Often things are not as they first appear. This was point of the hit Broadway play Wicked. My wife, Kimberly, and I, went to see this show in New York City and we walked away very satisfied and at the same time, moved by this not so subtle message.
The show was based on the popular children’s story The Wizard of Oz. It was a prequel and a postquel of sorts, that told a story with very different implications than those popularized in the 1939 movie version. It portrayed the Wicked Witch (whose name in Wicked was Elphaba) as a wise and caring person both gifted with magical powers and cursed with a different skin color. She also was imbued with a powerful sense of right and wrong. Elphaba struggled with life in part due her father’s rejection but also as a result of sweeping societal prejudice that valued an increasingly narrow subset of the preferred “people” of Oz.
Once she was sent off to University (primarily to care for her physically disabled sister), Elphaba showed great potential as a sorcerer. However, she was outside the norm. She just did not fit in – she was smart, her skin was green (as a result of her mother’s consumption of an illicit drug when she was conceived), and she questioned the morays of the day. Essentially, because she was different, she was bullied. She also threatened those in power because of her assertions for justice.
The twists and turns of Elphaba’s University experience both alienated her further and highlighted rampant and unappreciated societal injustices. Ultimately, due to these sweeping and strengthening ideological changes, as well as Elphaba’s own deeds (as righteous as they were), she was labeled the equivalent of a terrorist. Concurrently, a closer look at the Wizard revealed his sheepish compliance with the up swell of prejudicial ideology. It became apparent that not only was the Wizard of Oz merely a man behind the curtain pulling the strings of the idyllic Wizard, but that he was more of a naive puppet himself, both riding the tide of ideology and sustained by those with true power.
There is much more to Wicked that tells the back story of the characters and situations in the Wizard of Oz. It was a clever story, entertaining in it’s own right, but much more than just a story. It clearly serves as a social commentary about the ideological tendencies and injustices of our unique economic and social policies.
If one looks past the white washed American History spoon fed school children throughout our land, one will discover unpleasant, if not deeply troubling realities carried out by our government and corporations in the name “freedom.” All you have to do is look at the facts underneath the story and you may be shocked by what we have done in foreign lands. Our popular media outlets, owned by corporate interests, also white wash these events. It is indeed alarming to learn what the rest of the world knows of our endeavors in places like Iran, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Ecuador, Panama, Chile, Argentina, and Columbia. Most Americans know nothing of it.
Democrats as well as Republicans have been active players in these atrocities. Its about globalization, free trade, and unabated profit seeking. It’s about the Corporatocracy that we embrace without question. I’m not suggesting a conspiracy – it’s rather a consequence of a way of thinking and our ravenous consumption. It takes courage and substantial effort to suspend one’s nationalistic tendencies and the presumptuous notions of American Exceptionalism. I dare you to take a closer look (here, or here, or read this and perhaps this). You won’t like it – really it is Wicked!
I have always said that there is a fine line between intelligence and fear. Some fear is adaptive and entirely reasonable: particularly when the catalyst truly involves danger. There are some anxieties however, that take hold and profoundly affect behavior in unreasonable ways.
One personal example comes to mind to illustrate this. Last winter I was backpacking on a trail that traversed some rock city formations with deep, but relatively narrow, crevasses. Many of the cracks were unintimidating and easily traversed. There was one however, that stopped me in my tracks. The gap was 36-40 inches across a sheer 25 foot drop. Under more typical circumstances, this gap would have not phased me. Yet, in this situation, I was completely frozen.
Rock City Crevasse
To be clear there was some risk associated with this crossing. But, in my mind, the risk took on unreasonable proportions.
Frankly, I was both embarrassed and befuddled by this situation. Were it a stream of equal width, I would have easily hopped over it.
I stood there at battle with myself for what seemed like an eternity. In reality, it was probably only a minute or two. My body was hostage to a cognitive tug-of-war between my rational brain urging me to leap. “Come-on” I uttered to myself “It’s only three feet across!” “You can do this!”
