Friday, March 24, 2006

Theory of cheap ideas

What are the most popular products, the items that people buy most, the best-sellers, top of the list? The cheapest ones.
Cheap, low-cost flights make people travel more, bargains on designer clothes make people buy more of them, and so on.
Understandably. “Cheap” simply means that it required fewer hours of work and energy to be bought. It’s a biological need, a principle of economy: all things being equal, go for what requires less energy.
It’s only natural, biological (part of our biology and that of other animals) to try to save our energy expenditure. There’s nothing wrong with that per se.

The same happens with ideas. Some ideas require more intellectual effort than others, are more energy-consuming. You’ll find that the least energy-consuming, which are the easiest, the cheapest, will be the ones most widely held.
We tend to believe that, if lots of people think something, believe in some theory, that is more likely to be true.
Not so. If lots of people believe in an idea, it will simply be because that idea is cheaper, regardless of its truth.
Cheap ideas may or may not be true.
Sometimes the simplest thought may be true because it is, so to speak (in a manner of speaking) “closer to reality”, more material, down to earth, attached to the ground, more linked to the faculty of observation and our five senses, less involving the power of imagination and fantasy, less fanciful, less abstract, less flying into higher spheres.
But other times, exactly for the same reason, because lacking fantasy when fantasy is required, the cheapest idea is utterly misleading. Of course it’s intuitive to believe that the earth on which we stand is at the centre of the universe, and everything else, including the sun, and the sun moves around it: we see it with our own eyes going from one point in the sky to another. And yet it is not true. People believed it for centuries because it was intuitive, cheaper than any alternative theory, and they were wrong.
In some ways, the fact that many people hold a certain view may be a sign of its being untrue or, at best, naïve and simplistic.
This is the transfer of a principle of economics (people tend to buy cheaper) into a different realm, that of opinion holding, through their common ground of biology.

The amount of intellectual energy demanded by holding any given idea is, of course, a relative value, not an absolute one. If you’re a millionaire, is cheap for you what is very expensive for average people. Similarly, individuals with less intelligence would find much more expensive, energy-consuming, to hold ideas which for high-IQ persons are relatively easy and cheap, not requiring much effort at all.

A good example of these cheap theories is how much beauty is over-estimated.
Not over-estimated in the sense that it’s considered important and it shouldn’t be, no. Over-estimated in the sense that people say that they consider it important (and they appear to consider it important) but in reality, when you look at what they do rather than what they say, when they speak with their actions rather than their mouths, they do not treat beauty as important at all.
A film, a biopic of Audrey Hepburn, reminds me vividly of this.
Throughout the film, based on her biographies, Audrey Hepburn is described as exceptionally beautiful and the message is that people were fascinated by her stunning looks. Now, Hepburn had a pretty face, yes, but you could hardly describe her as a stunner. She was extremely thin and was not a sex symbol by any stretch of imagination. What clearly emerged from her filmed biography, though, was that she had a very sunny, spontaneous personality, very generous, a bit child-like. Perhaps she liked people. That had the power to fascinate others, very likely, not any imaginary Miss World appearance.
For some reason, it seems easier to believe in the power of beauty than in the power of something much more difficult to define, grasp, understand.

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