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Think before you act: against the modern cult of spontaneity

Truly living in the moment and being utterly spontaneous would render you unable to make and keep promises, or to formulate any kind of plan for helping yourself or others.

Illustration: Ciara Phelan for the New Statesman

Live for the moment. Be spontaneous. Be free and happy. Don’t worry about the future. Act as though it’s your last day on earth. Such is one modern conception of the good life. Adverts encourage us to drop everything and jet off for a city break at the last moment, or to walk at random into a bar where we are sure to meet a new gang of stock-photo besties, all ostentatiously sipping the same brand of transparent liquor. People are reluctant to make concrete social arrangements, so just say, “Text me.” Serendipity is our friend; planning is for losers. “Spontaneity” is rhetorically offered as the reason to celebrate both online social media and last-minute travel bucket shops.

It hardly seems to matter that anyone who really acted according to this ideology would be a kind of sociopath. Truly living in the moment and embracing utter spontaneity would render you, for instance, unable to make and keep promises, or to formulate any kind of plan for helping yourself or others. You’d turn into someone like the amusing but oddly disturbing character Old Merrythought in Francis Beaumont’s play The Knight of the Burning Pestle (recently revived to hilarious effect at the Globe in London). Merrythought spends all his time singing and drinking ale, because he assumes there will always be meat on the table come dinnertime. Being so spontaneous would make you, in short, a fantastically annoying and irresponsible flibbertigibbet.

Why, then, is the dream of spontaneity so attractive? It is perhaps because most of our lives are so corralled and timetabled, and our workdays increasingly subject to silent, automated time-and-motion studies conducted by data-harvesting computers for the purpose of what is euphemised as “workforce science”, that we dream all the more of being able to be spontaneous – at least in our free time. Our “free” time, of course, as Guy Debord noted, is just that time which is left to us after the violent expropriation of most of it. And so the idea of spontaneity is a dream of liberty.

But true freedom, as Jean-Paul Sartre noted, is also terrifying. And spontaneity, it seems, is a virtue that we sorely wish to have ascribed to us but don’t actually want to act out rigorously. To be thought of as a spontaneous person is to own a certain kind of devil-may-care cool, to seem open to new experiences. Actually to be a spontaneous person, though, might be a frightful mess. Well, there’s an app for that. Indeed, a whole new class of smartphone apps offers what can be thought of as a kind of mediated, filtered spontaneity – a kind of just-in-time planning that still gives the desired impression of impetuosity. Thus, location-aware dating apps such as Tinder sell the possibility of meeting someone in a nearby bar that evening – almost like people used to do before the age of ambient internet, using only their faces. (According to my informants, a not insignificant number of Tinder users describe themselves as “spontaneous” on their carefully curated profiles.) Meanwhile, a mobile booking start-up called Hotel Tonight recently added a feature allowing users to peek at probable same-day rates a few days ahead. The company announced on its blog, deadpan, that this planning feature was part of “our never-ending quest to empower people to be more spontaneous”.

Consumer spontaneity, you might suspect, is at least very good for business. It seems as though it would be very much in the interest of people selling things if a habit of recklessly spending money at a moment’s notice were considered part of a desirable personality. As it happens, a friend’s Twitter feed was recently interrupted by a “promoted tweet” (that is, advert) from an account calling itself “Be Spontaneous UK”, and chirruping: “Go Brazilian this summer with free Ipanema flip-flops when you pick up our bikini razor now.” Perhaps the purchase of a “bikini razor” is meant to count as an investment in future spontaneity of a vaguely porny kind, though the spontaneity that really counts here is that of immediately clicking on an ad to buy a product. It turns out that “Be Spontaneous UK” is a marketing account owned by Wilkinson Sword.

Probably not coincidentally, either, one finds that recent “spontaneity surveys” showing that Britons really wish they were more spontaneous are predominantly carried out on behalf of companies for which more spontaneity equals more business: train operators and retailers. Or take the advert for Delta Private Jets, described in a recent essay by Ian Bogost, the tagline of which reads: “Perfect moments are often made on a moment’s notice.” Here, spontaneity becomes a kind of meta-luxury.

 

The rhetorical invitation to spontaneity by commercial interests exists in a productive relationship with the modern dualism of psychological science. This is not classical mind-body dualism, but the dualism of more-or-less-allegorical brain systems. In the influential lingo of the behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, we have a “System 1” brain that delivers snap, intuitive judgements through unconscious processing, and a “System 2” brain that does the slow, cold reasoning.

Now, which of those brains is the “spontaneous” one? Why, System 1, of course, the blinking, unthinking brain, the site of “hot cognition”. The weirdly anti-rational weather of our age, indeed, insists that this intuitive System 1 is “who we really are”. Because our rationality can be infected with errors by System 1 biases, or so this story goes, we should give up all hope of being reliably rational.

