Fake news is an abundant commodity in public discourse these days.  The reality of the situation is that all of us are hurt by it.  By acknowledging the existence of untenable facts, it gives permission to everyone to ignore hard and fast evidence, and thus justification to hunker down in the echo chambers of their political and moral beliefs.  Believe it or not, it is these moral and political underpinnings that give fake news its leverage.  Here is a  surprising real fact – the root of the problem is in your head in the form of a cognitive bias.

 

The scientific term for this bias is called Motivated Reasoning.  Before I explain it, let me state that Motivated Reasoning is universal and automatic; therefore, regardless of who you are, how intelligent you think you are, and what your political perspective is, YOU are vulnerable to it’s impact.

 

Here are some definitions of Motivated Reasoning:

  • Motivated reasoning is a form of reasoning in which people access, construct, and evaluate arguments in a biased fashion to arrive at or endorse a preferred conclusion.1

  • Motivated reasoning leads people to confirm what they already believe, while ignoring contrary data. But it also drives people to develop elaborate rationalizations to justify holding beliefs that logic and evidence have shown to be wrong.2

  • … motivated reasoning, … describes our tendency to accept what we want to believe with much more ease and much less analysis than what we don’t want to believe.3

Here are the key things to keep in mind about Motivated Reasoning:

  1. this bias leads us to accept what we want to believe
  2. we do so while ignoring contrary evidence, and empirically established facts
  3. we do so while developing elaborate rationalizations in order to justify such biases
  4. we do it with ease, meaning that it is automatic – it is occurring subconsciously

I have written about related concepts that serve as the foundation of this tendency.  First, there is the concept of Confirmation Bias which is the automatic inclination to take in, and accept as true, information that supports our belief systems, and miss, ignore, or discount information that runs contrary to our beliefs.4   It leads us to “believe” things like that full moons directly influence people’s behavior (which is not supported by empirical evidence).  “It shapes our religious and political beliefs, our parenting choices, our teaching strategies, and our romantic and social relationships.  It also plays a significant role in the development of stereotypes and the maintenance of prejudices.”Secondly there is Spinoza’s Conjecture.  “Benedict Spinoza, a 17th-century Dutch philosopher, wrote with great insight that “mere comprehension of a statement entails the tacit acceptance of it being true, whereas disbelief requires a subsequent process of rejection.”  What this suggests is that we are likely to accept, as true, a statement that makes immediate sense to us. But we can also infer that we are, in general, unlikely to critically scrutinize such logical statements.  A further implication is that we are likely to reject statements that don’t make immediate sense to us.”5

 

By appreciating the concepts of Confirmation Bias and Spinoza’s Conjecture one is inclined to gain a deep understanding of Motivated Reasoning.  At the basis of each of these concepts are one’s beliefs or what one believes to be true.  A belief is defined as “an acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof.” Belief is something that often necessarily involves a leap of faith, like a belief in God, or the acceptance of a particular political ideology.  Beliefs are generally thought to be influenced by morality.  And with regard to politics, there is evidence to suggest that political beliefs “… are often guided by our Moral Foundations.7”  According to Jonathon Haidt, a prominent Social Psychologist, there are five universal moralsHaidt’s research has indicated that liberals tend to value two of those morals (care and fairness), at a higher level than their conservative counterparts, and likewise compared to conservatives, hold a lower valuation of the other three (ingroup loyalty, authority and purity/sanctity).8   In related research Haidt9 has found that liberals value the rights and welfare of all individuals and tend to express “widespread human concern about caring, nurturing, and protecting vulnerable individuals from harm.”  Conservatives instead, express moral proclivities that “emphasize social cohesiveness and social order with a focus on loyalty, obedience, duty, self-restraint, respect of authority, piety, self-sacrifice for the group, vigilance for traitors or free-loaders, and orderly cultural boundaries.”

 

Another difference between those with liberal versus conservative ideological notions is related to future focus as opposed to a nostalgic one.  Whereas liberals tend to be inspired by “Hope and Change,” with a focus on making things better than they have ever been, conservatives tend to be nostalgic, seeing society’s trajectory as being regressive.  Conservatives tend to value the past and want to get back to it (e.g., “Make America Great Again“).

 

Granted, these are just a few of many variables that drive Motivated Reasoning.  The point is that there are a number of complicated factors that set people up for opposing beliefs.  These differences in perspective fuel our cognitive biases, and greatly affect what we are likely to accept as true.  From this evolves the concept of “truthiness” whereby people, regardless of ideology, accept information as being true, particularly if it supports their already held beliefs, and reject as “Fake” those facts that place their beliefs in doubt.

 

So how do we get around this automatic inclination?  The first step is to accept the concept of Motivated Reasoning as being real.  If you do not, facts and truth are irrelevant to you, and you are beyond hope.  If you can accept this reality, then you need to be willing step back from your deep convictions and open yourself up to seeing how those convictions shape your ingestion and acceptance of information.  Secondly, you need to critically evaluate the sources of your information.  There are news organizations out there that prosper from feeding Motivated Reasoning.   Here’s the rub, your Motivated Reasoning will distort your perspective on what news sources to trust.  Again, at the risk of being redundant, I urge you to keep in mind that your deeply held beliefs set you up for erroneous thinking.  It is ideology that is the culprit.  Finally, you must embrace evidence, and gather facts from sources that value evidence over ideology.

 

All of this is difficult, necessitating much cognitive effort, and the process is likely to make you feel uncomfortable.  Here is a hint, avoid cable news, particularly those networks with clear political objectives (you know who they are).  Below I have listed a few articles and sites to help you in your efforts to overcome your natural brain biases.  By gathering evidenced based information, and by avoiding inherently biased news, you will expand your understanding of the complexities of our world.  The discomfort you will likely experience by doing so, is called cognitive dissonance.  It is avoidance of that dissonance that keeps you in your echo chamber and susceptible to alternative facts.  The only way around this bias is to push through the pain: and only by experiencing that discomfort, will you be able to accurately reject fake news.

