Essay/Cognition & Intelligence

Had a good think lately?

Not busy-work, ticking off to-do lists or keeping-up-with-stuff. Just sitting. And thinking. Is it so hard?

André Spicer

Belgium, 2014. Photo by Harry Gruyaert/Magnum

André Spicer

is professor of organisational behaviour at the Cass Business School at City, University of London. He is author of The Stupidity Paradox: The Power and Pitfalls of Functional Stupidity at Work (2016). His latest book (with Carl Cederström) Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement: A Year Inside the Optimization Movement, will be published later this year.

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2,800 words

Edited by Sam Haselby

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Pop-up philosophy. Stop, sit down and just think. That’s what I wrote on a whiteboard – then I took it outside and propped it next to a small folding chair near the entrance to my office at City, University of London.

For a week, I had been travelling around London with two folding deckchairs and a whiteboard. My quarry was stupidity-intensive spots. I had set up outside the London Stock Exchange, a large bank that had been bailed out by the taxpayer, the Houses of Parliament, Oxford Street, St Paul’s Cathedral and the BBC. Now it was time to reflect on the stupidities closest to home. So I set up my deckchairs outside my own university.

Students and faculty came and went, saw the deckchairs, looked at me, read my sign. Some seemed surprised. Others took a photo with their smartphones. Many laughed. A few sat down and joined me in a few minutes of quiet contemplation.

Universities are supposed to be seats of learning and engines of the knowledge economy. But a decade spent studying stupidity-intensive organisations had taught me that, all too often, universities are hothouses for organised idiocy. I myself am a professor. When I ask my colleagues from different universities to describe their own institutions, one of the most frequent words they use is ‘stupid’. They share stories of British universities that value a journal article of a few pages more than a landmark monograph of hundreds of pages. I heard about a large public university that spent tens of millions of dollars to develop a private university that attracted only a handful of students. My editor chimed in with the story of an Ivy League university in the US that spent $25 million to launch an online ‘knowledge network’ called Fathom that closed after three years. My favourite was the tale of the world-famous expert in intelligence who became the president of a US university, and then quickly spent more than $1 million on administrative changes. During his short tenure, he alienated faculty by instituting pet projects and insisting that they wear brown clothes around campus on Fridays.

The more I looked, the more I discovered that universities habitually invested time, energy and resources into all manner of pointless initiatives. These created dense thickets of administration that often made even the simplest tasks inefficient in the extreme. Universities today routinely run rebranding campaigns to distinguish themselves, but that end up making them more indistinguishable from their peers. Take a close look at a university website and you’ll find the same PR boilerplate about having cutting-edge research, world-class teaching and real-world relevance. You’ll also see photos of the same three students lounging around on a lawn. One woman, one person of colour, one white guy. More adventurous seats of higher learning add two men in the background playing frisbee. Colleges on opposite sides of the world have almost identical branding campaigns. The University at Buffalo used a picture of college buildings overlaid with the words ‘Here is how’; 9,000 miles away, the University of Sydney used a similar image of old buildings, again with the tag line ‘Here’.

In many universities, the simple fact that the commercial sector has adopted a practice is enough reason for leaders to give it a try. This keeps consultants peddling management fads in business, but it usually results in a dense sediment of procedures and regulations that few understand and none really believe to be effective. Universities support cultures that encourage faculty to work late into the night researching and writing scholarly papers that will be read by a small handful of other hyper-specialised experts. What they rarely support is time to think.


André Spicer takes time out to think. Photo by Barbara Kukovec

I hoped that my deckchairs might give professors and students an opportunity, even if for a moment, to do nothing but think. A handful of colleagues joined me, quietly sitting. ‘It’s nice to be able to think for once,’ one said. ‘I spent most of the day writing reviews of pointless research papers,’ another noted. ‘That’s pretty mindless,’ he added. Another told me: ‘It’s like being at my summer-house back in Finland. That’s when I do my thinking.’

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Today, we live in a culture of thoughtlessness. The American Time Use Survey found that although 95 per cent of respondents said that they did at least one leisure activity during the previous 24 hours, 84 per cent had spent no time at all relaxing or thinking. A study by researchers at Harvard University found that when we engaged in thought that was not directly related to present activity (so-called mind-wandering), we tended to be less happy. A recent study by psychologists at the University of Virginia asked subjects to simply sit in a room and ‘just think’ for 6 to 15 minutes. In the room was a button allowing subjects to electrocute themselves if they wanted. The researchers found that the majority of subjects would rather electrocute themselves than just sit quietly and think. One person electrocuted himself 190 times during this short period.

