The wisdom of bromides

Apropos Robin’s recent remark that "’No one on their deathbed ever wished they had spent more time in the office,’ the saying goes." and his wondering whether we are really biased to spending too much time in the office.

This makes me wonder about the function of bromides. Consider:

"Look before you leap!"

"He who hesitates is lost!"

Both of these seem sensible, yet they may appear contradictory. Are we biased to be too rash, or too indecisive?

I think these little pearls of wisdom function differently. Compare:

"Beware of high blood pressure!"

"Beware of low blood pressure!"

Both of these express sensible advice, and it does not depend on there being an average tendency for blood pressure to be too high or too low.

Perhaps the function of a bromide is to draw attention to a common failure mode. Thus with blood pressure. Likewise with being too rash or too indecisive. Maybe lives frequently go wrong because we spend too much time in the office. This is consistent with lives also frequently going wrong because we don’t work hard enough.

There is no commonplace to the effect that eating the left wing of a chicken may cause foodpoisoning, and none for eating the right wing of a chicken. This is because it is usually not worth paying attention to which side of a chicken a wing comes from. But it is worth paying attention to whether your blood pressure is too high or too low;  whether you are too rash or too indecisive; and whether you might be working too hard or not hard enough.

Relevance to the topic of bias: Perhaps most biases are specific to individuals. On average, a population may be unbiased, but individuals are biased in one direction or another. There is wisdom in being aware of common biases (and errors) that individuals may have, even if on a population level these cancel out. 

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  • There is indeed wisdom in knowing about important parameters to consider when looking for errors in your decisions, and this seems a reasonable interpretation when we see pairs of proverbs warning against both too little and too much of something. But the proverb “no one on their deathbed regrets not having spent more time at the office” is directly denying that the errors are equally likely in both directions; it instead claims that there is an overall tendency in the errors, i.e., a bias.

  • The deathbed workaholic proverb may not have an obvious complement, but that’s probably only because it’s been formulated in such a charged way. I bet you I could take out my Bible or a book of aphorisms and come of with something opposite of it. Something along the lines of “The early bird gets the worm.”

  • Try to imagine a movie like “Click” but with the opposite moral, that the hero makes the mistake of spending too much effort on his family, and not enough effort on his work. Seems unlikely to me.

  • But it seems to me that the family part is the charged part of the formulation. There’re also complications regarding the type of job (the proverb brings to mind things like accountants and actuaries–what about musicians or writers?) and the desirability of your family (the idea being that if the person would spend more time at home they would be rewarded with the loving fellowship of their family, not something that will always hold).

    As for a movie, how about “Mr. & Mrs. Smith”?

    Did you have a larger point?

  • Andrew Edwards

    Hedgehog alert!

    Why do bromides have to have anything to do with bias at all?

    Isn’t a simpler explanation that they give people non-controversial but wise-sounding devices to use in conversation? That, per Orwell, they’re a pleasant substitute for the difficult work of creative thought?

  • Andrew, we can find any words innocent of the charge of bias if we interpret them as being expressive excuses to talk, and only apparently speaking other things. But will the people speaking those words agree with that description?

    I should mention that we do have classic stories celebrating the long hours of exceptional artists, scientists, and social activists, stories which often accept even if they do not exactly celebrate the neglect of friends and family. But such acceptance is clearly not extented to the rest of us.

  • just me

    Suppose one day I play hooky from work, feigning illness. Then, my house catches on fire, and I am trapped by a fallen beam, and realize death is impending.

    At that point, I bet I’d wish that I’d spent more time — i.e., that particular day — at the office! 🙂

    Closer to reality, I can see someone regretting a general lack of non-family achievement, whether career or other benchmark. But the bromide is probably true for most, and that’s good enough. It serves the prupose of trying to counterbalance the present forces that arguably tilt too far in pushing us to work now, etc.

  • Said Achmiz

    An example of someone wishing they had spent more time at the office, in our society, might be a woman who has spent much of her life as a housewife, but wishes she had instead made a career for herself. Such a regret may occur late in life or, for instance, when a woman marries early, then has marriage difficulties, finds herself divorced, and realizes she has no career to fall back on once her previous support mechanism (a husband) is gone. She might then wish she had spent less time devoting herself to her family and more time developing a career. (To my knowledge, this sort of situation is a fairly common barrier for women wishing to leave unsatisfying or abusive marriages.)

  • I was lucky enough to spend quality time alone with two vastly different men in their last days. Each of whom I admired greatly. My two grandfathers. Both were highly intelligent men who had lived through the depression One, a quietly religious man with strong ethics who supported his retirement through antiques. The other was, well, a bit of a con man. He had several social security numbers and supported his final years by convincing a group of lawyers, and a couple physics teachers, that he was inventing perpetual motion with possible unlimited energy.
    I never tried to direct our last conversations, Each reminisced over their lives as they lay dieing. And each offered me a little advice to avoid their own pitfalls.
    Here’s the very interesting thing that has stuck with me. BOTH gave the same advice. Go enjoy life because it’s very very short. Do the things you wish for while you’re strong enough to do them.
    Neither regretted time at the “office” as each had done as needed to provide for their own. In fact neither regretted any of the things they HAD done but both regretted fun things they HAD NOT done.
    My grandfathers lessons in a nutshell: Do what you have to to take care of yourself and those you love. Enjoy life without fear or reservation.