This is certainly a convenient hypothesis for boosters of “nudge” politics, who seek to make citizens do the right thing (save for retirement, buy healthy food) by exploiting the subconscious biases and errors to which System 1 is prone. The wise folk who design the nudges are pleased to call themselves “choice architects”. As we are led unsuspectingly along their mazy garden path, on which what they consider the “right” choices are the easiest ones for us to make – the healthy meal is at eye level; we are automatically enrolled as organ donors unless we can be bothered to opt out – we casually make the decisions that they have already chosen for us. Thus, through careful engineering of the alternatives presented, the liberal paternalists of nudge ideology want to exploit our lazily automatic behaviour.

This might be a resistible challenge to our autonomy as long as the specific choice architecture and its rationale are made available in an open and transparent way, but that is not the way the field is developing. The British government’s Behavioural Insights Team, aka the Nudge Unit, was part-privatised this year, and hopes to profit from advising foreign governments, local authorities and commercial interests, now that it is immune from Freedom of Information requests from ordinary citizens who might wish to scrutinise its methods. To embrace spontaneity, then, might be to let a cadre of unaccountable behaviour engineers make important economic and political choices for us.

This seems all the more plausible when we remember that to praise another’s “spon­taneity” often carries an infantilising or otherwise condescending undertone. Black musicians of the Jazz Age were routinely praised by white critics for their supposedly innate “spontaneity”, in rhetoric that cast them almost as idiots savants, untrained yet miraculously skilful in the moment. The literary critic F R Leavis, meanwhile, wielded “spontaneous” and its cognates as terms of his highest praise when discussing writers, such as D H Lawrence, who he felt were conduits (as it were almost unreflective) of Life Itself.

In his recent book How to Read Literature, the former boy terror of literary theory Terry Eagleton surprisingly revives this Leavisite virtue as one of the positive qualities he says we should learn to recognise in fiction. Eagleton quotes a passage from John Updike and complains: “There is nothing spontaneous about it.” Casting himself as a kind of prosodic Antiques Roadshow expert, able to spot a fake at ten paces, he cites a passage of William Faulkner and diagnoses the fault thus: it has “an air of spontaneity about it which is almost entirely fabricated”.

Never mind that every “air” in a piece of writing must be fabricated, in the sense that all prose effects must be built from the careful choice and placement of words. It is probably bootless to wonder how a Leavis or an Eagleton could possibly know, absent surveillance footage and brain scans of the target writers at work, exactly how “spontaneous” this or that passage’s creation was. Further, of course, the most “spontaneous” writing is likely to be the worst writing, as long as you agree that writing benefits from thought. Many literary stories of spontaneous composition are myths. Jack Kerouac – celebrated by Allen Ginsberg for his miraculous “spontaneous bop prosody” – did bash out a typescript of On the Road in three weeks on a 120-foot-long scroll of paper, but the novel had already been through several versions and rewrites for more than two years before that first full-length draft was “spontaneously” composed.

One of the most pleasant things about writing, indeed, is that spontaneity is corrigible: something that seems like a good idea on the spur of the moment, as one’s fingers are banging out a paragraph, can be quietly got rid of in the sober tranquillity of revision, when it becomes clear that it’s rubbish. To elevate spontaneity to a central literary virtue is as anti-intellectual as its diagnosis is whimsically subjective.

 

The invitation to citizens to luxuriate in a pleasurable absence of deliberation perhaps connects, too, the rhetorical fashion for spontaneity with the sudden promotion of “mindfulness” by corporate and state interests. A parliamentary working group was even set up this spring to explore the potential for mindfulness in health, education and the criminal justice system. Breath-centred mindfulness meditation is no doubt beneficial for many individuals, sharing as it does certain aspects with similar practices such as yoga and qigong. But it is tempting to suspect that official attempts to impose it on employees or schoolchildren have as one unspoken motivation the desire to create a more pliant individual. The more able you become to concentrate blissfully in the moment, the less troubled you will be by intrusive negative thoughts about your employer or government policy. And so mindfulness can become a counsel of passivity, as well as a mental medication to distract our attention from underlying problems. An institutional population may be offered the anti-stress benefits of mindfulness rather than the removal of the stressors that have made it stressed in the first place.

Mindfulness and spontaneity are both, as psychic ideals, opposed to worry and effort, which we can easily think are what daily life actually requires of us. They could thus be understood alternatively, in an emancipatory way. Perhaps there is a secular version available of the kind of evangelical Protestantism that embraces an ecstatic approach to life, a kind of Dionysian spontaneity that trusts in God’s will. Edward Slingerland’s interesting recent book Trying Not to Try: the Ancient Art of Effortlessness and the Surprising Power of Spontaneity, for example, contrasts the overscheduled busywork of a modern productivity freak with what he calls “body thinking”, defined essentially in the same way as the System 1 brain: “tacit, fast and semi-automatic behaviour that flows from the unconscious with little or no conscious interference”. This is certainly desirable for a tennis player facing a 130mph serve, or a martial artist, or an improvising musician, but Slingerland wants to argue that social action can become just as virtuously “spontaneous” as well-drilled athletic or artistic action. In support of this thesis, he cites the opinions of several classical Chinese thinkers (including Confucius) on the traditional virtue of “wu-wei” – the principle of non-action. Slingerland characterises it as “the dynamic, effortless and unselfconscious state of mind of a person who is optimally active and effective”.

