It is often argued that the United States is exceptional with regard to its capabilities and responsibilities. With respect to its military prowess, and defense budget, it is certainly exceptional. I am curious however. To what extent is the US exceptional in other important ways? Is the US the envy of the world with regard to its educational system and its healthcare? How safe are Americans? Further, does America prove exceptional with regard to issues such as equality, democracy, and opportunity? I for one, am all for being exceptional. Shouldn’t we strive for superiority in all these areas? Is not a person’s character judged based on variables other than one’s physical strength? Are not issues such as kindness, fairness, and morality given important consideration when we evaluate each other? I suggest that nations too should be judged on these issues. We as a people certainly judge other nations based on these attributes.
So, how does the US compare to other wealthy and developed nations on these important issues? Let us take a closer look. By far, the best accessible and concise analysis of this question is contained in The Measure of a Nation by Howard Steven Friedman. Dr. Friedman is a prominent statistician and health economist at the United Nations and he teaches at Columbia University. Measure of a Nation was named by Jared Diamond (author of Pulitzer Prize winning Guns Germs and Steel) as the best book of 2012 in an interview published in the New York Times. I have to agree with Diamond’s opinion. Friedman’s book is a data driven assessment of 14 nations, each meeting specific criteria for population (at least 10 million) and wealth (mean GDP at least $20,000). Friedman methodically and carefully analyzes data from each nation and creates a relative ranking system whereby each nation is evaluated on diverse issues such as Health, Safety, Education, Democracy, and Equality. The comparison countries include: UK, Canada, Germany, Spain, Portugal, France, Belgium, Italy, Greece, Netherlands, Australia, Korea, and Japan.
Friedman’s book constitutes an ambitious undertaking and he is careful to be clear about the pitfalls associated with the measures and analyses used. In the end however, as a skilled statistician and economist, he was able to pull together a clear and concise comparative ranking system that factually answers the question – “Is America Exceptional?”
He are the rankings:
Data is from The Measure of a Nation, by Howard Steven Friedman
I don’t know about you, but I was appalled by these findings. The US comes up with a last place ranking on a majority of very important quality of life variables with regard to health, safety, democracy, and equality. It gets worse when you look at all the comparisons drawn in Friedman’s book. I included only those measures that could easily be put in a table without the need for deeper explanation. And with regard to education, we are in the middle and bottom third of the rankings, except when it comes to years of education and percent of the population getting secondary education. Our literacy rankings are unacceptable.
Neither Friedman or I are driven to bash the United States. Instead, he and I both are motivated by a desire for exceptionalism across all these measures. Friedman makes recommendations about how we as a people, and a nation, could improve on all these important variables. The subtitle of his book is How to Regain America’s Competitive Edge And Boost Our Global Standing. The problem is one of over-confidence and unquestioning nationalism. To boldly contend that America is exceptional in every way is both unsubstantiated and untrue. How I wish it was otherwise.
It is time to step back, look deeply at these issues, accept the reality that we can do better, and then devote our efforts to making it so. We are arguably the richest and most powerful nation in the world with a vast capability for excellence. It comes down to priorities and hubris. If “we the people” demand excellence in these areas, and stand-up and make our voices heard, politicians will have to respond. If however, we bombastically proclaim “We’re #1” regardless of what the evidence suggests, we will continue to languish. Should not the measure of a nation, with such capabilities, be the best?
Spread the word, get and read Friedman’s book. Let’s start changing the dialogue in this country away from the current divisive and unproductive rancor, and begin focusing on what really matters. It starts with knowledge and it ends with a healthier, safer, smarter, and more fulfilled populace whose politicians truly represent them and actually address important issues.
For other discussions and data points on US rankings relative to other nations see:
We’re # 37! USA! USA! USA! A look at the US Healthcare System
A 2010 US Department of Education report releasing the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores indicated that 15-year-old students from the US scored in the average range in reading and science, but below average in math.
Happiness as Measured By GDP: Really?
There is no doubt that violent crime in the US is a major problem. Murder is certainly not a uniquely American act, but as in other things, we Americans excel at it. The U.S. murder rate is nearly three times the rate that it is in Canada and more than four times the rate that it is in the United Kingdom.
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).
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.
