On the Paradox of Abundance (pt. 1)
Making sense of instincts gone haywire i.e. evolutionary mismatching
I had about 5 newsletter ideas floating around for this edition. The plan was to write about one of these things for today. Despite my intentions, I started noticing how a variety of things I read over the past couple of days were all connected, related, and addressing different facets of a larger arc. This divergence, which emerged as a direct result of zettelkasten thinking, was impossible for me to ignore, so I started dumping everything into a draft so I could play with them. I ended up with an outline that is long enough to be a sizeable essay and there’s no way I can finish writing this in one night, so please find below Part One.
Why is the Paradox of Abundance a thing?
Last Friday, David Perell mentioned in his newsletter a piece called the Paradox of Abundance which shines a light on how humans at the species-level seem to have gotten worse at optimizing for improved survivability, despite the availability of better data. For example, we have an abundance of choice and knowledge that can improve health. Yet, we live in a time where there is a proliferation of both ultra healthy and ultra unhealthy people. Why is that?
Digging deeper into the root of this expressed puzzlement: with all these new possibilities for positive action (e.g. people doing the "right" thing, whatever that is), why do we see people gravitate towards both extremes of a situation? Every time we expand the realm of possibility through innovation, technology, or simply better knowledge, why do we end up with people at either end when one side clearly is more healthy and beneficial for species survival? Have our survival instincts gone haywire? Well, perhaps a part of the answer is in fact: yes. Yes they have.
Evolutionary Mismatch: when our primal instincts lead us astray
In another newsletter I love to open every week called Dense Discovery, they shared an article today called How to be Healthy in a Dopamine-Seeking Culture. It’s a decent article, but there was one thing that stood out to me the most, and it was related to aspects of the Paradox of Abundance.
You’re in the supermarket, and you’re buying toothpaste. Except, your usual go-to brand is not available. The good news: there are 56 other products to choose from. The bad news: there are 56 other products to choose from. The result: confusion. It turns out that the more choices we give ourselves, the more time we spend choosing. This leads to people creating shortcuts and heuristics for complex low-value decisions such as adopting brand loyalty, or picking something at chest height, or letting yourself choose based on the package design. Notice that none of them are the most optimal and informed choice. But it does saves time and lessens cognitive load.
Whenever we default to decision-making shortcuts, we lean heavily on our biological makeup. My basic understanding and non-scientific explanation of it is: Our behaviours are largely driven by a delicate cocktail of hormones that, over thousands of years, have evolved to work in response to the environment. This feedback loop was super useful as it helped us match internal states with external situations. A dangerous situation could pump adrenaline into our veins, making us unusually alert. Winning a stone-throwing game could hit you with a shot of rewarding dopamine, making you feel mighty accomplished and attractive to potential mates. A setting sun could signal to our body to produce more melatonin, priming us for sleep. It was great when our chemical-behavioural shortcuts lead to better survival results. But when the same chemical-behavioural shortcuts lead to worse survival results, we can say that our senses and instincts have gone a bit haywire, leading us astray from survival goals.
This is evolutionary mismatch, and I believe it describes one facet of why the Paradox of Abundance is a thing.
Some examples of self-sabotage:
Dopamine fuels our desire for quick, short-term rewards, clouding our ability to make better, long-term commitments.
Our outsized interest in sugary, salty and fatty foods are rooted in evolution and survival, and fast food venues fully capitalize on this known weakness of ours
FOMO ensured that we showed up to group events to socialize and feed, and social media is using this trait to keep us glued to the screen for as long as possible.
How to snap out of evolutionary mismatch?
Even by being exposed to and equipped with the right idea and information, we cannot trust willpower alone to guide us to do the right thing. What we need is many good reasons to do the right thing… enough that it would seem stupid to do anything but that. Here’s an incomplete list off the top of my head that, when combined, create powerful and convincing narratives capable of swaying our convictions:
Primary reasons that contribute strongly to convictions
personal experience and hardship
identity, values and beliefs
Supporting reasons that contribute less strongly to conviction
data and information
Why is data and information secondary? Even with perfect data and information, humans still defer final say to their gut for most decisions. Gut decisions are a combination of all factors under the “Primary reason” section above, and humans rarely make a decision completely detached from them.
So, the task is not to replace, but rather to reprogram or recalibrate our gut check to fit the new reality. For instance, even if you have FOMO, you won’t die or be mate-less from not attending this one event. Even if you crave salty fatty fast food, there are other options out there that are healthier and more satisfying over the long run. Even if you can eat the seed today, if you plant it and wait, you can harvest 100 seeds later.
Rewiring our default behaviour requires awareness and patience. These human programming-level changes don’t happen overnight. It also requires willingness to detach from bad influences, mindfully filling the gap with better ones.
Gosh this is hard. No wonder humanity is stuck in evolutionary mismatch. Do we have other options to move towards being less wrong?
There may be a shortcut (lol) to jumpstart a move away from harmful evolutionary mismatch. It requires people to, among other things:
Go back to in-person workplace
Play team sports
Take cohort-based courses
Take up a religion and attend regular service at the local church/mosque/synagogue/temple
What do all of the above bullets have in common?
They gather random people around a common reason and do a group activity.
“Fei, seriously… it can’t be that simple. Solving civilization-scaled challenges by hosting parties?” It’s actually not that crazy. And it wasn’t my idea!
I watched a video where Destiny, a twitch gamer-turned-political debater, was being asked to do a bunch of hot takes on various male v female type questions. One of the questions went along the lines of “how to resolve the incel problem”.
Now, this is not a small nor a shallow problem. Incel rage killed innocent people on the streets of Toronto not many years ago. (I see this type of extreme behaviour as related to the Paradox of Abundance, just to bring it full circle.)
But Destiny’s left-field answer surprised me. He recommended mandatory community service for 18-30 year olds.
Why? Because data shows… when you put a random group of people together, they find ways to socialize, form groups, find partners, and so on. Look at how many people find their partners at some school that they were attending. Or at work. Or while volunteering. Or at a party.
Community service for 18-30 year olds is something Pete Buttigieg suggested too back in 2019.
Can it be that simple? Is the solution to simply put us into more situations where we have more opportunities to encounter people we don’t know yet?
Stay tuned for next week’s letter where I continue to explore this and more :)
Thanks for reading! I‘ve always loved getting into these knotty topics, but it used to be so disheartening in the past to be super interested in all these ideas, and wanting to connect them but not knowing how or where to start. I’m finally reaching a point where I can connect the dots on things I see and read, in ways I only dreamt of doing when I first started writing. It is exciting!
Give this letter a ❤️ if you enjoyed it (and do share the letter with friends who may appreciate it too!)
Until next time, stay safe and stay curious.