It turns out, as you might guess, that in the opinion of all the tradition’s eminences, such grace can be achieved only through rationally deliberate practice. The true and valuable kind of spontaneity for which Slingerland argues must, paradoxically, be the result of long, conscious training. This is as true of graceful behaviour as it is of mastery in tennis or jazz – no musician becomes a brilliantly “spontaneous” improviser without spending thousands of unobserved hours running through scales. (After an early humiliation when he had the confidence but not the chops to sit with a pro band, Charlie Parker locked himself away to practise for years before he ventured on stage again.) In the matter of respectable behaviour, more­over, the result – desirable though it surely is – is not really “spontaneity” at all but good character, formed through habitual virtuous action, as Aristotle was arguing in another ancient philosophical culture altogether. “The Way of Heaven”, according to one Chinese sage, even excels in “planning for the future, though it is always relaxed”. It doesn’t sound very spontaneous, does it? Wu-wei leads to gracefully appropriate action, but not thoughtlessly random action.

We do seem to have the idea that authentic virtue is spontaneous – being “spontaneously” kind is considered more real than being kind after conscious reflection, though it is hard to see why. Conversely, one may spontaneously offer a hurtful insult or a violent assault. Spontaneity cannot be a good in itself, yet we feel that it somehow makes a good action better. The obvious explanation for this would be to say that an action performed this way implies a history of doing similar things, which is how it became spontaneous in the first place. This is not, however, the point Slingerland emphasises. Instead he wants to praise spontaneous action precisely because it is allegedly unfiltered by the nasty conscious mind.

“We have a very strong intuition,” he writes, “increasingly confirmed by work in cognitive science, that the conscious, verbal mind is often a sneaky, conniving liar, whereas spontaneous, unselfconscious gestures are reliable indicators of what’s really going on inside another person.”

Well, sometimes, perhaps. But of course the conscious, verbal mind can often write interesting books about how one can consciously and verbally achieve the state of social elegance they recommend to their readers, who must similarly absorb such information consciously and verbally, and then act on it. Indeed, since the kind of trained spontaneity Slingerland values is achieved through rational practice, it seems inconsistent to attempt to valorise the one by means of denigrating the other.

The dream of spontaneity is one of escape, but the truth might be that the more time we spend in a self-built cage, the better we can escape. Other work in psychology reported at the premium end of the self-help spectrum seems to indicate, indeed, that pursuing spontaneity at all costs ensures we will be less happy. As Oliver Burkeman, author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, has written, the problem with a devotion to spontaneity is that we are all subject to “decision fatigue”, the existential lethargy that sets in quickly when we are forced to make too many trivial choices. The antidote might be, then, to stick even more closely to a timetable. “It’s ironic that people resist schedules because they want to be spontaneous and savour the moment,” Burkeman writes, “given that your average Zen monk – whose whole job, to simplify somewhat, is to savour the moment – abides by a rigorous schedule”.

Freed from the self-imposed pressure to do an awesome thing spontaneously, so this argument goes, we will actually experience more pleasure. “Stop worrying about living spontaneously,” Burkeman advises, “and you might start having more fun.”

But if more fun is our goal, the lure of spontaneity might creep back in. Is our overvaluation of spontaneity not, after all, born of a deep-seated fear – the fear of missing out? If we commit to one social plan for the whole evening, we might be missing out on something cooler happening just around the corner. So the mediated-spontaneity tools of the smartphone comfort us with the idea that it is always possible to bail out in favour of something better. And this is pleasant, too, for the hipster entrepreneurs who have just launched the nearby pop-up absinthe bar or dude-food smokehouse. As Jacob Burak reports in a recent essay, the fear of missing out “occurs mostly in people with unfulfilled psychological needs in realms such as love, respect, autonomy and security”. Too overwhelming a fear of missing out – a generalised attitude of always looking over the shoulder of the person you’re talking to in case there is someone more interesting or attractive at the party – can rob the victim of the ability to take pleasure in anything.

And so it might be that those dedicated to the spontaneous lifestyle will continue to be frazzled and unhappy, however many bikini razors and pairs of Brazilian flip-flops they own – while their masters, whose plans are anything but spontaneous, look on with dark satisfaction.

Steven Poole’s most recent book is “Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower?: A Treasury of Unbearable Office Jargon” (Sceptre, £8.99)