By Angela Noel
April 5, 2018
Questions without easy answers abound. But we humans hate that. Our brains like certainty. Tough, complex problems without clear solutions make us very unhappy indeed. In these situations, particularly where public pressure exists to find a fast and clean answer, we’re susceptible to a type of brain elf, Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, calls substitution. He writes, “If a satisfactory answer to a hard question is not found quickly, System 1 (our fast-thinking brain) will find a related question that is easier and will answer it.”
Since being sure of something is our preferred condition, our brains tend to do a lot to help us feel that way. I wrote about our search for certainty before, and how hard we fight to preserve our version of events even when we know it’s wrong. But, this time we’re talking about certainty from another angle. This time, we’re talking about onions.
The Onion Story
In 1955 an onion farmer and commodities trader named Vince Kosuga saw a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He and his business partner, Sam Siegel, secretly bought up almost all of the onions in the U.S. But they didn’t stop at buying the onions already harvested, they wanted ALL of them–including the little baby onions still germinating in the ground. They made deals with farmers, a common practice then and now, to buy the farmer’s crops at a fixed price sometime in the future. This is called a “futures contract.” These two dudes now owned virtually all of the onions in the U.S. And it wasn’t because they loved the crunchy tang of beer-battered onion rings.
Because the men owned 98% of the onions, they used that power to both drive prices up, because they’d bet on higher prices, and then crash the market, because they’d bet on lower ones. It got so bad at one point, the cost of a bag filled with onions was actually less than the price of the empty twenty cent bag itself.
Normally, futures contracts help farmers by allowing them to sell their expected crops at a predictable price. But when Vince and Sam stepped in, the two men made millions, while lots of devastated farmers and others went out of business, some committing suicide. A congressman named Gerald Ford (yep, the future President) decided to act. He introduced the Onion Futures Act banning the sale of futures contracts on onions. The Act was signed into law by President Eisenhower in the summer of 1958.
To this day, sixty years later, onions are the only banned commodity in the futures market. The Act intended to stabilize the price of onions and address the concerns of the farmers hurt by Vince and Sam’s schemes. But volatility remains even now. In fact, agricultural economists say the act hurts consumers and producers, never really meeting it’s primary goal to insulate the market from manipulation and stabilize prices.
But the real onion market isn’t the only onion we should peel back.
My Own Onion
Once, I got so mad and scared, because my son had locked himself in his room, that I took the handle off the door. No more locked doors in my house. No more fits of eight-year-old pique to make his mama worry. Solved that problem didn’t I?
Taking the door handle off took away a SINGLE problem. It didn’t forever solve the fact that sometimes kids do things they’ve been warned not to do. No, that’s a much more complicated issue. One a screwdriver can never fix.
You see, I can’t solve the problem of a child’s anger or frustration with one action. I have to spend time and brain effort to figure out what went wrong and why. Then, most importantly, what I need to do next. And I have to do this each time something happens. I can’t just go around removing door handles for the rest of Jackson’s life. I’ve got to face the fact that being a parent requires comfort with uncertainty. It requires a willingness to engage and challenge the easy, simple answers that mysteriously appear when the complex problems just seem so gosh darned hard.
Back to the Other Onions: The Psychology of the Substitution Bias
Despite the fact that extreme volatility in the price of onions continues, the ineffective Act persists. Could it be that the complex question, “How do we stop an unscrupulous and greedy few from ruining the opportunity for the many?” is just too hard? And because it’s so hard, and we want so badly to have the answer, is that why we create a world of binary all-or-nothing solutions?
For the record, we replaced the door handle in Jackson’s room. But we bought one without a locking mechanism. After all, the issue was never opening and closing the door. When the time comes, when we’ve got a longer track record of good-decision making in the face of anger and frustration, the kid can have a door that locks. Because that’s what that whole thing was about in the first place: trust.
Building a relationship built on trust with a child isn’t easy. Nor is it easy to accept that sometimes people do bad things for selfish reasons. But, they do. And when they do, we must not substitute the easy for the hard. Because when we do that, we lose the trust we so desperately need to build relationships and communities. Let’s peel back that onion.
We can stop to think, question our certainty, and right the wrongs created by the hasty decision-making of the past. And when we do, we sign a contract with our future selves that serves us all a little better in the end.
Your turn: Can you think of issues or problems in your own life or in the world around you where the substitution bias is in effect?
The You are Awesome Blog has been nominated as the Most Inspirational Blog for the Annual Bloggers Bash Awards! If you can spare a second and feel inspired by this blog, please consider voting for me. It’s an easy one click here.