Tools for assessing the veracity of your preferred news outlets:

  1. Forbes 10 Journalism Brands Where You Find Real Facts Rather Than Alternative Facts10 
  2. Media Bias Fact Check11
    1. Pro-Science
    2. Least Biased
    3. Left-Center Bias
    4. Left Bias
    5. Right-Center Bias
    6. Right Bias
  3. FactCheck.org12

 

References

  1.  Motivated Reasoning Psychology Reference and Research: https://psychology.iresearchnet.com/social-psychology/attitudes/motivated-reasoning/
  2. Motivated Reasoning The Skeptic’s Dictionary: http://skepdic.com/motivatedreasoning.html
  3. Psychology’s Treacherous Trio: Confirmation Bias, Cognitive Dissonance, and Motivated Reasoning Why We Reason: https://whywereason.com/2011/09/07/psychologys-treacherous-trio-confirmation-bias-cognitive-dissonance-and-motivated-reasoning/

  4. Confirmation Bias How Do You Think? http://geraldguild.com/blog/2010/01/29/confirmation-bias/

  5. Spinoza’s Conjecture How Do You Think?  http://geraldguild.com/blog/2010/01/22/spinozas-conjecture

  6. Definition of belief: English Oxford Dictionary: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/belief
  7. Haidt, J. (2008). What Makes People Vote Republican? http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/haidt08/haidt08_index.html
  8. Moral Foundations Theory How Do You Think? http://geraldguild.com/blog/2010/09/24/moral-foundations-theory/
  9. Graham, J., Haidt, J., and Nosek, B. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different moral foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 96, No. 5, 1029–1046
  10. Forbes 10 Journalism Brands Where You Find Real Facts Rather Than Alternative Facts
  11. Media Bias Fact Check
  12. FactCheck.org
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Cheaters

17 March 2013

Nobody likes a cheater.  Such acts may stir deep feelings of loathing that erode trust and have ruinous consequences with regard to reputation and relationship.  It’s one of those things that is hard to overcome.  I’m not just talking about infidelity here.  I’m referring to a broader type that does include infidelity, but also includes things like pilfering, speeding, lying about one’s age, and other forms of dishonesty that benefit you at a cost to someone else.  Irrespective of the potential social costs, most people, given the opportunity, with little threat of detection, will and DO cheat.  Be honest with yourself here.  This shouldn’t be surprising.  What is surprising is the fact that altruism, or selflessness, the behavioral opposite of cheating, exists at all.

 

By virtue of the fact that human beings are the product of millions of years of evolution by means of natural selection, we are imbued with a selfishness that is hard to deny.   As distasteful as this may be, it is nonetheless true.  We are compelled by our selfish genes to survive, thrive, and replicate.  Within this context, cheating and selfishness make perfect sense and altruism makes little.  Yet we do exhibit altruism.  Why is this?  Steven Pinker wrote in How the Mind Works (1997, p 337):

 

Natural selection does not select public-mindedness; a selfish mutant would quickly out reproduce its altruistic competitors.  Any selfless behavior in the natural world needs a special explanation.  One explanation is reciprocation: a creature can extend help in return for help expected in the future.  But favor-trading is always vulnerable to cheaters.  For it to have evolved, it must be accompanied by a cognitive apparatus that remembers who has taken and ensures that they give in return.  The evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers had predicted that humans, the most conspicuous altruists in the animal kingdom, should have evolved a hypertrophied cheater-detection algorithm.

 

And indeed we have – this cognitive algorithm drives the emotional response we have toward cheaters.  Human beings are one of the few species that engage in altruism outside of their kin.  This is referred to as Reciprocal Altruism and clear links have been established between the demands of this type of social exchange and the origins of many human emotions (e.g., liking, anger, gratitude, sympathy, and guilt).  Pinker (1997) notes that “Collectively they make up a large part of the moral sense.”  We are inclined to engage in reciprocal altruism because we have the cognitive capacity to compute cost benefit analyses and the emotional capacity to respond in ways to encourage gains and discourage losses.  We have to be able to remember favors given and received and we must effectively calibrate reciprocation.  It is a delicate and intricate dance that if kept in balance does result in both individual and group benefits.

 

When benefits or favors are traded, both parties profit as long as the value of what they receive is greater than the value of what they give up.  Because most favors are not exchanged at the same time and they likely vary in degree of effort and value, a calculus is needed to keep the exchange in reciprocal balance.  This balance can tip in either direction and people “remember past treacheries or good turns and play accordingly.  They can feel sympathetic and extend good will,  feel aggrieved and seek revenge,  feel grateful and return a favor, or feel remorseful and make amends.”  (Pinker, 1997 p. 503).

 

It is important to note that there is a different calculus, a more flexible and enduring one that plays out in friendships and kin based, as well as intimate relationships.  “Tit-for-tat does not cement a friendship; it strains it.  Nothing can be more awkward for good friends than a business transaction between them, like the sale of a car.  The same is true for one’s best friend in life, a spouse.  The couples who keep close track of what each other has done for the other are the couples who are the least happy.” (Pinker, 1997 p. 507).  Healthy close relationships come with a feeling of indebtedness and spontaneous pleasure associated with contribution instead of anticipation of in-kind repayment.  This is true to a point however, and if one person takes too much, without giving back, the relationship is likely doomed.  In such healthy relationships, there tends to be compassionate and enduring love, free of ledgers, time cards, and cash register receipts.

 

So, we are hyper-vigilant cheater detectors, and our scrutiny of others’ cheating behavior varies based on a number of variables.  Certainly kinship and friendship play a part in our perception.  But in addition to what we understand about reciprocal altruism and cheating, we also know that our cheater detectors tend to be finely focused on people who are different from us.  Those outside our identified social groups (tribal moral communities) are scrutinized much more closely than those inside our circles – and they are examined with much more resolution than we direct toward our own conduct and toward those in the in-group.

 

This inclination is a byproduct of the universal and innate tendencies to be much more forgiving toward one’s own mistakes and more judgmental towards others’ transgressions.  This is the self-serving bias.  We also have a tendency to see exactly what we expect to see and miss or ignore things that don’t fit within our expectations.  These tendencies are explained by our inclinations toward confirmation bias and inattentional blindness.   Finally, there is the fundamental attribution error which leads us to blame others’ transgression on their internal personal attributes while we ignore important and contributing external environmental circumstances.

 

That is a lot to take in, but suffice it to say that we are much more likely to give ourselves and those similar to us, a break when it comes to cheating.  We are much less forgiving toward outsiders, particularly those that seem to hold different values, norms, or customs.  This is even true within a society where there is, to a substantial extent, social cohesion; but, where differences exist with regard to beliefs or ideologies.  These truths are self evident – just look at the rancor between Liberals and Conservatives in the United States.  But it also helps explain the racial and ethnic tensions within and across this country toward Hispanics, African Americans, Muslims, and particularly, the poor.

 

Currently, much blame for this country’s financial woes has been heaped onto the poor due to “entitlement spending.”  These recipients of social safety net spending are often defined as cheaters and freeloaders.  There is no doubt that there is, and shall forever be, a small contingent of citizens who are completely comfortable with getting a free ride.  It would be foolish to argue otherwise.  This is a legitimate problem.

