Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Sunk Costs and Incomplete Thinking

This year from March onwards Islington Mill have commissioned six emerging curators and artists to organise a weekend-long show. They will take place once per month, and the idea is with them being so short we'll be able to explore exciting ideas which might otherwise never see the light of day. My favourite kind of contemporary art exhibitions are those which explore an over-arching philosophical theme, and so as a viewer you feel as though you are discovering something and leave with ideas to mull over outside of the gallery ritual. Therefore, because I'm starting from scratch, and know artists in a social sense rather than professional I've decided to write an essay about some ideas I've been preoccupied with, then to send it around to see if anyone is interested or inspired. Here is that essay, so far....

Sunk costs and incomplete thinking; contemporary decision making.
Essay and Exhibition Proposal

As part of the monthly quick-fire art show project at Islington Mill I am exploring contemporary decision making. In the body of this essay I will explain what I mean by this and why I think it will be useful and interesting to explore in relation to art and its' display. I initially became interested in the theories and concepts which surround decision making whilst considering the power and responsibility we feel as educated citizens of a western nation, and yet the impotence, confusion and resulting apathy which runs parallel to this. The questions around which this investigation will centre are; in an information society how possible is it, for us with our apparently limited cognitive capacities, to make good decisions? Can everything be reduced to the decisions of individuals? Can confusion and fluctuating beliefs play a positive role, and can we explore this with art? This essay will function as a call-out, an invitation to artists who have been considering these ideas, or are interested in them and their implications. The beauty of the quick-fire show is that we can explore innovative and exciting ideas with less organisation and surety than would be needed for a traditional exhibition. I am a recent graduate seeking to construct an independent curating practice, and as such I am open to the evolution of these ideas and to debate around them.
In order to give some background to the arguments which I will draw on later in this essay I will begin by explaining why decision making is worth considering, and how we can begin to explore something so fundamental to human consciousness. I apologise if some of this seems self-evident but I feel that such preparation is necessary in order to frame my concerns. It can arguably be claimed that we shape our lives by the decisions which we make, arguably because the level to which our opportunities are beyond our control is ambiguous. However, for the purposes of this initial exploration into decision making theories I will set out from the premise that by making good decisions we can make our lives better. Having established this, we must now interrogate the term good. In the psychological and mathematical analysis of decision making good is generally taken to mean rational, with the good and rational decision placed in opposition to the real-life way in which we make choices. It is something to practice and to strive for, but not something which comes naturally.
Decision making is a fundamental, and incredibly complex psychological process, and with this in mind it is imperative to look briefly at some of the theories which have become commonplace to describe natural decision making. I find the term cognitive dissonance, particularly interesting in this context, as it touches on themes of self-knowledge and identity. The concept of cognitive dissonance lucidly illustrates the way in which decision making runs far deeper than we may perceive when we, as the subject, make a choice. We hold beliefs, and believe ourselves to be a certain way. This means that we must act, and make decisions in accordance with these beliefs, in order to either rectify cognitive dissonance, or to avoid it in future. To clarify; the parochial equivalent of cognitive dissonance would be feeling stupid or silly in it's mildest form, ranging up to serious emotional and intellectual conflict. This is particularly interesting in terms of contemporary decision making, because it is obviously not always possible to act in accordance with every belief and self-image which you hold. Indeed, we as contemporary citizens of a developed western state hold beliefs which can be complex, individual, uninformed or even malformed, and these are often difficult or impossible to harmonize with.
I alluded earlier to the mathematical basis of decision-making theories, referring there particularly to Rational Choice Theory. Many of the most severe arguments within Rational Choice Theory have been rejected by contemporary psychology. However, they are worth discussing here as they form an interesting counterpoint to colloquial phrases such as listen to your heart, and go with your gut. A proponent of Rational Choice Theory, George Homans set out exchange theory in 1961, arguing that all social phenomena can be reduced to the actions of the individual. In verbal and social communion with each other, people operate a system of exchange, as in economics, although instead of goods, services and money, we are trading time, information, approval and prestige. In an even more extreme formulation, as well as all social action being reducible to individual action, Homans also saw individual action as reducible to a set of behavioural principles. This can be explained in terms of rewards and punishments, humans act in accordance with rewards they hope they will receive and to avoid punishments. As is articulated by John Scott in his explanation of RCT; “Human consciousness and intelligence enters the picture only in so far as it makes possible these symbolic rewards" 1
