Everything is arbitrary (…and why it matters)

Why do we do what we do?

We act in order to survive and replicate but the strategies that we pursue to do this are, essentially, arbitrary. The way that we explain things is arbitrary – it could have happened for many reasons. You and I will not see things the same way because we have be shaped by different experiences. We will attribute causality in different ways. We will seek evidence from different sources. We will have different emphases and biases. Was that luck or skill? Was that success or failure? Is it safe or risky?
Imprints are important to shaping the way we behave – the experiences that made us who we are along the way. These are the anchors that we use to make decisions based upon, they are the ‘factory settings’. They also determine the way in which we think and we act based on emotional responses (even if we like to think we are rational). These can create thinking traps – the thoughts that hold you back, that force you to bite your lip and wait and the words you use to justify your limitations. Or imprints can set you free. Jay-Z was just an average schoolkid until his 6th grade teacher told him he had a way with words. What if she had bit her lip and never spoken? How would the world be different?

Imprints too are just arbitrary events that have shaped you along the way. This raises the question: who are you? If your personality, your beliefs and your thoughts are shaped externally then is there an authentic you? Would you still think the way you do if you had caught that train, had spoken to that girl or had taken that risk?

Similarly if you aren’t who you want to be then you can change things. You are plasticine in your own hands that you can mould, if only you realised.

Shape your world, do not be shaped by your world. And if you manage this, you owe it to the rest of us to tell us how to do the same.

This is why defaults and social norms are so powerful. They imprint the path to take and affect our behaviour in ways we may never fully realise. Take a simple thought; Times New Roman was for years the default font of choice. What if the decision had been to go with Calibri or Comic Sans, how would the world be different? We know that your imagination responds better to the colour blue than black, how would the world have been different if everything was written in blue? The decision as to what font to use as the default was (probably) arbitrarily decided but this may have an effect on the way we behave, the way we think and the lives we lead.

Consider this; the organ donation rate in the United Kingdom is about 17% whilst the organ donation rate in France is about 99%. Why the difference? A stronger sense of solidarity within the French Republic? Or British rational self-interest?

How about simply the difference between an opt-in and an opt-out box on the form that you fill in when you receive your driving licence? No doubt this default was decided arbitrarily one day by a person who will remain anonymous but their decision on that day inadvertently resulted in a shortage of organs within the British health system whilst another decision has lead to a plethora within the French. It shows the extent to which we follow the road most travelled.

Why not change the default option then? Why not indeed. Yet changing the default is often a big dilemma, only because something existed before. “You can’t change it to blue, it’s always been black”. “You can’t take away my organs, that’s deceitful” “You can’t become an entrepreneur, that’s madness”. How would our behaviour and our imprints be different if that wasn’t the case that some things are arbitrary like this? If the opposite were the norm?

Ultimately the path in life that most people choose is arbitrarily decided based upon the decisions of people they will never meet and who will never be affected by their actions. Going to school and learning what you did is arbitrarily decided. Why maths and not meteorology? Why english and not emotions? Passing tests, getting in to college, going to work is arbitrarily decided by the ‘factory setting’ of the world we live in. It has developed from a default. And most people follow the default.

But the saddest thing of all is that most people never realise this…

Now how do you respond to this? Does this give you a feeling of ultimate fear or ultimate freedom? Because all I’m really saying is: there are no rules.

Do you agree?

I am sure that most people will disagree, but you aren’t most people. Most people accept their circumstances and will never test my theory. Maybe I am wrong, maybe there are some underlying rules to the world. Maybe. But nobody can prove me wrong without first trying to push their possibilities beyond those of everyone that has ever lived. Why not try it today? It doesn’t have to be anything earth-shattering. Everything was once just a thought but it’s these small thoughts that can change everything. Just try to test a few rules that you think you have to abide by.

What will you test first?