President June 2019

Do nothing

Why we must fight the trend of impatience

We cannot be sure of the origin of the phrase “too much of a good thing,” but we do know that William Shakespeare alluded to the fact that it can be bad for you. Whilst the Bard was not thinking about technology when he wrote that, the words still ring true after 400 years.

We all know that rapid advancements in mobile digital communications and data processing enable us (if we are smart) to work faster, more flexibly and with greater productivity. At the same time, there is a growing realisation that the possibility of 24/7 connectivity is making society increasingly impatient for instant gratification and real-time responses. Without discipline, it is all too easy for mobile devices to disrupt the pace of our lives and the proportion of things such as adequate rest and play, required for a healthy lifestyle—both physi­cally and mentally.

Downtime matters

Neuroscience has shown that when consciously idle our brains remain highly active. These sub­conscious processes, of which we are unaware, fire up different parts of our brain, including areas associated with creativity. For the processes to flourish, it is impor­tant to find time to do nothing. That is easier said than done in Japan, where the universal pressure on modern workers to do more with less combines with a stubbornly persistent long-hours working culture.

Counterintuitively, it takes a surprising amount of effort to do nothing. Techniques are a matter of personal preference. Some people practice medi­tation and mindfulness, whilst others prefer to lose them­selves among the shelves of a good book­shop—or of a bad one for that matter. Both have a rejuvenating effect that cannot be replicated by delving into an online archive!

Bias build-up

It was in this way that I stumbled across Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, in which the Nobel Prize winner explains how people make decisions. Alarmingly, it is human nature to unconsciously allow our likes and dislikes to determine our beliefs about the world, causing us to make judgments and decisions based on emotion rather than reason.

Accordingly, when asked difficult questions about what we think about something, we tend to reply—unconsciously—with an answer to the much simpler question of how we feel about it. This makes us susceptible to media messaging and populism, and it is no coincidence that businesses, celebrities and political parties of all stripes allo­cate huge resources to public relations and communications campaigns.

Seeking statesmen

The same process contributes to self-sustaining event cascades, whereby inflamed biases lead to the polarisation of public opinion which, in turn, impacts the direction of policy. In this manner, we have seen traditionally dominant centrist parties lose ground in recent European Union elections for the European Parliament.

Kahneman advises that an understanding of psycho­logy should inform the design of policies that combine expert knowledge with the public’s emo­tions and intuitions. Let us hope there­fore that, in the realm of international relations, we will see expert politicians and bureaucrats demonstrate the leader­ship and statesmanship necessary to seek rational—albeit sometimes unpalatable—compromise before settling for damaging emotional entrenchment.