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.

8.27.2012

Objectivity: A Concept That Only Exists As Truthiness

In all, their meta-analysis showed the majority of people believe they aren't like the majority of people.

You don't want to believe you can be persuaded, and one way of maintaining this belief is to assume that all the persuasion flying through the air must be landing on other targets. . . . 

You tend to believe you are an independent thinker.  You may disagree with people on the issues, but you see yourself as having an open mind, as a person who looks at the facts and reaches conclusions after rational objective analysis. . . . 

For just about every topic listed in this book there are many people who will read or hear about it and think these delusions and biases affect other people all the time, but not themselves. . . . 

But remember, you can't be in the minority of every category.

You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You're Deluding Yourself by David McRaney, based on the blog of the same name.

The quote above is from the chapter "The Third Person Effect."  The chapter premise:

THE MISCONCEPTION: You believe your opinions and decisions are based on experience and facts, while those who disagree with you are falling for the lies and propaganda of sources you don't trust.

THE TRUTH: Everyone believes the people they disagree with are gullible, and everyone thinks they are far less susceptible to persuasion than they are.

The chapter--really a mini-essay--looks at the psychology behind the third person effect and how each of us wants to silence (censor) voices that disagree with ours because we're afraid others (an imaginary third party) will be convinced by them, even when we're not.  As a librarian who is frequently outraged by attempts at censorship and the banning of books, the concept makes a lot of sense to me because it's the argument most always made--"that needs to be removed from the library collection because it might poison someone's thinking," in essence.  It's a powerful effect.

And it's a good representation of the entire book, which is a collection of 48 such chapters/essays, each looking at a different psychological "delusion" that impacts our beliefs about ourselves and our objectivity.  McRaney has done a nice job of delving into the latest academic and technical research and presenting it in fun, approachable, layperson terms for all of us to easily digest.  Since each chapter is written as an independent idea there gets to be some repetition where concepts overlap, but it serves to remind and show how they reinforce each other and the overall idea.  I'm left feeling more than a little cynical, that there might be no point in ever trying to dialogue with another ever again because each person is trapped in his or her own island of delusions, but I more powerfully feel that this is essential self-knowledge that makes us more likely to be less entrenched in our stubborn convictions and give each other a fair listen.  It's fascinating, enlightening stuff, and I hope the book really takes off and gains more readers.

Of the book overall, from the introduction, "You":

THE MISCONCEPTION: You are a rational, logical being who sees the world as it really is.

THE TRUTH: You are as deluded as the rest of us, but that's OK, it keeps you sane.

(Instead of delusions, you might prefer to use the terms "filters" or "perspectives.")

Some of the chapter concepts are common logical fallacies, like these (click to enlarge):


Others have emerged from the arena of behavioral economics, memory and brain studies, or related fields.  My confirmation bias leads me to highlight these few:

3. "Confirmation Bias":

THE MISCONCEPTION: Your opinions are the result of years of rational, objective analysis.

THE TRUTH: Your opinions are the result of years of paying attention to information that confirmed what you believed, while ignoring information that challenged your preconceived notions.

(Follow the links within each of the concepts that follow if you want to see how they confirm things I've blogged before and get more of an idea about the contents of the chapters.)

6. "Procrastination":


THE MISCONCEPTION: You procrastinate because you are lazy and can't manage your time well.

THE TRUTH: Procrastination is fueled by weakness in the face of impulse and a failure to think about thinking.

8. "Introspection":

THE MISCONCEPTION: You know why you like the things you like and feel the way you feel.

THE TRUTH: The origin of certain emotional states is unavailable to you, and when pressed to explain them, you will just make something up.

18. "The Just-World Fallacy":

THE MISCONCEPTION: People who are losing at the game of life must have done something to deserve it.

THE TRUTH: The beneficiaries of good fortune often do nothing to earn it, and bad people often get away with their actions without consequence.

(I don't know that I have a single post to link to for this so much as an ongoing theme that this concept is often misapplied to Christianity and politics in a way that negatively impacts our interactions and policies.  Perhaps this one.)

19. "The Public Goods Game":

THE MISCONCEPTION: We could create a system with no regulations where everyone would contribute to the good of society, everyone would benefit, and everyone would be happy.

THE TRUTH: Without some form of regulation, slackers and cheaters will crash economic systems because people don't want to feel like suckers.

And, finally, just so you know the book isn't all about negatively deconstructing our happy delusions but offers some constructive and helpful ideas as well . . .

43. "The Moment":

THE MISCONCEPTION: You are one person, and your happiness is based on being content with your life.

THE TRUTH: You are multiple selves, and happiness is based on satisfying all of them.

 . . . Kahneman's research suggests there are two channels through which you decide whether or not you are happy.  The current self is happy when experiencing things.  The remembering self is happy when you look back on your life and pull up plenty of positive memories. . . . 

Life for you and many others is full of conflict between these two selves over how best to be happy.  Kahneman's research shows that happiness can't be all one or all the other.  You have to be happy in the flow of time while simultaneously creating memories you can look back on later.

To be happy now and content later, you can't be focused only on reaching goals, because once you reach them, the experience ends.  To truly by happy, you must satisfy both of your selves.  Go get the ice cream, but do so in a meaningful way that creates a long-term memory.  Grind away to have money for later, but do so in a way that generates happiness as you work.

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