Man-with-a-hammer syndrome

What gummed up Sk­in­ner’s rep­u­ta­tion is that he de­vel­oped a case of what I always call man-with-a-ham­mer syn­drome: to the man with a ham­mer, ev­ery prob­lem tends to look pretty much like a nail.

The Psy­chol­ogy of Hu­man Mis­judg­ment is an brilli­ant talk given by Char­lie Munger that I still re­turn to and read ev­ery year to gain a fresh per­spec­tive. There’s a lot of wis­dom to be dis­til­led from that piece but the one thing I want to talk about to­day is the man-with-a-ham­mer syn­drome.

Man-with-a-ham­mer syn­drome is pretty sim­ple: you think of an idea and then, pretty soon, it be­comes THE idea. You start see­ing how THE idea can ap­ply to any­thing and ev­ery­thing, it’s the uni­ver­sal ex­pla­na­tion for how the uni­verse works. Sud­denly, ev­ery­thing you’ve ever thought of be­fore must be rein­ter­preted through the lens of THE idea and you’re on an in­tel­lec­tual high. Utili­tar­i­anism is a good ex­am­ple of this. Once you in­de­pen­dently dis­cover Utili­tar­i­anism you start to be­lieve that an en­tire moral frame­work can be con­structed around a sys­tem of plea­sures and pains and, what’s more, that this moral sys­tem is both ob­jec­tive and pla­tonic. Sud­denly, ev­ery­thing from the war in the mid­dle east to tak­ing your mid-morn­ing dump at work be­cause you need that 15 min­utes of re­flec­tive time alone with your­self be­fore you can face the on­slaught of mean­ingless drivel that is part of cor­po­rate Amer­ica but feel­ing guilty about it be­cause you were raised to be a good Ran­dian and you are not pro­vid­ing value from your em­ploy­ers so you’re com­mit­ting and act of theft can be fit un­der the Utili­tar­ian frame­work. And then, hope­fully, a few days later, you’re over it and Utili­tar­i­anism is just an­other in­ter­est­ing con­cept and you’re slightly em­bar­rassed about your be­hav­ior a few days prior. Un­for­tu­nately, some peo­ple never get over it and they be­come those an­noy­ing peo­ple write long screeds on the in­ter­net about their THE idea.

The most im­por­tant thing to re­al­ize about man-with-a-ham­mer syn­drome is that there’s no pos­si­ble way to avoid hav­ing it hap­pen to you. You can be a well sea­soned ra­tio­nal­ist who’s well aware of how man-with-a-ham­mer syn­drome works and what the var­i­ous symp­toms are but it’s still go­ing to hit you fresh with each new idea. The best you can do is miti­gate the fal­lout that oc­curs.

Once you rec­og­nize that you’ve been struck with man-with-a-ham­mer syn­drome, there’s a num­ber of sen­si­ble pre­cau­tions you can take. The first is to have a good vent­ing spot, be­ing able to let your thoughts out of your head for some air lets you put them slightly in per­spec­tive. Per­son­ally, I have a few trusted friends to which I ex­pose man-with-a-ham­mer ideas with all the ap­pro­pri­ate dis­claimers to ba­si­cally ig­nore the bul­lshit that is com­ing out of my mouth.

The sec­ond im­por­tant thing to do is to hold back from tel­ling any­one else about the idea. Mak­ing an idea pub­lic means that you’re, to a de­gree, com­mit­ted to it and this is not what you want. The best way to pro­long man-with-a-ham­mer syn­drome is to have other peo­ple be­liev­ing that you be­lieve some­thing.

Un­for­tu­nately, the only other thing to do is sim­ply wait. There’s been noth­ing I’ve dis­cov­ered that can has­ten the re­cov­ery from man-with-a-ham­mer syn­drome be­yond some min­i­mum time thresh­old. If you’ve done ev­ery­thing else right, the only thing left to do is to sim­ply out wait it. No amount of clever men­tal gym­nas­tics will help you get rid of the syn­drome any faster and that’s the most frus­trat­ing part. You can be perfectly aware that you have it, know that ev­ery­thing you’re think­ing now, you won’t be­lieve in a weeks time and yet you still can’t stop your­self from be­liev­ing in it now.

Man-with-a-ham­mer syn­drome can de­stroy your life if you’re not care­ful but, if han­dled ap­pro­pri­ately, is ul­ti­mately noth­ing more than an an­noy­ing and te­dious cost of com­ing up with in­ter­est­ing ideas. What’s most in­ter­est­ing about it to me is that even with full aware­ness of it’s ex­is­tence, it’s com­pletely im­pos­si­ble to avoid. While you have man-with-a-ham­mer syn­drome, you end up liv­ing in a cu­ri­ous world in which you are un­able to dis­be­lieve in some­thing you know to be not true and this is a deeply weird state I’ve not seen “ra­tio­nal­ists” fully come to terms with.