RCT takes emotive factors out of the equation, and is fairly compatible with the concept of cognitive dissonance. However we must enquire how useful, if at all, are theories which offer no recognition of the undoubtedly unpleasant feelings and thoughts which constitute actual cognitive dissonance. It is this idea of usefulness which leads me neatly on to my next point of discussion; the decision making self-help book. Within such tomes we are encouraged that if we just approach our decisions rationally, and train ourselves against our biases and conditioning we can make good decisions and lead better lives. In order to do this we must first admit to our limited cognitive capacity, and then look to mathematical models of probability and research outside of what we can usually rely on; mythical common sense. A primary criticism of our bad decision making habits states that we do not consider all possibilities equally, instead either concentrating on what we think of first or what we are already biased towards. This intercession, indicating that in order to make good decisions we should avoid impassioned reactions jars with our contemporary imperative to search for emotional authenticity and to be our true self.
In discussions of the so-called network, or information society in which we now live commentators frequently draw attention to the intellectual and emotional bewilderment which such a wealth of information and choices can engender. As contemporary Western subjects we are encouraged to search for authenticity, love and success in some form. Why shouldn't be we successful given the absolute wealth of information which we have access too? While, of course, some people start off with more opportunities and privileges than others, the relatively high level of social mobility in our society allows few excuses. When you seem to control your fate every choice could be pivotal, and yet we are aware of how little control we have over the larger structures and organisations which shape our lives. This dichotomy of responsibility and helplessness is difficult, if not impossible to reconcile. In his preface to the 2009 edition of The Rise of the Network Society Manuel Castells states that “multidimensional, structural change...takes place in the midst of agony and uncertainty”2. Castells further explains that such confusion causes people to congregate around powerful 'primary identities; “religious, ethnic, territorial, national”3. However, I would argue that it is also feasible to cast yourself adrift in the sea of information, unable to process or be sure of anything. Beset by cognitive dissonance we can find ourselves sinking into apathy.
A further often repeated point about contemporary western society which is appropriate to this discussion is the prevailing individualist ideology. Associated with our obsession with discovering a genuine identity; “People increasingly organise their meaning not around what they do, but what they are, or believe they are”4. Formerly concrete ideas to do with the self have been de-naturalized, for better or for worse, and as such we must make choices about things which were previously proscribed. The freedom of thought which this infers is considered to be essentially a good thing, however given our limited cognitive capacity, how are we to approach making such important choices about who we are, and will be? In this age of flux we can be described, as Ken Plummer articulates; “living simultaneously in traditional, modern and post-modernizing worlds”.5 We have to make choices constantly and as hierarchies are exploded it is unclear which are important and which aren't. We may try to harness chance, like Luke Rhinehart's Dice Man, but just as he initially had to choose the outcomes of each roll, each decision we make could have untold implications. I would like to suggest that perhaps it could be helpful, sometimes, to bask in our lack of knowledge and incomplete thinking, to explore the feeling of a word on the tip of your tongue, or grasping an idea for only an instant before it is lost. Furthermore, bringing this discussion roundly back to questions of art and its' display, I would argue that the within the ritual of the gallery, and also without, art has a unique privilege to shun surety and is therefore psychologically necessary.
I would like the exhibition which I will be curating to be themed around the ideas which have been described and discussed above. If you have previously made work which explores these themes, or are inspired to make something new I would like to work with you. As yet, I have no aesthetic vision and would prefer to leave that up to you, the artists. I see my role here as proffering the philosophical genesis for an art show, then facilitating its development in which ever direction it may extend.


Castells, Manuel. The Rise of the Network Society, second edition with new preface, Wiley-Blackwell publishing: 2009

Dawes, Robyn M and Hastie, Reid eds. Rational Choice in an Uncertain World: The Psychology of Judgement and Decision Making, SAGE: 2010

Galotti, Kathleen M. Making decisions that matter: how people face important life choices, Taylor & Francis e-library: 2009

Plummer, Ken. “Intimate Choices” in Browning, Halcli and Webster eds. Understanding Contemporary Society: theories of the present, SAGE: 2000

Scott, John. “Rational Choice Theory” in Browning, Halcli and Webster eds. Understanding Contemporary Society: theories of the present, SAGE: 2000

Touraine, Alain. Thinking Differently, Polity Press: 2009
1Scott p.128
2Castells p.xvii
3Castells p.3
4Castells p.3
5Plummer, p.434