 

On the other hand, I suggest that we must be willing to acknowledge the prevalence of cheating across the economic spectrum and refocus our microscope on the costs of cheating by corporations, white collar criminals, and those whom we tend to give a pass because they are similar to us.  In my previous article, Crime & Punishment and Entitlements: A Deeper Perspective, I discussed the egregious costs of our prejudicial criminal justice system and the entitlement mentality rampant in corporations and those at the upper end of the economic spectrum.  I submitted that article with the intent of opening eyes to the wider hypocrisy that pervades this country and the erroneously sharpened focus on a small fraction of our fellow “freeloading” countrymen.  If you believe that the infamous 47% of Americans are truly freeloaders, I suggest that you take an objective look at the data from that group (from FactCheck.org):

 

  • 22 percent [or around 47% of the 47%] receive senior tax benefits — the extra standard deduction for seniors, the exclusion of a portion of Social Security benefits, and the credit for seniors. Most of them are older people on Social Security whose adjusted gross income is less than $25,000.
  • 15.2 percent [or 32% of the 47%] receive tax credits for children and the working poor. That includes the child tax credit and the earned income tax credit. The child tax credit was enacted under Democratic President Bill Clinton, but it doubled under Republican President George W. Bush. The earned income tax credit was enacted under Republican President Gerald Ford, and was expanded under presidents of both parties. Republican President Ronald Reagan once praised it as “one of the best antipoverty programs this country’s ever seen.” As a result of various tax expenditures, about two thirds of households with children making between $40,000 and $50,000 owed no federal income taxes.
  • The rest [21% of the 47%] ended up owing no federal income tax due to various tax expenditures such as education credits, itemized deductions or reduced rates on capital gains and dividends. Most of this group are in the middle to upper income brackets. In fact, the TPC [Tax Policy Center] estimates there are about 7,000 families and individuals who earn $1 million a year or more and still pay no federal income tax.

 

According to the US Federal Budget, in 2012 we spent about $187 billion on traditional welfare programs (e.g., food and housing supplementation and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), accounting for 5% of the total $3.7 trillion budget.   An additional $333 billion (or 8.9% of the budget) was spent on Medicaid (healthcare for the poor and disabled).  In total about fourteen cents (14¢) of every tax dollar you pay goes to the poor.

 

For relative comparison, in 2012, $925.2 billion (or 25% of the 2012 budget or 25¢ of every tax dollar) went to defense, $805.6 billion (21.6% or about 22¢ of every tax dollar) went out in Social Security income for seniors citizens, $492.3 billion (13.2% or 13¢ of each tax dollar) went to Medicare (healthcare for our seniors), and $121.1 billion (3.2% or 3¢) went toward education.  The remaining expenses include unemployment, building roads and bridges, government operating costs, public safety, government supported research, interest payments, and so on.

 

For further comparison, according to a report from the Conservative think tank The Cato Institute, in 2006 $92 billion (3.5% of the 2006 budget or about 4¢ of every tax dollar) went to corporate subsidies.  This “Corporate Welfare” was defined by Cato as “any federal spending program that provides payments or unique benefits and advantages to specific companies or industries.”   Cato indicated that corporations such as “Boeing, Xerox, IBM, Motorola, Dow Chemical, General Electric and others” were recipients of your tax dollars and Cato further noted that such companies “have received millions in taxpayer-funded benefits through programs like the Advanced Technology Program and the Export-Import Bank.”  Additionally, it should be noted, that between 2002 and 2008, tax breaks totaling $53.9 billion and $16.3 billion in direct spending for a total of $70.2 billion were directed to companies in the fossil fuel industries (e.g, Exxon-Mobile, Shell, Chevron).

 

Source: http://awesome.good.is/transparency/web/1012/subsidize-this/flat.html

Source: http://awesome.good.is/transparency/web/1012/subsidize-this/flat.html

 

Clearly that 14¢ of every tax dollar has triggered much contempt in a significant proportion of our population.  Many outspoken Conservative and Tea Party folks heavily focus on the this portion of the budget and the “entitled” individuals who allegedly, willingly and lazily, live off your hard earned money.  We must acknowledge that these angered individuals are endowed with this tendency as a natural result of our altruistic tendencies and our subsequent finely tuned cheater detection neural software.  And I submit, that this software has been hijacked or perhaps even hacked by the those whose gains are ignored as long as you focus your anger at the poor.  It serves the very specific financial and security interests of the wealthy when Americans direct such anger toward those at the bottom of the spectrum rather than those at the top.  Next time you come across an economic “freeloader” I challenge you to really think about the cheating that occurs across the spectrum, and ask yourself whether there is a chance that your anger has been manipulated and perhaps even misdirected.  Coming together on this issue will likely result in more targeted and effectual reforms that will benefit us all.  The splinters that currently exist keep our collective eyes off the ball.  The result is an ever widening disparity between the wealthiest 1% and the rest of us.

 

 

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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.

  1. Brainwaves and Other Brain Measures (2011)
  2. Non Moral Nature: It is what it is (2010)
  3. Moral Instinct  (2010)
  4. IAT: Questions of Reliability and Validity  (2010)
  5. Where Does Prejudice Come From?  (2011)
  6. Cognitive Conservatism, Moral Relativism, Bias, and Human Flourishing  (2011)
  7. What Plato, Descartes, and Kant Got Wrong: Reason Does Not Rule.  (2010)
  8. Intuitive Thought  (2010)
  9. Effects of Low SES on Brain Development  (2011)
  10. 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.

 

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The Brain’s False Idols

4 December 2011

I’ve been exploring the subtleties of human cognition for nearly two years now.  The most amazing and persistent lesson I’ve learned is that our ability to understand the world is limited by the way our brains work.  All of us are constrained by fundamentally flawed cognitive processes, and the advanced studies of human cognition, perception, and neuro-anatomy all reveal this to be true.  Although this lesson feels incredibly fresh to me, it is not new news to mankind.   Long ago, serious thinkers understood this to be true without the aid of sensitive measurement devices (e.g., fMRI) or statistical analysis.

 

It pains me a bit to have been scooped by Sir Francis Bacon, who knew this well in the early 17th Century.  After all, It took me two years of intensive, self-driven investigation, 18 years after getting a PhD in psychology, to come to grips with this.  I have to ask “Why isn’t this common knowledge?”  and “Why wasn’t this central to my training as a psychologist?”

 

Bacon, an English lawyer, statesman, and thinker, who devoted his intellect to advancing the human condition, astutely identified the innate fallibility of the human brain in his book entitled New Organon published in 1620.  He referred to these cognitive flaws as The Four Idols.  The word idol he derived from the Greek word eidolon which when translated to English means a phantom or an apparition, that he argued, blunts or blurs logic and stands in the way of truly understanding external reality.  What we know today, adds greater understanding of the mechanisms of these errors, but they stand intact.

 

The terms Bacon used to describe these flaws probably made more sense in his day, but they are opaque today.  My preference is to use a more current vernacular to explain his thoughts and then back-fill with Bacon’s descriptors.  My intention is not to provide an abstract of his thesis, but rather to drive home the notion that long ago the brain’s flaws had been identified and acknowledged as perhaps the biggest barrier to the forward progress of mankind.  Much has changed since Bacon’s day, but these idols remain as true and steadfast today as they were 400 years ago.  It is important to note that Bacon’s thesis was foundational in the development of the scientific process that has ultimately reshaped the human experience.

 

I have previously written about some of the flaws that Bacon himself detailed long ago.  Bacon’s first idol can be summed up as the universal transcendent human tendencies toward Pareidolia, Confirmation Bias, and Spinoza’s Conjecture.  In other words, humans instinctively: (a) make patterns out of chaos; (b) accept things as being true because they fit within their preconceived notions of the world; (c) reject things that don’t fit within their current understanding; and (d) tend to avoid the effort to skeptically scrutinize any and all information.   These tendencies, Bacon described as the Idols of the Tribe.  To him the tribe was us as a species.  He noted that these tendencies are in fact, universal.

 

The second set of attributes seem more tribal to me because although the first set is universal, the second set vary by what we today more commonly refer to as tribes.  Cultural biases and ideological tendencies shared within subsets of people make up this second idol – the Idols of the Cave.  People with shared experiences tend to have specific perspectives and blind spots.  Those within such tribal moral communities share these similarities and differentiate their worldviews from outsiders.  People within these subgroups tend to close their minds off to openness and diverse input.  As such, most people innately remain loyal to the sentiments and teachings of the in-group and resist questioning tradition.  Cohabitants within their respective “caves” are more cohesive as a result – but more likely to be in conflict with out-groups.

 

The third idol is more a matter of faulty, misguided, or sloppy semantics.  Examples of this include the overuse of, or misapplication of, vague terms or jargon.  Even the perpetual “spin” we now hear is an example of this.  In such situations, language is misused (i.e., quotes used out of context) or talking points told and retold as a means to drive a specific ideological agenda regardless of whether there is any overlap with the facts.  It is important to note that this does not necessarily have to be an act of malice, it can be unintentional.  Because language can be vague and specific words, depending on context, can have vastly different meanings, we are inherently vulnerable to the vagaries of language itself.  These are the Idols of the Market Place where people consort, engage in discourse, and learn the news of the day.  Today we would probably refer to this as the Idols of the 24 Hour News Channel or the Idols of the Blogosphere.

 

The final idol reflects the destructive power of ideology.  At the core of ideology are several human inclinations that feed and sustain many of the perpetual conflicts that consume our blood and treasure and in other ways gravely harm our brothers and sisters.  Deeper still, at the root of erroneous human inclinations, is this tendency that makes us vulnerable to the draw of ideologies that sustain beliefs without good reason.  Such is the Idol of the Theater, where theologians, politicians, and philosophers play out their agendas to their vulnerable and inherently gullible disciples.  Beliefs ultimately filter what we accept as true and false.  This is how the brain works.  This proclivity is so automatic and so intrinsic that in order to overcome it, we have to overtly fight it.  What is most troubling is that most people don’t even know that this is occurring within them.  It is this intuitive, gut-level thinking that acts as a filter and kicks out, or ignores incongruity.  And our beliefs become so core to us, that when they are challenged, it is as if we ourselves have been threatened.

 

It takes knowledge of these idols and subsequently overt efforts, to overcome them, so that we don’t become ignorant victims of our own neurology: or worse, victims of the cynical and malicious people who do understand these things to be true.  We are inherently vulnerable – be aware – be wary – and strive to strike down your brain’s false idols.

 

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The Power of a Story

27 October 2011

I recently heard a RadioLab story that was, well, moving.  It touched upon a feeling that I have, a somewhat romantic notion of love, and I found it to be incredible.  By incredible, I mean unbelievable, and by unbelievable, I also mean, “It cannot be true!”  Of course, it is just a story.  But, stories like this have a way of touching us in profound ways.  They touch us at a spiritual level, a level that is seemingly, transcendent.  It inclines us to accept the story as being true.  This story had this affect on me.

 

The story was shared by Plato who attributed it to Aristophene in the 3rd century BCE, over 2400 years ago.  Aristophene was a Greek playwright, an Athenian comic poet.  This love story is interpreted by Robert Krulwich. Robert tells the three minute story in a way that is far more compelling than is the transcript below.  You can listen to it here (1-minute-50-seconds into the episode) or read it below.  It speaks for itself.

 

“Once upon a time, he says, people were not born separate from each other. They were born entwined, kind of coupled with each other. So there were boys attached to boys, and there were girls attached to girls, and of course, boys and girls together in a wonderfully intimate ball. And back then we had eight limbs. There were four on top,  four on the bottom, and you didn’t have to walk if you didn’t want to. You could roll, and roll we did. We rolled backwards and we rolled forwards, achieving fantastic speeds that gave us a kind of courage.

 

And then the courage swelled to pride.

 

And the pride became arrogance.

 

And then we decided that we were greater than the gods and we tried to roll up to heaven and take over heaven. The gods alarmed, struck back!  Zeus, in his fury, hurled down lightning bolts and struck everyone in two, into perfect halves. So all of a sudden, couples who had been warm and tight and wedged together, were now detached, and alone, and lost, and desperate, and losing the will to live.

 

And the gods see what they had done, worried that humans might not survive or even multiply again. Of course, they needed humans to give sacrifices and to pay attention to them, so the gods decided on a few repairs. Instead of heads facing backwards, or out, they would rotate our heads back to forward. They pulled our skin taut and knotted it at the belly button. Genitalia too, were moved to the front, so if we wanted to, we could.

 

And most important, they left us with a memory.  It was a longing for that original other half of ourselves –the boy or the girl who used to make us whole.  And that longing is still so deep in all of us, men for men, women for women, men for women, for each other, that it has been the lot of humans, ever since, to travel the world, looking for our other half. And when, says Aristophanes, when one of us meets another, we recognize each other right away. We just know this. We’re lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy. We won’t get out of each others sight, even for a moment. These are people, he says, who pass their whole lives together, and yet if you ask them, they could not explain what they desire of each other.

 

They just do.”

 

As heard on Desperately Seeking Symmetry by Radiolab.

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Narrative Fallacy

13 March 2011

Evolution has conferred upon us a brain that is capable of truly amazing things.  We have, for thousands of years, been capable of creating incredibly beautiful art, telling compelling tales, and building magnificent structures.  We have risen from small and dispersed tribal bands to perhaps the dominate life force on the planet.  Our feats have been wondrous.  We have put men on the moon, our space probes have reached the outer limits of our solar system, and we have people living and working in space.  We have literally doubled the life expectancy of human beings, figured out how to feed billions of people, and eradicated some of the most dreadful diseases known to human kind.  We can join together in virtual social communities from remote corners of the world, and even change nations using Facebook and Twitter.  This list could go on and on.  We are very capable and very smart beings.

 

Our mark on this planet, for the moment, is indelible.  Yet, despite our great powers of intellect and creativity, we are incredibly vulnerable.  I am not referring to our susceptibility to the great powers of nature as evidenced in Japan this last week.  I am referring to an inherent mode of thinking that is core to our human nature.

 

It is pretty certain that nature-nature will destroy our species at some point in the future, be it via asteroid impact, super-volcanoes, climate change, microbiome evolution, or the encroachment of the sun’s surface as it goes red giant in five billion years.  Of all the species that have ever lived on this planet over 99% have gone extinct.  What’s living today will someday be gone – there really is no question about it.  But the question that remains is: “Will nature-nature do us in – or will human-nature do it first?”

 

We have evolved over billions of years to our current homo sapien (wise man) form, and for the vast majority of that evolutionary period, we have had very limited technology.  The development of primitive stone and wooden tools dates back only tens of thousands of years; and reading and writing dates back only several thousand years.  What we do and take for granted every day has only been around for a minuscule amount of time relative to the vastness of incomprehensible evolutionary and geological time. These facts are relevant because our brains, for the most part, developed under selective pressures that were vastly different than those we live under today.

 

Much as our appendix and coccyx hair follicle are remnants of our evolutionary past, so too are some of our core thought processes.  These vestigial cognitions play out both as adaptive intuitions and potentially quite destructive errors of judgment.  We would like to think that as an advanced thinking species, our ability to use reason, is our dominate mental force.  Unfortunately, this most recent evolutionary development, takes a back seat to lower and more powerful brain functions that have sustained us for millions of years.  I have previously written about this reason versus intuition/emotion paradigm so I won’t go into this issue in detail here; but, suffice it to say, much of what we do is guided by unconscious thought processes outside of our awareness and outside our direct control.  And again, these life guiding processes are mere remnants of what it took to survive as roaming bands of hunters and gatherers.

 

Ours brains came to their current form when we were not in possession of the tools and technologies that help us truly understand the world around us today.  Early survival depended on our ability to see patterns in randomness (pareidolia or patternicity) and to make snap judgments.  Rational thought, which is slow and arduous, has not played out in a dominate way because it failed to provide our ancestors with the survival advantages that emotional and rapid cognitions did.  As such, our brains have been programmed by evolution to make all kinds of rapid cognitions, that in this modern time, are simply prone to error.

 

We are uncomfortable with randomness and chaos and are driven to pull together causal stories that help us make sense of the world.  Our brains are correlation calculators, belief engines, and hyperactive agency detection devices – all inclinations of which lead us to develop polytheism to help explain the whims of “mother nature.”  All cultures, for example have also developed creation myths to help explain how we came to be.  We are a superstitious lot driven by these vestigial remnants.

 

It is easy to see how powerful this inclination is.  Look at the prevalence of beliefs about things like full moons and bad behavior.  And how about bad behavior and acts of nature?  Pat Robertson blamed Katrina on homosexuality and hedonism.  One wonders what the Japanese did to deserve their most current tragedy.  I’ve already heard talk of the attack on Pearl Harbor as an antecedent.  Like mother nature would align with the United States to punish long past deeds against us!  If mother nature cares at all about herself, I wonder what we have coming for Nagasaki and Hiroshima?  Likewise, people blame vaccines for autism and credit homeopathy for their wellness.  I could go and on about our silly inclinations.  We are prone to Confirmation Bias, Spinoza’s Conjecture, Attribution Error, Illusions of Attention, and the Illusions of Knowledge and Confidence.  In the same vein, we are manipulated by the Illusion of Narrative also known as the Narrative Fallacy.

 

Nassim Nicholas Taleb (a philosopher, author, statistician) coined the phrase “Narrative Fallacy,” which is an encapsulation of this very discussion.  We have a deep need to make up a narrative that serves to make sense of a series of connected or disconnected facts.  Our correlation calculators pull together these cause and effect stories to help us understand the world around us even if chance has dictated our circumstances.   We fit these stories around the observable facts and sometimes render the facts to make them fit the story.  This is particularly true, for example, in the case of Intelligent Design.

 

Now that I am aware of this innate proclivity I enjoy watching it play out in my own mind.  For example several weekends ago I went cross country skiing with my wife, Kimberly.  We were at Allegany State Park, in Western New York, where there are nearly 20 miles of incredibly beautiful and nicely groomed nordic ski trails.  Kimberly and I took a slightly different route than we normally do and at a junction of two trails, we serendipitously ran into a friend we hadn’t seen in quite some time.  It was an incredible and highly improbable meeting.  Any number of different events or decisions could have resulted in forgoing this meet-up.  Such events compel us to string together a narrative to make sense of the sheer randomness.  Was it fate, divine intervention, or just coincidence?  I am certain it was the latter – but it sure was fun dealing with the cognitions pouring forth to explain it.

 

I would really like to hear about your dealings with this inclination.  Please post comments detailing events that have happened to you and the narratives you fomented to make sense of  them.  This is a great exercise to help us understand this pattern detection mechanism, so, have some fun with it and share your stories.  At the very least, pay attention to how this tendency plays out in your life and think about how it plays out in your belief systems (and ideological paradigms).  I’m guessing that it will be informative.

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Have you ever heard someone make an argument that leaves you shaking your head in disbelief?  Does it seem to you like some people are coming from a completely different reality than your own?  If so, then this blog is for you.  I have spent the last year trying to develop an understanding of the common thought patterns that drive the acrimonious spirit of our social and political dialogue.  I am continually amazed by what I hear coming from seemingly informed people.  I have assumed that some folks are either deluded, disingenuous, or downright ignorant.  There is yet another possibility here, including the reality that different moral schema or belief systems may be driving their thinking.  And if this is the case, how do these divergent processes come to be?  I  have learned a lot through this exploration and feel compelled do provide a recap of the posts I have made.  I want to share with you those posts that have gathered the most traction and some that I believe warrant a bit more attention.

 

Over the past year I have posted 52 articles often dealing with Erroneous Thought Processes, Intuitive Thinking, and Rational Thought.  Additionally, I have explored the down stream implications of these processes with regard to politics, morality, religion, parenting, memory, willpower, and general perception.  I have attempted to be evidenced-based and objective in this process – striving to avoid the very trappings of confirmation bias and the erroneous processes that I am trying to understand.   As it turns out, the brain is very complicated: and although it is the single most amazing system known to human kind, it can and does lead us astray in very surprising and alarming ways.

 

As for this blog, the top ten posts, based on the shear number of hits, are as follows:

  1. Attribution Error
  2. Nonmoral Nature, It is what it is.
  3. Multitasking: The Illusion of Efficacy
  4. Moral Instinct
  5. Pareidolia
  6. IAT: Questions of Reliability
  7. Are You a Hedgehog or a Fox?
  8. What Plato, Descartes, and Kant Got Wrong: Reason Does not Rule
  9. Illusion of Punditry
  10. Emotion vs.Reason: And the winner is?

What started out as ramblings from a curious guy in a remote corner of New York State ended up being read by folks from all over the planet.  It has been a difficult process at times, consuming huge amounts of time, but it has also been exhilarating and deeply fulfilling.

 

I have been heavily influenced by several scientists and authors in this exploration.  Of particular importance have been Steven Pinker, Daniel Simons, Christopher Chabris, Jonah Lehrer, Bruce Hood, Carl Sagan, and Malcolm Gladwell.  Exploring the combined works of these men has been full of twists and turns that in some cases necessitated deep re-evaluation of long held beliefs.  Holding myself to important standards – valuing evidence over ideology – has been an important and guiding theme.

 

Several important concepts have floated to the top as I poked through the diverse literature pertaining to thought processes. Of critical importance has been the realization that what we have, when it comes to our thought processes, is a highly developed yet deeply flawed system that has been shaped by natural selection over millions of years of evolution.  Also important has been my increased understanding of the importance of genes, the basic element of selective pressures, as they play out in morality and political/religious beliefs.  These issues are covered in the top ten posts listed above.

 

There are other worthy posts that did not garner as much attention as those listed above.  Some of my other favorites included a review of Steven Pinker’s article in the New York Times (also titled Moral Instinct,) a look at Jonathon Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory in Political Divide, as well as the tricks of Retail Mind Manipulation and the Illusion of Attention.  This latter post and my series on Vaccines and Autism (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) were perhaps the most important of the lot.  Having the content of these become general knowledge would make the world a safer place.

 

The evolution of understanding regarding the power and importance of Intuitive relative to Rational Thinking was humbling at times and Daniel Simons’ and Christopher Chabris’ book, The Invisible Gorilla, certainly provided a mind opening experience.  Hey, our intuitive capabilities are incredible (as illustrated by Gladwell in Blink & Lehrer in How We Decide) but the downfalls are amazingly humbling.  I’ve covered other topics such as  happiness, superstition, placebos, and the debate over human nature.

 

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 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 put blind-folds on adherents.  Often the blind- folds 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 our genetically inscribed tendencies toward mysticism and gullibility, we must make extra effort in order to find truth. As Dr. Steven Novella once wrote:

“We must realize that the default mode of human psychology is to grab onto comforting beliefs for purely emotional reasons, and then justify those beliefs to ourselves with post-hoc rationalizations. It takes effort to rise above this tendency, to step back from our beliefs and our emotional connection to conclusions and focus on the process.”

We must therefore be humble with regard to beliefs and be willing to accept that we are vulnerable to error prone influences outside our awareness.  Recognition and acceptance of these proclivities are important first steps.   Are you ready to move forward?  How do you think?

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Political Divide

17 September 2010

The state of affairs in the United States when it comes to politics seems intractable.  I used to believe that a person’s political position could be easily placed on a traditional left – right continuum.  However, if you watch the political pundits on TV, this no longer seems possible.  Apparently there are two distinct mindsets with little or no room for overlap.  The most vociferous of those on the conservative right often hold those on the left in contempt for being socialist, immoral, elitist, unpatriotic, pro baby killing, pro-entitlement, anti-gun, pro-tax, and pro-big government.  Likewise, many liberals just can’t understand the narrow-minded, selfish, corporatist, nationalist, bigoted, anti-populist platform of the right.  The folks on the right just don’t seem to understand why people on the left would see any value in “entitlements,” or support gay rights, a woman’s right to choose, Keynesian economic policies, embryonic stem cell research, or value the environment over business interests.  And the Friedman Free Market  economic policies that promote business and capital accumulation in the hands of a few just baffle many of those on the left.  The differences are vast and the emotional divide is scary deep.

 

When it comes to social situations, politics can be a deadly third rail.  Often, people are deeply entrenched in their ideology, and cannot find a healthy place to begin discussing diverse perspectives. The issues take on a significance much like religion.  Either you get it or you don’t.  And if you don’t, well you are an outsider.

 

This divide has driven much of my curiosity regarding how people think.  I know, respect, and love people on both sides of this divide.  I’ve been looking for a way to bridge the gap or at least come to terms with why such divergence exists.  I wrote a blog post earlier this year called Moral Instinct and in it I referenced Jonathon Haidt’s work.  Dr. Haidt is a Professor of Social Psychology in the  Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia.  He studies morality and emotion, and how they vary across cultures.

 

In 2008 he published an intriguing paper called What Makes People Vote Republican?  More recently Haidt published Liberals and conservatives rely on different moral foundations (2009).  This paper explicitly deals with, from an empirical perspective, the essence of my question.  Haidt starts his paper with:

“Political campaigns spend vast sums appealing to the self-interests of voters, yet rational self-interest often shows a weak and unstable relationship to voting behavior (Kinder, 1998; Miller, 1999; Sears & Funk, 1991). Voters are also influenced by a wide variety of social and emotional forces (Marcus, 2002; Westen, 2007). Some of these forces are trivial or peripheral factors whose influence we lament, such as a candidate’s appearance (Ballew & Todorov, 2007). In recent years increasing attention has been paid to the role of another class of non-self-interested concerns: morality. Voters who seem to vote against their material self-interest are sometimes said to be voting instead for their values, or for their vision of a good society (Lakoff, 2004; Westen, 2007). However, the idea of what makes for a good society is not universally shared. The “culture war” that has long marked American politics (Hunter, 1991) is a clash of visions about such fundamental moral issues as the authority of parents, the sanctity of life and marriage, and the proper response to social inequalities.”

 

Haidt’s contention is that this culture war boils down to an issue of differing moral schema. Some might argue that it is purely an issue of degree of morality – both sides can legitimately claim a moral high ground (at least from their vantage points). As it turns out, morality is nuanced and necessitates a more complex understanding than what has traditionally been understood to be a singular concept quantified by a matter of degree. So it is not as though Republicans are more moral than Democrats (or vice versa), it is that Republican values differ in emphasis relative to Democratic values.

 

To make this more concrete, I need to expand upon the discussion of morality.  A common conceptualization of morality from the late 20th Century was put forth by the Berkley psychologist Elliot Turiel who said that morality refers to “prescriptive judgments of justice, rights, and welfare pertaining to how people ought to relate to each other” (Haidt, 2008).  This definition might resonate with some – particularly those with liberal tendencies, but it misses several core issues that are important to a substantial subset of the population.  Haidt (2008) notes that morality is more than the golden rule,  it has to do with “….binding groups together, supporting essential institutions, and living in a sanctified and noble way.” These latter issues constitute the divide in the culture war, driving the conservative platform on issues relevant to God, Gays, guns, and immigration (Haidt, 2008).   The people on the right tend to hold a moral imperative to foster a unified and morally ordered society.

 

Each side of the debate holds deep convictions regarding what makes up a good society.  Liberals seem to hold morals consistent with a “contractual society” championed by John Stuart Mill, whereas a “…Millian society at its best would be a peaceful, open, and creative place where diverse individuals respect each other’s rights and band together voluntarily to help those in need or to change the laws for the common good” (Haidt 2008).

 

Conservatives tend to hold values more in line with sociologist, Emile Durkheim, who valued social order, restraint,  and conventions all held together by a strict authority.   “A Durkheimian society at its best would be a stable network composed of many nested and overlapping groups that socialize, reshape, and care for individuals who, if left to their own devices, would pursue shallow, carnal, and selfish pleasures. A Durkheimian society would value self-control over self-expression, duty over rights, and loyalty to one’s group over concerns for outgroups” (Haidt, 2008).