Another force in my brain countered with incapacitating doubt. Kevin, my backpacking companion, patiently waited on the other side of the crevasse after easily leaping across. I saw him do it with no difficulty. I had clear evidence that the crossing was easily within my capabilities; but, the cost of a slip and a fall, far overshadowed my confidence. The frustration I felt over this coup of sorts, was immense. Finally, I was able to muster up enough confidence to take the leap. It was, in fact, quite easy. We hiked on and no further mention of this humbling pause was made.
Many fears are like this. Whether it is a fear of mice, or bees, spiders, or snakes. These stimuli impose, in most circumstances, no grave threat, but the flight response they trigger in the phobic is immense. Even when a person knows that there is no reason for fear, it persists.
This response is akin to the reluctance that most people have about eating chocolate fudge in the shape of dog feces, or eating soup from a clean unused bedpan, or drinking juice from a glass in which a sterile cockroach has been dipped. Psychologist Paul Rozin, in his famous studies on disgust, discovered that when presented with these circumstances, most people choose not to eat the fudge or the soup, or drink from the glass – even knowing there is no real danger in doing so. It is the irrational essence of contagion that drives these inhibitions.
These situations are all very different than rock climbing without ropes, where there is clear and present danger. When we are compelled to flee a truly benign stimulus, we are likely driven by an internal cognitive force that screams “RISK!” even when there is no true danger. Intriguing isn’t it, that this innate force is so powerful that even our capacity to use reason and evidence pales in comparison.
Philosopher Tamar Gendler has coined the word “alief” to describe this cognitive phenomenon. She fashioned the word around the word “belief,” which is a conscious manifestation of how we suppose things to be. An alief is a deep and powerful feeling of sorts that can and does play an important role in decision-making, but it is not based in reason or evidence. Beliefs can be more susceptible to such rational forces. But aliefs defy reason and exert powerful influence despite one’s attempts to rationally dispel them. This voice is intuitive and its origins are outside your awareness. They typically appear in an attempt to facilitate self-preservation.
You may believe that the feces shaped fudge is “JUST FUDGE!” but it is your alief that the fudge is excrement (as a result of it’s characteristic size, shape, and color) that makes it very hard to eat. I believed that hopping over the crevasse was easily within my capabilities, but it was my “alief” that - leaping over the gap is DANGEROUS - that kept me frozen in my tracks.
You see, you can simultaneously hold opposing beliefs and aliefs and it was, in fact, these opposing forces that waged war as I stood at the edge of the precipice. You might believe that a bee is generally harmless and unlikely to sting you unless you threaten it. But, it is your alief, that the bee will sting and hurt you that triggers the autonomic arousal that compels you to flee. It is this deeply primal alief that often wins, no matter how rational you attempt to be.
In my situation, my belief in my leaping ability ultimately prevailed. Perhaps this was due to my machismo or humiliation, but ultimately I fought down and defeated the alief. It was a hard fought battle that left me feeling like a chicken despite my “victory.”
In retrospect, getting an understanding of this internal process has helped me come to grips with my hesitation. And as such, I stand in awe of the internal brain systems that play out in such circumstances.
Perhaps in the future, when in a similar situation, I will be better prepared to deal with self doubt as it springs forth from my lizard brain so that I will more effectively cope with it before it builds incapacitating momentum. After all – it’s just an alief!
The year 2011 proved to be a challenging year. A number of serious health issues in close family members took center stage. The frequency of my posts declined in part due to these important distractions but other factors also played a major role. Although I published fewer articles, the number of visits to my blog increased substantially.
Over the course of the year, I had 18,305 hits at my website by 15,167 unique visitors, accounting for over 25,000 page views. I had visitors from every state in the Union and visits from people from 140 nations around the world. Visitors from the United States accounted for the vast majority of those hits, but the UK, Canada, and Australia also brought in a large contingent of visitors.
One article in particular far outpaced all other posts. My post on Brain Waves and Other Brain Measures accounted for as many visits as the next three most popular posts combined. Of my posts published in 2011, only four made it to this year’s top ten list. The other six were published in 2010. Of those six from 2010, four were also on the top ten list last year.
Great interest persisted in my post entitled Nonmoral Nature: It is what it is. This review of Stephen Jay Gould’s most famous article sustained a number two ranking for a second straight year. I had also reviewed in 2010 a very popular New York Time’s article by Steven Pinker entitled The Moral Instinct. This article moved up a notch this year, ultimately ranking number three. My critical article on the Implicit Associations Test ranked number four this year, versus a number six ranking last year. And my Hedgehog versus the Fox mindset piece ranked number ten this year, compared to a number seven ranking last year.
So here is the Top Ten list for 2011.
- Brainwaves and Other Brain Measures (2011)
- Non Moral Nature: It is what it is (2010)
- Moral Instinct (2010)
- IAT: Questions of Reliability and Validity (2010)
- Where Does Prejudice Come From? (2011)
- Cognitive Conservatism, Moral Relativism, Bias, and Human Flourishing (2011)
- What Plato, Descartes, and Kant Got Wrong: Reason Does Not Rule. (2010)
- Intuitive Thought (2010)
- Effects of Low SES on Brain Development (2011)
- Are you a Hedgehog or a Fox? (2010)
It’s interesting to me that this list includes the very foundational issues that have driven me in my quest. And each was posted with great personal satisfaction. This encompassing cross section of my work is, in fact, a good starting point for those who are new to my blog. There are several popular 2011 posts that ranked outside the top ten but ranked highly relative to other posts published in 2011. These other posts include:
One article I published late in 2011 has attracted significant attention. I believe that it is perhaps one of the most important posts I’ve written. As I was writing this retrospective, Conspicuous Consumption and the Peacock’s Tail was far outpacing all other posts.
The most emotional and personally relevant articles pertained to significant problems in healthcare in the United States and my wife’s battle with breast cancer. These articles include: (a) What not to say to someone with cancer: And what helps; (b) Up and Ever Onward: My Wife’s Battle With Cancer; (c) Cancer, Aging, & Healthcare: America, We Have a Problem; (d) We’re Number 37! USA USA USA!; and (e) Tears of Strength in Cancer’s Wake. The latter pertains to perhaps the proudest parental moment of my life.
Another very important issue that I wrote a fair amount about includes the pernicious affect of poverty on child development. Clicking here takes you to a page that lists all of the articles on this topic. Knowing the information in this series should motivate us, as a society, to truly evaluate our current political and economic policies.
One of my favorite articles tackled my long standing curiosity about the geology of the place I live. The article itself did not get a lot of attention, but I sure loved writing it.
This two-year journey, thus far has resulted in perhaps unparalleled personal and intellectual growth. It has changed the way I look at life, the world around me, and my fellow human beings. It is my sincerest hope that those who have seen fit to read some of my material have experienced shifts of perception or at least a modicum of enlightenment.
The bottom line:
The human brain, no matter how remarkable, is flawed in two fundamental ways. First, the proclivities toward patternicity (pareidolia), hyperactive agency detection, and superstition, although once adaptive mechanisms, now lead to many errors of thought. Since the age of enlightenment, when human kind developed the scientific method, we have exponentially expanded our knowledge base regarding the workings of the world and the universe. These leaps of knowledge have rendered those error prone proclivities unessential for survival. Regardless, they have remained a dominant cognitive force. Although our intuition and rapid cognitions have sustained us, and in some ways still do, the subsequent everyday illusions impede us in important ways.
Secondly, we are prone to a multitude of cognitive biases that diminish and narrow our capacity to truly understand the world. Time after time I have written of the dangers of ideology with regard to its capacity to blindfold its disciples. Often those blindfolds are absolutely essential to sustain the ideology. And this is dangerous when truths and facts are denied or innocents are subjugated or brutalized. As I discussed in Spinoza’s Conjecture:
“We all look at the world through our personal lenses of experience. Our experiences shape our understanding of the world, and ultimately our understanding of [it], then filters what we take in. The end result is that we may reject or ignore new and important information simply because it does not conform to our previously held beliefs.
Because of these innate tendencies, we must make additional effort in order to discover the truth.
Posted by Gerald Guild
Categories: Adaptive Unconscious
, Erroneous Thinking
, Life and Time
, Rational Thought
, Socioeconomic Status
| Tagged: Cognitive Biases
, Confirmation Bias
, Erroneous Thinking
, Implicit Associations
, Intuitive Thinking
, Rational Thought
, Spinoza's Conjecture