The vast army of electronic devices surrounding us has proven an able ally to our fear of thinking. Only a decade or two ago, everyday life held many small parcels of time in which we would be marooned with our thoughts: queuing, sitting on public transport, idling in a traffic jam, or even just waiting for a friend. Today, the first thing people do when faced with a moment of downtime is to reach for their smartphone. A study by the market research agency Harris Interactive in 2013 found that we use our smartphones when walking down the street, watching films, or while in places of religious worship; 12 per cent admitted to using their phone while taking a shower; 9 per cent had checked their smartphone during sex.

Once interrupted, it takes employees on average 25 minutes to get back to their original task

Unending stimulation hampers the capacity for thought. One study suggested that being constantly distracted by information momentarily reduces a person’s IQ by 10 points, double the intelligence-impairing effect of smoking marijuana. Mixing electronic devices with activities such as working, playing with children or having sex means that we are dividing attention between multiple tasks. Although some of us think that we are great at multitasking, the reality is that we are not. Neuroscientists have found that no one, properly speaking, multitasks. People just ricochet between different tasks, doing each less than well, as Adam Gazzaley and Larry D Rosen argue in The Distracted Mind (2016). One experimental study by Alessandro Acquisti and Eyal Peer at Carnegie Mellon University found that when students taking a test are interrupted, their performance dips by 20 per cent.

Knowledge-intensive organisations already hum with distractions. Many meetings, phone calls, messages and queries from colleagues are meaningless requests that impede thought. Open-plan offices usually make matters worse by inviting all manner of interruptions, from the overly talkative colleague to the intrusive manager. This prompts employees to switch tasks frequently. According to a study by Gloria Mark at the University of California, Irvine, employees in an office switch task on average every 11 minutes or so. Once they have been interrupted, it takes employees on average 25 minutes to get back to their original task. The figures are frightening.

In their study The Progress Principle (2011), Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer at Harvard Business School found that nothing contributed more to a sense of a good day’s work as the time to focus and make progress on an important task. With distraction always at our fingertips, it seems that we are in desperate need of a little more time to think.

I wondered what a space where people could just think might look like. The image of Ludwig Wittgenstein sitting in a deckchair in his sparely decorated rooms in Cambridge came to mind. That’s how my experiment in pop-up philosophy began. I wanted to offer people the opportunity to stop, sit down and think – even if it was just for five minutes.

There is a small public square right outside the London Stock Exchange, directly opposite the Bank of England. At midday on a cloudy early autumn day, I sat down in one of the white deckchairs. I was nervous. Would the police come and charge me with disturbing the public peace?

Within five minutes, I had my first recruit. A middle-aged Australian woman who wanted to talk about terrorism. Soon, an English woman joined us and began to talk about her daughter studying philosophy at university. ‘She’s a deep thinker,’ the woman said. After five minutes, they were gone. The people surrounding me, mainly workers from nearby financial firms, were on their lunch break. They were scoffing packets of crisps and stabbing at their smartphones. Then, the odd passing tourist would stop, laugh and take a photo that would probably be uploaded to Facebook later that day.

Feeling disheartened with the modest public debut of pop-up philosophy, I returned to my own thoughts, or tried to. What should I think about, I asked myself. The city? Office workers’ lunch-hour rituals? Financial capitalism? I wondered whether, if I had access to a button that could give me an enlivening electrical jolt, I would push it now? Slowly I drifted into a kind of pleasant nothingness, watching the clouds scud above the buildings. ‘Is this thinking?’ I wondered. When 2pm struck, I stood up, folded my chair, and headed for the tube station.

Sunbathing in the rain: it seemed to characterise some of the years I had spent studying philosophical texts

I held my two deckchairs on a noisy underground train, and contemplated what I had learned from my first experience with pop-up philosophy. I certainly felt much calmer. Still, I also felt disappointment that only tourists had joined in with my experiment. Would someone not on vacation allow herself the luxury of sitting down and thinking for a few moments? The question bothered me, in part because I couldn’t focus my own mind and just think for a few hours. One consideration made me suspect pop-up philosophy had not been an entire failure: once I broke through the desire to focus on something (whether it was the nature of multinational capitalism, or the clock across the square), simple mind-wandering seemed to be an altogether pleasant experience.

Eager to continue pop-up philosophy, I ventured back a few days later, to St Paul’s Cathedral – the most important church in London. My friend Barbara accompanied me. We unfolded the deckchairs, propped up the sign reading ‘Stop, sit down and just think’, and I lowered myself into one of the chairs. Barbara stood at a distance to observe. Within a few minutes, it was raining. A young girl ran up and asked: ‘Why are you sunbathing in the rain?’ I had no good answer. Her father dragged her away, but her question remained. Sunbathing in the rain. It seemed to characterise some of the years I had spent studying philosophical texts.

