How to Make Decisions Without Information
An application of behaviouralism and psychology within capitalist society, how to discover the correct values of survival and make “natural” decisions as it applies to startups that aim to disrupt.
A few years back I read bits and pieces of B.F. Skinner’s psychology of Behavioralism and at the same time, I was also starting to get into Deleuze’s Postmodern philosophy in his book, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. It was a very casual and very scattered reading, and consequently I can’t remember at all, which of these ideas came from which philosopher or psychologist, and which was my own synthesis. (However I’m confident that if you are truly interested in diving deeper into these topics you will find these exact ideas without too much difficulty, and I will source the books below.)
One of the reasons these ideas are so scattered and confused is that I came across them at a period of my life that was marked by intense struggle and suffering, both psychologically and in my career, so it was part of an investigation into why (1) my own survival felt so difficult and (2) why survival within capitalism felt so difficult. Through my research, I uncovered an incredibly enlightening and exciting understanding that was a great source of inner stability to me, and was incredibly useful in driving decisions as I moved through modern society. I have been carrying it within me to navigate my life with no need to express it outwardly, until now as I make a connection between these same lessons and the survival of a company. As I learn more about startups, technical decisions, product and strategy decisions, I see more and more useful applications of this theory. For this reason I am putting it into writing now.
Idea 1: The Technology of Behaviour
There are kind of two streams of theories that got intertwined at some point, and I don’t remember how, or if they did at all. The first source, B.F. Skinner was an American Psychologist of the 1950s who is considered a pioneer of Behavioralism. Behavioralism in pop culture actually has a negative connotation I think. (Think of the Principal Skinner in the Simpsons, where he is portrayed as a sort of villain opposite to Bart). You might remember hearing about Pavlov’s dog and bell experiment, where a dog can be conditioned to behave in a predictable way. Skinner’s idea behind Behaviouralism is that there exists a ‘technology of behaviour’ the same way we can use technology to aid us in so many other ways, even going to the moon. So why not use some sort of technology to engineer a better life? This is an incredibly powerful idea that I assume got used in damaging ways, probably by the military-industrial complex, hence giving the negative connotations. B. F. Skinner himself actually had a political goal of avoiding nuclear war and favoured positive reinforcement as the means of control.
I think his attempt to objectively view human behaviour as a technology is incredibly ambitious and deeply humane — in Beyond Freedom & Dignity he invites us to move past nuanced and emotional social concepts such as “Freedom” and “Dignity” and see ourselves clearly without the weight of shame or the confusion of chasing an elusive and vague idea of freedom. A psychologist is usually tasked with giving us the answers of what a human needs for a good and healthy life. But what creates what we want and need? Humans aren’t born with a set of instructions saying: I must sleep for 8 hours and eat vegetables for every meal and have 3 good friends. We don’t even have the most basic of instructions. Take for example, eating food. No one actually tells us that we need to eat or we will starve to death. However, not eating anything for 24 hours will make your stomach hurt with emptiness and your mind will start drifting out of conversations as it starts to focus all its inner resources on getting yourself a sandwich. The suffering itself guides us to the solution of survival. Only the experience of living will teach you what you need to do to survive it. Humans can’t invent new needs from thin air, like ‘you must eat only purple foods or you will die.’ The values of survival do not come from our culture or science or any human-made understanding, it can only come from the nature of survival itself.