 

Haidt has been conducting research into what have been identified as five universal morals (similar in concept to those laid out by Mill and Durkheim) including: (a) harm/care (strong empathy for those that are suffering and care for the most vulnerable); (b) fairness/reciprocity (life liberty and justice for all); (c) ingroup/loyalty – (tribalism, patriotism, nationalism); (d) authority/respect (“mechanisms for managing social rank, tempered by the obligation of superiors to protect and provide for subordinates” Haidt, 2008); and (e) purity/sanctity (“related to the evolution of disgust, that makes us see carnality as degrading and renunciation as noble” Haidt, 2008).  Millians and liberals tend to value care and fairness at a higher level than their conservative counterparts and hold a lower valuation of ingroup loyalty, authority and purity/sancity – while conservatives value all at a uniform level.  See Figure 1 below for the distribution of values by political affiliation as reported in Graham, Haidt, and Nosek’s (2009) paper.

Haidt (2008) notes:

“In several large internet surveys, my collaborators Jesse Graham, Brian Nosek and I have found that people who call themselves strongly liberal endorse statements related to the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity foundations, and they largely reject statements related to ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. People who call themselves strongly conservative, in contrast, endorse statements related to all five foundations more or less equally.”

 

I found that my moral value scores lined up perfectly with my political affiliation.   You can see for yourself where your values fall relative to your political affiliation by taking the Moral Foundations Questionnaire at www.YourMorals.org. If you look at the data you’ll see that strongly conservative folks are not more moral than strongly liberal folks, it is just that they weigh the universal morals differently.  It is these tendencies that leave individuals in both groups questioning the morals of the other group.  On all moral domains there is divergence.  If you look at the issues individually through the lenses of those with divergent perspectives it is not difficult to see how liberals could judge conservatives as amoral and vice versa.   When looking at this social divergence from the framework that Haidt puts forth, the divide becomes less enigmatic.

 

Go to Haidt’s website and take the Moral Foundations Questionnaire and see how your results fit with your political affiliation and then let me know how you feel about your score and the subsequent implications.  Next week I’ll delve a bit deeper into Haidt’s paper entitled Liberals and conservatives rely on different moral foundations (2009).

 

References:

 

Graham, J., Haidt, J., and Nosek, B. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different moral foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,  Vol. 96, No. 5, 1029–1046

 

Haidt, J. (2008). What Makes People Vote Republican? http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/haidt08/haidt08_index.html

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My wife and I recently spent some time in New York City and one of our traditions is to take in a Broadway show. This time we stepped a bit off-Broadway to see the bawdy but Tony Award Winning Avenue Q. On the surface, this show seems silly, but it actually addresses some important issues. Essentially it is about the “coming of age” of young adults stepping out into the real world. The way the show is played out is interesting in that it employs a mixture of human actors, human puppets, and monster puppets – with all puppeteers fully visible on stage. As is often the case in theater, It necessitated suspension of reality and letting go of conventional thinking.

 

The play itself satirized the longstanding PBS children’s show Sesame Street both in format and message. Make no mistake however, this is not a show for children, or even for folks put-off by lewd language or sexual situations. Regardless, it delves headlong into issues that challenge the teachings of Sesame Street, laying bare the notion that everyone is “special.”

 

I couldn’t help but hearken back to a post I wrote entitled Self Esteem on a Silver Platter, that highlights the cost of telling children they are smart. I wonder if there are similar costs to telling children they are inherently special? Obviously, the writers of Ave. Q had the same question in mind.

 

As Princeton, the play’s protagonist, struggled with the reality of entering the world of work and his internalized notion of his own specialness, I thought about my college age children and my own experience when I left a small town to attend college. I have to believe that my experience was not unlike Princeton’s and I’m guessing, is very similar to my children’s experiences, as they make the transition from “Big fish in a small pond – to small fish in a big pond.” It’s a humbling transition.

 

Some of the other issues confronted by the cast and characters include racism and homophobia. Each of these prejudices are attitudes played out in a large part by our intuitive brains. That is not to say that we are powerless over them – we can change these deep seated attributes through concerted effort and appropriate exposure. But it begs the question: “Where do these prejudices come from?” I believe the consensus is clear, prejudices are learned from, and taught by those important people around us who model and mold us throughout childhood. It is also important to understand that there seems to be a natural inclination within us to be suspicious of those who are different from us. This tribal tendency to classify outsiders as threats may stem back to our ancestral roots when outsiders were indeed threats to our very survival: and this successful propensity has carried on due to natural selection. It seems that there is a human inclination to be prejudiced. Compound that inclination with other human brain failings (e.g., confirmation bias), and minimal exposure to diversity, as well as influential bigots, and you have a near certain prejudicial clone. To make matters worse, all you have to do is turn on the TV and watch the news to feed those prejudices. Racism in our culture is not very subtle. But I digress.

 

The point that I am trying to make is that we all have biases, and that they are intuitive to a degree. Next week I am going to explore the Implicit Associations Test and its implications that support the notion that stereotypes or prejudices are indeed deeply rooted in our intuition. If you have not taken the Implicit Associations Test, do so, particularly the Race Test. You may be surprised by the results. I know I was. This is in fact, one of the sub-plots in Ave. Q – we are all a bit racist, and perhaps a bit homophobic too; although, I will argue to my grave that I do not value people differently based on their race, gender, or sexual orientation.

 

Ave. Q also deals with schadenfreude, which is the pleasure we gain from other’s pain or struggles. This is a curious proclivity, one I hope to gain a better understanding of. As I think back to childhood, I can recall experiencing a strong compulsion to laugh when a friend was injured through our mutual play. I remember knowing that this was somehow wrong and inappropriate, regardless, there was this deep urge to chuckle. Looking back, I know that it was not a rational response – it was intuitive. The reality is that most of us are at least relieved by the misery of others and we often gain some appreciation that our lives are not so bad after all. The play’s treatment of this very issue normalizes the experience and perhaps explains our societal infatuation with gossip. In my profession, on a daily basis, I see real agony in the lives of the families I work with, and thus find gossip repulsive.

 

One of the major goals of art is to incite thought, and Ave. Q effectively pulled this off. I’d like to say that I have no prejudices, but Ave. Q and the results of my IAT suggest that this may not be absolutely true. In reference to the work of Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons in their book entitled The Invisible Gorilla, I wonder if perhaps there is an Illusion of an Open Mind? I shall not rest comfortably with this illusion, and I am fully committed to overcoming the failings of my naturally selected and intuitive tendencies. The first step is accepting this reality.

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There are many well intentioned folks out there who believe that childhood vaccinations cause Autism. Last week I covered the origins of this belief system as well as its subsequent debunking in Vaccines and Autism. Despite the conclusive data that clearly establishes no causal link between vaccines and Autism, the belief lives on. Why is this? Why do smart people fall prey to such illusions? Chabris and Simons contend in their book, The Invisible Gorilla, that we fall prey to such myths because of the Illusion of Cause. Michael Shermer (2000), in his book, How We Believe, eloquently describes our brains as a Belief Engine. Underlying this apt metaphor is the notion that “Humans evolved to be skilled pattern seeking creatures. Those who were best at finding patterns (standing upwind of game animals is bad for the hunt, cow manure is good for the crops) left behind the most offspring. We are their descendants.” (Shermer, p. 38). Chabris and Simons note that this refined ability “serves us well, enabling us to draw conclusions in seconds (or milliseconds) that would take minutes or hours if we had to rely on laborious logical calculations.” (p. 154). However, it is important to understand that we are all prone to drawing erroneous connections between stimuli in the environment and notable outcomes. Shermer further contends that “The problem in seeking and finding patterns is knowing which ones are meaningful and which ones are not.

 

From an evolutionary perspective, we have thrived in part, as a result of our tendency to infer cause or agency regardless of the reality of threat. For example, those who assumed that rustling in the bushes was a tiger (when it was just wind) were more likely to take precautions and thus less likely, in general, to succumb to predation. Those who were inclined to ignore such stimuli were more likely to later get eaten when in fact the rustling was a hungry predator. Clearly from a survival perspective, it is best to infer agency and run away rather than become lunch meat. The problem that Shermer refers to regarding this system is that we are subsequently inclined toward mystical and superstitious beliefs: giving agency to unworthy stimuli or drawing causal connections that do not exist. Dr. Steven Novella, a neurologist, in his blog post entitled Hyperactive Agency Detection notes that humans vary in the degree to which they assign agency. Some of us have Hyperactive Agency Detection Devices (HADD) and as such, are more prone to superstitious thinking, conspiratorial thinking, and more mystical thinking. It is important to understand as Shermer (2000) makes clear:

 

“The Belief Engine is real. It is normal. It is in all of us. Stuart Vyse [a research psychologist] shows for example, that superstition is not a form of psychopathology or abnormal behavior; it is not limited to traditional cultures; it is not restricted to race, religion, or nationality; nor is it only a product of people of low intelligence or lacking education. …all humans possess it because it is part of our nature, built into our neuronal mainframe.” (p. 47).

 

We all are inclined to detect patterns where there are none. Shermer refers to this tendency as patternicity. It is also called pareidolia. I’ve previously discussed this innate tendency noting that “Our brains do not tolerate vague or obscure stimuli very well. We have an innate tendency to perceive clear and distinct images within such extemporaneous stimuli.” It is precisely what leads us to see familiar and improbable shapes in puffy cumulus clouds or the Virgin Mary in a toasted cheese sandwich. Although this tendency can be fun, it can also lead to faulty and sometimes dangerous conclusions. And what is even worse is that when we hold a belief, we are even more prone to perceive patterns that are consistent with or confirm that belief. We are all prone to Confirmation Bias – an inclination to take in, and accept as true, information that supports our belief systems and miss, ignore, or discount information that runs contrary to our beliefs.

 

Patternicity and confirmation bias alone are not the only factors that contribute to the illusion of cause. There are at least two other equally salient intuitive inclinations that lead us astray. First, we tend to infer causation based on correlation. And second, the appeal of chronology, or the coincidence of timing, also leads us toward drawing such causal connections (Chabris & Simons, 2010).

 

A fundamental rule in science and statistics is that correlation does not infer causation. Just because two events occur in close temporal proximity, does not mean that one leads to the other. Chabris and Simons note that this rule is in place because our brains automatically – intuitively – draw causal associations, without any rational thought. We know that causation leads to correlation – but it is erroneous to assume that the opposite is true. Just because A and B occur together does not mean A causes B or vice-versa. There may be a third factor, C, that is responsible for both A and B. Chabris and Simons use ice cream consumption and drownings as an example. There is a sizable positive correlation between these two variables (as ice cream consumption goes up so do the incidences of drowning), but it would be silly to assume that ice cream consumption causes drowning, or that increases in the number of drownings causes increases in ice cream consumption. Obviously, a third factor, summer heat, leads to both more ice cream consumption and more swimming. With more swimming behavior there are more incidents of drowning.

 

Likewise, with vaccines and Autism, although there may be a correlation between the two (increases in the number of children vaccinated and increases in the number of Autism diagnoses), it is incidental, simply a coincidental relationship. But given our proclivity to draw inferences based on correlation, it is easy to see why people would be mislead by this relationship.

 

Add to this the chronology of the provision of the MMR vaccine (recommended between 12 and 18 months), and the typical time at which the most prevalent symptoms of Autism become evident (18-24 months), people are bound to infer causation. Given the fact that millions of children are vaccinated each year, there are bound to be examples of tight chronology.

 

So what is at work here are hyperactive agency detection (or overzealous patternicity), an inherent disposition to infer causality from correlation, and a propensity to “interpret events that happened earlier as the causes of events that happened or appeared to happen later” (Chabris & Simons, 2010, p. 184).  Additionally, you have a doctor like Andrew Wakefield misrepresenting data in such a way to solidify plausibility and celebrities like Jenny McCarthy using powerful anecdotes to convince others of the perceived link. And anecdotes are powerful indeed. “..[W]e naturally generalize from one example to the population as a whole, and our memories for such inferences are inherently sticky. Individual examples lodge in our minds, but statistics and averages do not. And it makes sense that anecdotes are compelling to us. Our brains evolved under conditions in which the only evidence available to us was what we experienced ourselves and what we heard from trusted others. Our ancestors lacked access to huge data sets, statistics, and experimental methods. By necessity, we learned from specific examples…” (Chabris & Simons, 2010, pp. 177-178).  When an emotional mother (Jenny McCarthy) is given a very popular stage (The Oprah Winfrey Show) and tells a compelling story, people buy it – intuitively – regardless of the veracity of the story. And when we empathize with others, particularly those in pain, we tend to become even less critical of the message conveyed (Chabris & Simons, 2010). These authors add that “Even in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence and statistics culled from studies of hundreds of thousands of people, that one personalized case carries undue influence” (p.178).

 

Although the efficacy of science is unquestionable, in terms of answering questions like the veracity of the relationship between vaccines and Autism, it appears that many people are incapable of accepting the reality of scientific inquiry (Chabris & Simons, 2010). Acceptance necessitates the arduous application of reason and the rejection of the influences rendered by the intuitive portion of our brain. This is harder than one might think. Again, it comes down to evolution. Although the ability to infer cause is a relatively recent development, we hominids are actually pretty good at it. And perhaps, in cases such as this one, we are too proficient for our own good (Chabris & Simons, 2010).

 

References

 

Center for Disease Control. (2009). Recommended Immunization Schedule for Persons Aged 0 Through 6 Years. http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/recs/schedules/downloads/child/2009/09_0-6yrs_schedule_pr.pdf

 

Chabris, C. F., & Simons, D. J. (2010). The Invisible Gorilla. Random House: New York.

 

Novella, S. (2010). Hyperactive Agency Detection. NeuroLogica Blog. http://www.theness.com/neurologicablog/?p=1762

 

Shermer, M. (2000). How We Believe. W.H. Freeman / Henry Holt and Company: New York.

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