There Are Secrets

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Contrarianism, Risk, and Ambiguity

 

One day long ago, or perhaps not so, you may have sat in a classroom.

Depending on the decade, your seat might have been fused to your desk, a contraption barring you from bending too far forward.
The desk, with its hinged lid, served as a treasure chest. Unbeknownst to the teacher and many classmates, it could harbor your deepest, darkest desires.
A figurine or a doll.
A Gameboy—think of it as an archaic Switch for the inquisitive young mind.
Or perhaps one of those ‘Do you like me?’ notes, innocent and yearning.
In my elementary school days, these desks were relics of the past, likely deemed unfit in favor of those that facilitated better surveillance.
Consider the game of telephone—you would line up, anticipating someone whispering a covert message into your ear, only to find out at the end of the line that the starting phrase mutated into gibberish.
Through design and imagination, we practiced the art of secrecy.

Going Contrarian

Investor and PayPal mafia member Peter Thiel penned a popular book on startup wisdom with Blake Masters called Zero to One.

Although I find his sociopolitical views peculiar, to say the least, I did come away with interesting ideas that I reflect on from time to time over the past couple of years since I’ve read the book.

One idea in particular continues to come up.

The notion of secrets has waned in an age where knowledge seems ubiquitous.
With the internet at our fingertips, the barriers to learning, creating, and showcasing are remarkably low.
Now, a bedroom can be a makeshift broadcasting studio, giving rise to armchair experts in fields far afield from their own, including yours truly.
Yet, a dash of contrarian thinking can spark innovation, challenging the conservative tendencies of established experts and expanding our stagnant ideas forward.
Consider this: What are the questions we avoid or fail even to recognize?
Our educational system, a relic of the 19th-century Prussian model meant to create a standardized workforce, prefers the safety of tried-and-true methods. This often comes at odds with stress-testing ideas or the trials of failure one must learn.
Intellectual risk-taking is stunted, leaving many to ponder missed learning opportunities as they age.
We’ve all experienced the reluctance to voice an unconventional idea in academic or professional settings for fear of ridicule or failure.
From my college days through medical school and into residency, I’ve felt the oppressive weight of this traditionalism. I’m still trying to shed that uneasiness of learning in unconventional yet natural ways or embracing failure to succeed.
The education system cries out for reform, a fact underscored by the COVID-19 pandemic. We face a landscape of underfunded schools, overextended teachers, and students left vulnerable.
Similarly, in the corporate world, large, complacent companies risk stagnation, often preferring acquisition over innovation. Yet, nimble startups in emerging sectors like AI—sometimes working in partnership with larger entities—are at liberty to explore and evolve, chasing secrets until they’re secrets no more.
In his Substack, The Century of Biology, Elliot Hershberg echoes a malaise that permeates certain tech circles in his piece Viriditas:
I have met several engineers who’ve expressed that they have felt that their current projects were pointless. If AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) is going to solve everything, why work on anything else? Do our small wet brains even matter if we are on the verge of disembodied digital intelligence, or consciousness?
There’s a pervasive belief that the future is preordained, a known quantity that breeds passivity and pessimism.
But this is a fallacy. In my work developing and evaluating computational models, I’ve found that each solution tends to unlock a new set of questions.
The world still holds secrets to be discovered.

Risk vs. Ambiguity

Why may we be so apprehensive of secrets?
Why do we want to solve things as quickly as possible, or at least, why do we hold on to simple answers for complex concepts?
Some potential answers may be found in my current research on understanding decision-making in the brain.
There are two main aspects of uncertainty: risk and ambiguity.
Risk involves known probabilities, while ambiguity exists when these probabilities are not known. Take the example of a fair coin flip—a risk. You understand that the probability of getting heads or tails is 50%. Compare this to guessing the contents of a jar of black and white balls. You don’t know how many of each color may be in the jar—a case of ambiguity.
This jar of theoretical balls is essential to understanding risk and ambiguity because of Daniel Ellsberg.
As a Ph.D. candidate in economics at Harvard in the early 1960s, Ellsberg determined that decisions made under what appeared to be ambiguous circumstances did not conform to the conventional understanding of decision-making at the time. Plainly, it was theorized that each person has a way to appraise and value decisions consistently that is predictable and rational.
In his paper, Risk, Ambiguity, and the Savage Axioms, Ellsberg illustrated that people generally prefer to take on risk, where probabilities are known, rather than ambiguity, where probabilities are unknown, even if there is potentially larger satisfaction with the ambiguous scenario. His findings became known as the Ellsberg Paradox.
Ellsberg, who died in June of this year at 92, went on to have more eventful areas of his life.
This understanding of risk and ambiguity is important as changes in how people approach the two can potentially be assessed in different development stages, psychological states and psychiatric disorders.
These are findings from recent studies I’ve read:
– Adolescents’ risk-taking behavior may be driven by tolerance to ambiguity, not by a preference for risk, noting a greater tolerance for options with consequences that are unknown or unclear versus adults (Tymula et al. (2012)).
–  Stress and substance use disorders are linked to increased risk-taking and diminished ambiguity aversion (Konova et al. (2020); Raio et al. (2022)).
– Combat veterans with PTSD may be more averse to ambiguity, but not risk, compared to veterans without PTSD. This aversion was observed when making choices between possible losses, but not gains. The degree of aversion was also associated with the severity of PTSD symptoms, suggesting that ambiguity aversion may be a cognitive marker of PTSD (Ruderman et al. (2016)).
There is much more to come in this space. We are just touching the surface.

Bringing It Home

Our world is still full of secrets.
Despite technological strides, new mysteries will emerge.
We should embrace this not as a daunting inevitability but as an invitation to innovate and explore.
We may face internal apprehension from our aversion to unknown risks, but we can approach these moments with curiosity and awe and learn more about them.
Every answer we find is but the prelude to the next great question.
We are capable of more, and we can rise to the occasion.

References

  • Konova, A. B., Lopez-Guzman, S., Urmanche, A., Ross, S., Louie, K., Rotrosen, J., & Glimcher, P. W. (2020). Computational Markers of Risky Decision-making for Identification of Temporal Windows of Vulnerability to Opioid Use in a Real-world Clinical Setting. JAMA Psychiatry, 77(4), 368. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2019.4013
  • Raio, C. M., Lu, B. B., Grubb, M., Shields, G. S., Slavich, G. M., & Glimcher, P. (2022). Cumulative lifetime stressor exposure assessed by the STRAIN predicts economic ambiguity aversion. Nature Communications, 13(1), 1686. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-022-28530-2
  • Ruderman, L., Ehrlich, D. B., Roy, A., Pietrzak, R. H., Harpaz-Rotem, I., & Levy, I. (2016). POSTTRAUMATIC STRESS SYMPTOMS AND AVERSION TO AMBIGUOUS LOSSES IN COMBAT VETERANS: PTSD and Aversion to Ambiguous Losses. Depression and Anxiety, 33(7), 606–613. https://doi.org/10.1002/da.22494
  • Tymula, A., Rosenberg Belmaker, L. A., Roy, A. K., Ruderman, L., Manson, K., Glimcher, P. W., & Levy, I. (2012). Adolescents’ risk-taking behavior is driven by tolerance to ambiguity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(42), 17135–17140. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1207144109

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