Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.

4.20.2012

Do I Think Any True Thoughts?

Some days my cynic takes control and I wonder if there even is such a thing as rational discourse, if there's any point to sharing information with an eye towards education, and if there's really any way to change hearts and minds about the issues and policies we fight over.

Never mind that 95% of the debates, disagreements, and discussions I've ever seen/heard/read would not exist without logical fallacies . . .



No, what's really discouraging is it seems programmed into our very natures to be completely egocentric and incapable of stretching beyond our bound perspectives.

I get all excited and see something like this:

It seems that the stereotype of the “thinking liberal” may have some truth. New research . . . finds that “low-effort” thinking about a given issue is more likely to result in a conservative stance. . . .

The authors test the hypothesis that low-effort thought promotes political conservatism. . . . Together these data suggest that political conservatism may be a process consequence of low-effort thought; when effortful, deliberate thought is disengaged, endorsement of conservative ideology increases.

The BPS Digest places the research in a larger context: “The finding that reduced mental effort encourages more conservative beliefs fits with prior research suggesting that attributions of personal responsibility (versus recognizing the influence of situational factors), acceptance of hierarchy and preference for the status quo – all of which may be considered hallmarks of conservative belief - come naturally and automatically to most people, at least in western societies.”


It's wonderfully affirming for someone like me, a proudly "thinking liberal." But then I'm reminded of my investigations into perspective, motivation, irrationality, and the complex workings of our brains by something like this:

This is how one eventually arrives at the illusion of naive realism, or believing your thoughts and perceptions are true, accurate and correct, therefore if someone sees things differently than you or disagrees with you in some way it is the result of a bias or an influence or a shortcoming. You feel like the other person must have been tainted in some way, otherwise they would see the world the way you do – the right way. The illusion of asymmetrical insight clouds your ability to see the people you disagree with as nuanced and complex. You tend to see your self and the groups you belong to in shades of gray, but others and their groups as solid and defined primary colors lacking nuance or complexity. . . .

In a political debate you feel like the other side just doesn’t get your point of view, and if they could only see things with your clarity, they would understand and fall naturally in line with what you believe. They must not understand, because if they did they wouldn’t think the things they think. By contrast, you believe you totally get their point of view and you reject it. You see it in all its detail and understand it for what it is – stupid. You don’t need to hear them elaborate. So, each side believes they understand the other side better than the other side understands both their opponents and themselves. . . .


So, wait. You're telling me that we liberals think we know better and believe we have the evidence to back it up, but that's just an illusion of the nature of our skewed thinking--and that conservatives do the same thing, think they know better and believe they have the evidence to back it up? That we can't help but think we're right and they're wrong no matter what anything else might indicate? It seems--at least to some degree--so.

I first encountered the term "naive realism" in the book True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society by Farhad Manjoo. In Truthiness Is Reality I quoted:

Each of us thinks that on any given subject our views are essentially objective, the product of a dispassionate, realistic accounting of the world. This is naive realism, though, because we are incapable of recognizing the biases that operate upon us. . . . The bias we see in the news isn't strategic. It's real. It's real to us, at least, and that's as real as it gets. . . . We all harbor a different idea of what an objective news story should look like. . . . we all want objectivity, but we disagree about what objectivity is.

So if by our very natures we're each convinced we're right and others just don't understand things as insightfully as we do, and that we're objective when we're not, what's the point in ever trying to convince anyone of anything? Is there even a point in attempting to dialogue and come to some kind of agreement? Or is everything just a negotiation to see who gets to call the shots and who has to sacrifice to fit in and belong?

As I said, cynical.

The uncited quote above is from a lengthy post at a blog I recently discovered, You Are Not So Smart: A Celebration of Self Delusion. I've read two posts so far and put myself on the waiting list to get the book that emerged from the blog. They are very long, in-depth posts. Almost too much so, but it's good reading. In an attempt at offering a more approachable introduction, here's my abridgment of the post quoted above, The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight:

The Misconception: You celebrate diversity and respect others’ points of view.