Looking at something as natural as eating food might not be the best example to understand this, so let’s look at it through something a bit more abstract: money. Take for example, a child whose parents pay for everything. They go into a toy store and cry that they cannot buy every toy they want, and then feel like a total failure because their classmate got a toy they didn’t. They’ve never felt the pain of not having enough money or having to balance a budget. It’s not until they have to be responsible for themselves financially that they start managing their appetites. Whatever lesson they learn is probably too complex to put to words, but I think we can relate to that learning process of trial and error and figuring out how to survive financially through our experiences of not having enough money, and how there is no blueprint for this. If you had to explain to a young adult, why they have to save money and not spend it all on clothes, the lessons just won’t land, because we do not choose the values of survival, survival chooses it for us. The unique and personal experience of surviving life will tell us when it is valuable to save money, to make money, and to spend money, and no one else can solve that exact formula for all humanity, not even the greatest economist or the richest person in the world. I think this is the core of B.F. Skinner’s technology of behaviour. There is no absolute knowledge of how we should survive and what we need to survive, but the experience of living and finding ways to survive will discover those for us. With a motivational spin, it can also be expressed as “it’s not the strong that survive, but surviving that makes us strong.”
One caveat here is that of course, we don’t individually try to figure out every single survival skill on our own, (which would look like waiting until your house burns down to learn you should have gotten home insurance) usually some degree of knowledge is given to us by sources we trust, and that’s what society and culture does for us. This is where external sources of ‘survival value’ comes into play, more on that later.
Idea 2: Capitalism and Schizophrenia
Now I want to introduce Deleuze’s Capitalism and Schizophrenia. The idea is that every era of society produces a characteristic mental illness. I have heard Jordan Peterson describe mental illness as a balloon that pops when it goes past its threshold, and where it pops is characteristic of that specific mental illness. We can imagine some marginalized individuals in society may find themselves experiencing symptoms of a mental illness at some periods of their lives, whether it is due to internal personality and/or external factors. Certain pressures push our minds in specific directions, leading to some characteristic illnesses. In the Victorian era, extreme sexual repression led to psychosis, which Freud and Carl Jung et al spent a lot of time diagnosing with that stereotyped “talking cure” of lying on a couch describing your dream to a therapist. I should note that at this point in my life, I had gone through a roster of mismatched therapists and I was starved for a better framework of therapy. My class had also been reading about Freud and his (gross) Oedipus theories, which is why the title “Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia” stuck out to me. What Deleuze and his colleague and co-writer Félix Guattari says is that the characteristic mental illness of the modern, capitalist era is schizophrenia. To be clear, this isn’t the capitalism of the 1900s industrial era of factories and child labour and no weekends — it’s the modern era of pervasive and relentless marketing, the commodification of everything, including our attention and desires and how every day it attempts to go deeper, more nuanced, and commodify something ever closer to the core of our very human life force.
Schizophrenia is still a mystery to me, and I think it is still a mystery to psychologists and I accept that, because it is part of the problem of the era we are living through now, it’s not a closed chapter. I imagine that the process of becoming schizophrenic is something that goes like this: you see an ad for a car, telling you that you should definitely have more friends who love the outdoors and that you should take more cross-country road-trips. It tells you to be the kind of person who values adventure, freedom, making memories and not making too many plans ahead. Then in under half a minute, you see another shampoo commercial that tells you to be cheerful and confident, then you see a music video with product placement for Nike sneakers telling you to be competitive, athletic, outgoing. Considering how many advertisements we will see in an entire day, there is a continual whiplash of desires demanding us to be thousands of different people. These impossibly complex demands intensify with every product that sells a lifestyle built upon the sales of other products. It’s not exactly just the advertisements, but what kind of emotional environment this creates for our society. Someone without an experience of the minimum of social relationships and hence a sense of who they are in connection to others, could probably fall into the delusions and inner confusion that marks Schizophrenia.
Putting it Together
We’ve learned from B.F. Skinner that we need to (1) suffer (2) trust the what others warn us about suffering, in order to be motivated to figure out survival. I think even learning from others what we should do is a kind of ‘suffering’ that motivates us, especially if it comes from guilt or shame or some kind of fear or pressure to act. Think of how capitalism interferes with our natural process of figuring out our needs and wants. You might realize you need a pair of jeans when summer starts to get chilly, and that’s a natural reaction. However, a teen magazine might tell you that you need flare-bottom jeans or you will be a social outcast, which definitely happened to me in middle school. Capitalism does this — it always takes things to the extreme. You need all 5 flare-bottom jeans with different designs and materials.