Posted by Gerald Guild
Categories: Corporate Crime
, Socioeconomic Status
, White-Collar Crime
| Tagged: Cheating
, Confirmation Bias
, Fundamental Attribution Error
, Self Serving Bias
Sometimes the quietest moments are the most troubling. Serenity seems to occasionally pave the way for a sequence of thoughts triggered by a song or a smell, or anything really, that ushers in a blast from the past. A cavalcade of memories then flow forth both effortlessly and seamlessly. And all of this occurs outside of conscious control. For me, it often begins with a pleasant memory, but it can take a circuitous route, bringing me to memories that I would prefer remain inaccessible. The ending point is usually a moment in time where I come face to face with a mistake I made – usually a long forgotten unintentional misstep that reveled a less sensitive or perceptive side of my persona.
Does this sound familiar? I have long struggled to make sense of this sequence of thoughts. It’s not as though these distant missteps weigh heavily in my conscious mind. And most of the time they have no or very little current relevance. Almost always the events involve a situation where I had no intention of being hurtful. So why would my brain dredge up painful events and spoil a perfectly pleasant moment? It makes little sense to me.
I have long felt like there is a dark and deeply self effacing entity lurking in the shadows of my mind just waiting for an opportunity to rain guilt on me. Really, it does feel like there is something lurking inside my mind, stalking my thoughts, waiting for a memory that can be linked back to an event that will make me feel bad about myself. Freud’s notion of the Super-ego seems particularly relevant, but there is no evidence of such embodied moralistic forces battling it out in the brain. There are however, brain systems that interact in a way that are compellingly similar to Freud’s model with regard to active decision making. But it is not clear to me how, or why, these systems would reach back in time to spoil a moment of serenity.
As I understand it, the brain is comprised of a complex combinatorial neuronal network that has evolved over millions of years. With this being the case, there must be either some adaptive value to this capacity to stir up guilty feelings, or it may be a side effect of some other adaptive neurological system. These hypotheses are made assuming that this propensity is neither pathological or unique to me. Given the fact that these recall events do not adversely affect my life in any substantive way, beyond briefly bumming me out, and the likelihood that I am not alone in experiencing this – it must be adaptive at some level.
As it turns out there appears to be evidence for a relationship between dispositional empathy and one’s proneness to feelings of guilt. In a study titled Empathy, Shame, Guilt, and Narratives of Interpersonal Conflicts: Guilt-Prone People Are Better at Perspective Taking by Karen P. Leith and Roy F. Baumeister they found that Guilt:
“… seems to be linked to the important cognitive components of empathy, particularly the ability to appreciate another person’s perspective (or at least to recognize that the other’s perspective differs from one’s own). Guilt-proneness is linked to both the ability and the willingness to consider the other’s perspective.”
So these feelings of remote guilt may indeed be adaptive in that they fuel my perspective taking capacity. In other words, they compel me to be all the more careful and sensitive so as to facilitate better outcomes with regard to current social relationships (and thus avoid future negative recollections). I am inherently driven to look at the other person’s perspective in most of my encounters with people. It seems that those situations that spring forth from the depths of my memory are those occasions when I did not effectively employ good perspective taking.
Empathy is widely accepted as being an adaptive skill and perhaps guilt proneness facilitates positive feedback thus driving one toward more effective empathy. Or perhaps the guilty feelings drudged up are experiential outliers – the memories with stronger visceral tags – the ones that are more easily dragged to the forefront as my brain meanders down memory lane. Leith and Baumeister’s research did not address the retrospective nature of experiences like mine; therefore, I continue to speculate. But this link between empathy and guilt makes sense. Or maybe this is a self-serving bias.
If you have a moment, please click on the link below to answer some questions that will give me some preliminary information on this empathy-guilt relationship. It’s only 5 questions – and really, it should only take a minute or so.
Click here to take survey
Do you believe that economic success is just a matter of having a good work ethic and strong personal motivation? Most people do. But in reality this is a perfect example of the Fundamental Attribution Error and the Self Serving Bias.
Attribution Error occurs when we negatively judge the unfortunate circumstances of others as being a reflection of their character traits rather than as a result of environmental circumstances (e.g., growing up in poverty). What is even more interesting is that when we mess up, we tend to blame it on environmental factors rather than accepting personal responsibility. When we are successful however, we take credit for the outcome assigning credit to internal personal attributes and devaluing environmental contributors. This latter error is the Self Serving Bias.
This erroneous thinking is universal, automatic, and it is what drives a wedge between people on different points of the socio-economic spectrum. If you believe that poor people are impoverished simply because they are lazy free-loaders, you are likely a victim of this thinking error. The same is true if you believe that your success is completely of your own doing.
I have written numerous articles on the impact of poverty on early childhood development (i.e., The Effects of Low SES on Brain Development) and the bottom line is that economic deprivation weakens the social and neurobiological foundation of children in ways that have life-long implications. In this post I will summarize a review article by Knudsen, Heckman, Cameron, and Shonkoff entitiled: Economic, Neurobiological, and Behavioral Perspectives on Building America’s Future Workforce. This 2006 article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provides an excellent review of the research across many fields including developmental psychology, neuroscience, and economics. It highlights the core concepts that converge with regard to the fact that the quality of early childhood environment is a strong predictor of adult productivity. The authors point to the evidence that robustly supports the following notions:
- Genes and environment play out in an interdependent manner. Knudsen et al., (2006) noted that “… the activation of neural circuits by experience also can cause dramatic changes in the genes that are expressed (“turned on”) in specific circuits (58-60). The protein products of these genes can have far reaching effects on the chemistry of neurons and, therefore, on their excitability and architecture.” Adverse experiences can and do fundamentally alter one’s temperament and capacity to learn throughout life.
- Essential cognitive skills are built in a hierarchical manner, whereby fundamental skills are laid down in early childhood and these foundational neural pathways serve as a basis upon which important higher level skills are built.
- Cognitive, linguistic, social, and emotional competencies are interdependent – all nascent in early childhood, when adverse environmental perturbations reek havoc on, and across, each of these fundamental skill sets.
- There are crucial and time-sensitive windows of opportunity for building these fundamental competencies. Should one fail to develop these core skills during this crucial early developmental stage, it becomes increasingly unlikely that later remediation will approximate the potential one had, if those skills were developed on schedule. A cogent analogy here is learning a new language – it is far easier to learn a new language early in development when the language acquisition window is open, than it is later in life when this window is nearly closed.
In my last two posts (Halting the Negative Feedback Loop of Poverty: Early Intervention is the Key and Poverty Preventing Preschool Programs: Fade-Out, Grit, and the Rich get Richer) I discussed two successful early intervention programs (e.g., Perry Preschool Program & Abecedarian Project) that demonstrated positive long-term benefits with regard to numerous important social and cognitive skills. Knudsen, et al, (2006) noted:
“At the oldest ages tested (Perry, 40 yrs; Abecedarian, 21 yrs), individuals scored higher on achievement tests, reached higher levels of education, required less special education, earned higher wages, were more likely to own a home, and were less likely to go on welfare or be incarcerated than individuals from the control groups.”
These findings converge with research on animal analogues investigating the neurodevelopmental impact of early stimulation versus deprivation across species. Knudsen et al., (2006) point out that:
- There are indeed cross species negative neurodevelopmental consequences associated with adverse early developmental perturbations.
- There clearly are time sensitive windows during which failure to develop crucial skills have life-long consequences. Neural plasticity decreases with age.
- However, there are time sensitive windows of opportunity during which quality programs and therapies can reverse the consequences of adverse environmental circumstances (i.e., poverty, stress, violence).
Early learning clearly shapes the architecture of the brain. Appropriate early stimulation fosters neural development, while conversely, impoverished environments diminish adaptive neural stimulation and thus hinders neural development. Timing is everything it seems. Although we learn throughout our lifespan, our capacity to learn is built upon a foundation that can be strengthened or impaired by early environmental experiences. It is very difficult to make up for lost time later in life – much as it is difficult to build a stable building on an inadequate foundation. Stimulating environments during these crucial early neurodevelopment periods are far more efficient than remediation after the fact. These realities provide further justification for universally available evidence based early preschool services for children at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum. Proactive stimulation fosters stronger and more productive citizens – yet, we continue to respond in a reactive manner with remedial and/or punitive measures that miss the mark. The necessary proactive response is clear.
Knudsen, E. I., Heckman, J. J., Cameron, J. L., and Shonkoff, J. P. (2006). Economic, neurobiological, and behavioral perspectives on building America’s future workforce. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. v. 103, n. 27. 10155-10162.
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:
- Attribution Error
- Nonmoral Nature, It is what it is.
- Multitasking: The Illusion of Efficacy
- Moral Instinct
- IAT: Questions of Reliability
- Are You a Hedgehog or a Fox?
- What Plato, Descartes, and Kant Got Wrong: Reason Does not Rule
- Illusion of Punditry
- 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?