Over the next few weeks, I travelled around London with my pop-up philosophy experiment. I set it up on Oxford Street, one of the busiest high streets in Europe – and one of the most polluted. Most shoppers ignored me. The few who engaged asked if I was promoting a new luxury brand. The only ones who seemed interested were the religious proselytisers. Perhaps they saw me as competition.

Outside the headquarters of the BBC, I encountered only a bored security guard. He already had more than enough time to think during his shift. I took the experiment to Speakers’ Corner, a spot in Hyde Park where people gather to debate any imaginable topic. Here, pop-up philosophy attracted passers-by who found a moment of silence from the cacophonous marketplace of ideas a welcome respite. A heckler looking for prey approached me. ‘Very clever,’ he said, with evident disapproval. He explained how the pop-up philosophy sign contained a devilish hidden message. I didn’t understand.

I thought pop-up philosophy might find its stride at the heart of political power – Westminster. I unfolded the chairs on Parliament Square, and fantasised about passing politicians taking a few moments out of their day to reflect on what they were doing. Perhaps pop-up philosophy would instigate a new era of public reason, starting right here. Instead, a group of German teenage girls eager to take selfies convened around my chairs. An American family followed. The dad performed handstands behind my deckchair while mom adopted the ‘Thinker’ pose in one chair and their children munched on fistfuls of candy. The politicians and civil servants passing by were too engrossed in their phones to notice pop-up philosophy.

Interestingly, the London headquarters of a bank that had been bailed out by the government during the financial crisis was the site of pop-up philosophy’s greatest success. Within minutes of unfolding the chairs, a security guard was concerned to make sure I was off the bank’s property. I settled this by moving a few inches. Then two more security staff immediately approached, worried about the reputational risk that pop-up philosophy might pose to the bank. Hot on their heels was a homeless woman who asked me what I was doing. ‘Thinking,’ I told her. She replied: ‘I don’t have time for that.’

A steady stream of bank workers saw my sign and smiled. Many took photos, presumably to be posted to social media. Some sat down for a few minutes, quietly thought, then went on their way. A few others wanted to talk – including an anthropologist-turned-hedge-funder who told me she longed for some time to use her mind during the day. An analytic-philosopher-turned-tech-entrepreneur sat and spoke of his concern for how philosophy engaged the public. The bailed-out-bank site brought forward both fear of pop-up philosophy and the most thoughtful responses, suggesting some deep contradictory energies are swirling around these financial institutions.

Pop-up philosophy was more of an occasion for selfie-snapping than self-reflection

I returned to my university and once again set up pop-up philosophy. Here, I planned to think about what the experiment had taught me. I’m not a neuroscientist, so I lacked EEG read-outs or fMRI scans to understand how the brain activity of the participants in my experiment had changed. All I had were notes of my observations.

Pop-up philosophy had shown that thinking in public could be a security risk. For many people, pop-up philosophy was more of an occasion for selfie-snapping than self-reflection. Despite the invitation to sit down and just think, people could not resist digital distraction. But dozens of people had quietly sat, thought, and then moved on. A brave few spoke with me. Most shared a concern that philosophy, and thinking more generally, had grown into something that happens only within the safe confines of universities. These thoughtful pedestrians worried that thinking in everyday public life was in short supply. Sitting outside my own university, I wondered how much real thinking goes on within.

My pop-up philosophy experiment invited people to sit and think. I am not sure how philosophical the few minutes of sitting on a deckchair made people. It did not convince me that a good dose of public philosophy will make public life more thoughtful. Certainly, however, in the dozens of hours I spent with pop-up philosophy, sitting on a deckchair around London, I did more thinking than I had in years while in my university office. Perhaps the most important thing the experiment taught me was something that Aristotle wrote about 2,500 years ago – contemplation is a great human virtue that can lead us to happiness.

Buoyed by these reflections, I picked up my deckchairs one last time and returned to Parliament Square. A stern security guard instructed me that I was not allowed to sit on the Square. Instead I was forced to erect pop-up philosophy and its sign on the footpath. I was next to the spot where Brian Haw had camped out for nearly 10 years in protest against the Iraq war. While I kicked back and started to think about how this was a much nicer way to spend the morning than slaving over some administrative task in the office, I heard a voice coming from a white delivery van. ‘So what is truth?’ the driver yelled. ‘That’s what I’m trying to figure out,’ I replied before the lights changed and he drove away.

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