How many jeans do you buy? Do you buy all 5 and create landfill waste, and also waste money, or do you buy none and freeze all winter? I’ve seen a lot of radial anti-capitalists that reject capitalism altogether and would say something like ‘wear nothing and live in a commune in Costa Rica,’ but it doesn’t solve the problem of actually needing to buy pants, hence it’s not useful advice to survive within capitalism. The mere fact that we are thinking about the magazine with flared-jeans means our minds is searching for a solution and that we instinctively know that we need to buy pants for fall. The solution here would be to to buy one pair of pants. That is, to participate and definitely buy the things you need to survive, but not to the extreme.
I had a phase in college where I was really into rose-scented perfumes, and I felt super guilty that I was spending so much time thinking about perfumes that were out of my OSAP budget and I was wasting time and should definitely be doing my readings. I later learned that rose aromatherapy is good for anxiety, which was something I had. My instinct had lead me to seek out something that I needed. I probably didn’t have to buy the $120 french perfume, but maybe find some small bottle of essential oil or maybe even rose tea. That’s the solution to surviving capitalism: following your instincts, with moderation. In the moment though, we won’t have the hindsight understanding of why we need something to survive at that moment. This is particularly true if you’re trying something for the first time or in a new environment, like I was when I lived away from my family for the first time and was learning how to take care of myself.
Working in a growing company affords you very few certainties, and some of those are change, a lack of information, and needing to survive and adapt and make the right decisions despite those factors. Without getting too prescriptive (that would go against the whole spirit of finding the ‘values of survival’ for yourself), I have seen a few examples of ways we can make better decisions despite external and internal confusion. In tech, there is a lot of marketing aimed at developers. That might not be obvious to non-developers particularly since some of our tooling is free and open-sourced. However there’s still value in having a lot of people buy-in to your tool so there is fairly aggressive marketing in the form of intellectual authority with the claim that every team should adopt this tool and let it take over their entire project. What wise architects are taught to do is to use the tool if you think it will be valuable, but understand what that tool can and cannot solve (they will advertise that they can solve everything). Many inexperienced teams will fall prey to being locked-in to a tool that has overpromised their usefulness. Many AWS products can be like this and if you’re not careful, you will be tempted to use every single line they have to offer, but realize later (when it’s too late) that those tools don’t fit your use-case.
The way this example is relevant to how we survive within capitalism is that the developers in the team will be making decisions based on resource limitations, timelines, their own performance review in the back of their minds, and not wanting to clock in more time maintaining this code. The developers are at the centre of a job that is the product of the capital market, making decisions that are under those same pressures. Other roles are under similar pressures. Consider the manager that is pressured to hire 50 new candidates each quarter. Are we hiring because of all the business books and magazines telling us that’s what a growing company is ‘supposed’ to do? What is the real need for survival, what is the suffering? Perhaps the real problem is actually a resource bottleneck at the most senior developer, where they are putting out every fire, and newer developers are not having the opportunities to learn to deal with crisis, and so it’s an internal training problem. Or maybe we do need to hire more, but less and more selectively.
At the strategist’s level, they might be tempted to chase every possible new product line as a sales opportunity to maximize profit. But is profit the same as growth? Does the company have a much more nuanced, and individualized definition of growth that is uniquely based on their own product, their own needs and problems? At every level where decisions are made, the pressures of market capitalism make that decision so much more difficult to navigate. How a team maintains the integrity of knowing its true needs decides how it will survive and thrive.
On the surface, “make better decisions” isn’t particularly useful advice. It’s when we consider and understand the influences surrounding and within us that we’re able to make the best, most natural, instinctive, and pragmatic decisions, especially in a scale-up that is breaking out of the norm, for which there are no instructions and there has never been a precedent.
Beyond Freedom & Dignity, B.F. Skinner
Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari