to fight again to retrieve that freedom. And life without hope, this thing that uniquely defines our species, is not something I am willing to contemplate.

Simon Ward