The Truth: You are driven to create and form groups and then believe others are wrong just because they are others. . . .

What you may not have noticed though is how much of this behavior is gurgling right below the surface of your consciousness day-to-day. You aren’t sharpening spears, but at some level you are contemplating your place in society, contemplating your allegiances and your opponents. You see yourself as part of some groups and not others, and like those boys you spend a lot of time defining outsiders. The way you see others is deeply affected by something psychologists call the illusion of asymmetric insight, but to understand it let’s first consider how groups, like people, have identities – and like people, those identities aren’t exactly real. . . .

The idea is this: You put on a mask and uniform before leaving for work. You put on another set for school. You have costume for friends of different persuasions and one just for family. Who you are alone is not who you are with a lover or a friend. . . .

In flesh or photons, it seems built-in, this desire to conceal some aspects of yourself in one group while exposing them in others. You can be vulnerable in many different ways but not all at once it seems. . . .

Groups too don these masks. Political parties establish platforms, companies give employees handbooks, countries write out constitutions, tree houses post club rules. Every human gathering and institution from the Gay Pride Parade to the KKK works to remain connected by developing a set a norms and values which signals to members when they are dealing with members of the in-group and help identify others as part of the out-group. The peculiar thing though is that once you feel this, once you feel included in a human institution or ideology, you can’t help but see outsiders through a warped lens called the illusion of asymmetric insight. . . .

You believe every person not you is an open book. Of course, the research shows they believe the same thing about you. . . .

The results showed liberals believed they knew more about conservatives than conservatives knew about liberals. The conservatives believed they knew more about liberals than liberals knew about conservatives. Both groups thought they knew more about their opponents than their opponents knew about themselves. The same was true of the pro-abortion rights and anti-abortion groups.

The illusion of asymmetric insight makes it seem as though you know everyone else far better than they know you, and not only that, but you know them better than they know themselves. You believe the same thing about groups of which you are a member. As a whole, your group understands outsiders better than outsiders understand your group, and you understand the group better than its members know the group to which they belong. . . .

This is how one eventually arrives at the illusion of naive realism, or believing your thoughts and perceptions are true, accurate and correct, therefore if someone sees things differently than you or disagrees with you in some way it is the result of a bias or an influence or a shortcoming. You feel like the other person must have been tainted in some way, otherwise they would see the world the way you do – the right way. The illusion of asymmetrical insight clouds your ability to see the people you disagree with as nuanced and complex. You tend to see your self and the groups you belong to in shades of gray, but others and their groups as solid and defined primary colors lacking nuance or complexity. . . .

In a political debate you feel like the other side just doesn’t get your point of view, and if they could only see things with your clarity, they would understand and fall naturally in line with what you believe. They must not understand, because if they did they wouldn’t think the things they think. By contrast, you believe you totally get their point of view and you reject it. You see it in all its detail and understand it for what it is – stupid. You don’t need to hear them elaborate. So, each side believes they understand the other side better than the other side understands both their opponents and themselves. . . .

Your natural instinct is to assume anyone not in your group is wrong just because they are not in your group. Remember, you are not so smart, and what seems like an insight is often an illusion.


-----

And, as a bit of a bonus, an abridgment of the other post I've read, which is equally interesting, if a bit of a subject change. Maybe a change. Maybe related, in some way, to the idea of "low-effort thinking" mentioned in the quote about liberals being the product of thought.

From Ego Depletion, a look at why we sometime can't control ourselves in the face of temptation and why other times we sit around in total apathy with no will whatsoever:

The Misconception: Willpower is just a metaphor.

The Truth: Willpower is a finite resource. . . .

On average the rejects ate twice as many cookies as the popular people. To an outside observer, nothing was different – same setting, same work, similar students sitting alone in front of scrumptious cookies. In their heads though, they were on different planets. For those on the sunny planet with the double-rainbow sky, the cookies were easy to resist. Those on the rocky, lifeless world where the forgotten go to fade away found it more difficult to stay their hands when their desire to reach into the bowl surfaced. . . .

Somehow, the evidence suggested the more you restrain that which Freud would have called your id, the more difficult it becomes to restrain it. Freud would have probably have said the more your ego fought the id, the more it held it down, the more tired, exhausted, and weak your ego became. Baumeister named this process ego depletion with a nod and wink. . . .

Much of your mental life is simply not under your conscious control, and Baumeister’s research suggests once you take the helm every act of volition diminishes the next.

It is as if the mind is a terribly designed airplane. As long as the plane flies in a straight line, it burns very little fuel, but as soon as the pilot takes over in any way, to dive or bank or climb, the plane burns fuel at an alarming rate making it more difficult to steer in the future. At some point, you must return the plane to autopilot until it can refuel or else it crashes. In this analogy, taking control of the human mind includes making choices, avoiding temptation, suppressing emotions and thoughts, and acting in a way deemed appropriate by your culture. Saying no to every naughty impulse from raiding the refrigerator to skipping class requires a little bit of willpower fuel, and once you spend that fuel it becomes harder to say no the next time. All of Baumeister’s research suggests self-control is a strenuous act. As your ego depletes, your automatic processes get louder, and each successive attempt to take control of your impulses is less successful than the last. . . . Inhibiting and redirecting your own behavior in any way makes it more difficult to delay gratification and persevere in the face of adversity or boredom in the future. . . .

People in the unwanted group felt the sting of ostracism, and that reframed their self-regulation as being wasteful. It was as if they thought, “Why play by the rules if no one cares?” It poked a hole in their willpower fuel tanks, and when they sat in front of the cookies they couldn’t control their impulses as well as the others. Other studies show when you feel ostracized and unwanted, you can’t solve puzzles as well, you become less likely to cooperate, less motivated to work, more likely to drink and smoke and do other self-destructive things. Rejection obliterates self control, and thus it seems it’s one of the many avenues toward a state of ego depletion. . . .

Well, that’s why psychologists have been working so hard to pinpoint what is being depleted when we speak of ego depletion, and it may just be glucose. . . .

Thus, it seems as though you are more able to exert willpower and control, to make decisions and suppress naughtiness by eating and drinking beforehand, which sucks of course if the thing over which you need willpower are food and drink. . . .

The current understanding of this is that all brain functions require fuel, but the executive functions seem to require the most. Or, if you prefer, the executive branch of the mind has the most expensive operating costs. Studies show that when low on glucose, those executive functions suffer, and the result is a state of mind called ego depletion. . . . We now know it may just be your prefrontal cortex dealing with a lack of glucose. . . .

The only way to avoid this state of mind is to predict what might cause it in your own daily life and to avoid those things when you need the most volition. Modern life requires more self control than ever. Just knowing
Reddit is out there beckoning your browser, or your iPad is waiting for your caress, or your smart phone is full of status updates, requires a level of impulse control unique to the human mind. Each abstained vagary strengthens the pull of the next. Remember too that you can dampen your executive functions in many ways, like by staying up all night for a few days, or downing a few alcoholic beverages, or holding your tongue at a family gathering, or resisting the pleas of a child for the umpteenth time. Having an important job can lead to decision fatigue which may lead to ego depletion simply because big decisions require lots of energy, literally, and when you slump you go passive. A long day of dealing with bullshit often leads to an evening of no-decision television in which you don’t even feel like switching the channel to get Kim Kardashian’s face out of your television, or sitting and watching a censored Jurassic Park between commercials even though you own a copy of the movie five feet away. If so, no big deal, but if you find yourself in control of someone’s parole or air traffic, or you need to lose 200 pounds, that’s when it’s time to plan ahead. If you want the most control over your own mind so that you can alter your responses to the world instead of giving in and doing what comes naturally, stay fresh. Take breaks. And until we understand just what ego depletion really is, don’t make important decisions on an empty stomach.

1 Comments:

At 4/24/2012 12:11 PM, Blogger Degolar said...

Excellent expansion on the Ego Depletion thought:

http://alwaysprojects.blogspot.com/2012/04/depleted-and-defeated-and-not-forever.html

 

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