Posted by Gerald Guild
Categories: Adaptive Unconscious
, Erroneous Thinking
, Invisible Gorilla
, Placebo Effect
, Rational Thought
| Tagged: Attribution Error
, Cognitive Biases
, Confirmation Bias
, Erroneous Thinking
, Intuitive Thinking
, Invisible Gorilla
, Rational Thought
, Self Serving Bias
, Spinoza's Conjecture
I had an interesting conversation with a close family member the other day. He was struggling to understand why people in the lower echelons of socioeconomic status do not understand or act on their ability to change their circumstances. He firmly held the belief that the drive to achieve is universal and that we all have the same potential. Essentially he was convinced that anyone can rise up by working hard in school or the workplace. Those who do not achieve, he contended, are making an explicitly different choice. Many refer to these folks as lazy, free loaders and/or cheaters. He recounted the stories from his days working at the local grocery where people would use their public assistance checks to buy beer, cigarettes and other non essential items. This is the same story I’ve heard from countless people who contend that public assistance is for lazy people content about, or highly skilled at, manipulating the system for a free ride. I had a similar conversation with another family member recently, who was enraged about Obama shoving publicly supported health care down the throats of the American tax payer.
We are inherently tribal people and part of our human nature, it seems, is to be on the lookout for freeloaders. As Jonathon Haidt’s work points out, such vigilance is inherent to various degrees in all of us, as part of the ingroup loyalty moral drive that is fundamental to social cohesion. Freeloaders detract from the viability and survivability of the group. This deeply emotional moral position has clear evolutionary roots that remain strong today.
No doubt, there are freeloaders among us. There are people who scam the system and I am guessing that there will always be those who are comfortable with, or even proud of, their ability to live off the diligence and contributions made by others. Some argue that entitlement programs enable the freeloaders among us to prosper and propagate. This may be true for some. But we need to keep it all in perspective. To do so there are a number of other factors to consider.
First, isn’t it interesting that we frame freeloaders at the lower end of the spectrum differently than we classify white collar criminals? Do they not accomplish essentially the same thing? They illegitimately acquire resources that they are not entitled to. And I am guessing that the true costs of white collar crime exceed those of “welfare fraud.” Keep in mind that the major frauds in the medicaid system are generally perpetrated by white collar criminals – Doctors or administrators billing for un-rendered services. Also think back to the impact of people like Bernie Madoff who essentially stole $21 Billion. They are criminals indeed, but their crimes do not result in all those within their income bracket as being likewise identified as untrustworthy. Granted, all crime is bad, but I have to challenge the implications of labeling an entire subset of a population as “bad” because some of them cheat.
Second, isn’t it also interesting that our hyper vigilance for cheaters targets the less fortunate among us rather than the corporations who bilk the system of billions of your hard earned dollars. Why do we turn our anger against our fellow human beings when corporations like Exxon Mobile get huge tax subsidies while at the same time they are raking in billions of dollars of quarterly profit? Then consider the financial melt down and the huge bail-outs provided to corporations deemed “too big to fail.” The costs to our society as a results of welfare cheaters are a pittance in comparison to the impact of the deregulated market-place.
Third, although nobody likes a cheater, when given a chance to do so, and a low probability of getting caught, almost everybody will cut corners or scam the system to save a buck. And everybody knows someone who works or gets paid “under the table.” Somehow these folks are given a pass and escape the wrath of the stigma of freeloader. My guess is, the proportion of people who cheat the system span all income brackets, and the actual social costs rise exponentially and commensurately with income. The disdain that we target toward the less fortunate among us, I argue, is too convenient and hugely disproportionate. Part of this may stem from the perception that welfare fraud is more visible to us than is white collar crime. And while white collar crime is perpetrated by people that look and think like we do (or by faceless corporations), welfare fraud is sometimes perpetrated by people whose faces and lifestyles are different from ours. We see these cheaters and often hear of their exploits. I contend that much of what we hear amounts to rehashed urban myths.
The stereotype that many of us hold about the poor is inaccurate and maintained both by attribution error and confirmation bias. And the belief that many white middle class college-educated people hold – that they alone are responsible for their position in life is reflective of self-serving bias. Each generation launches from the shoulders of their parents who each launched from the shoulders of their respective parents. My children are launching from a place that is exponentially different than that of a poor African American from the east side of Buffalo, New York, or a poor Latino from East L.A., or that of a poor white child raised in remote rural Appalachia, or that of white boarding school attendee from a heavily connected affluent Manhattan family. The educational, social, and economic opportunities across these launching points vary in important and significant ways that shape their perceptions, aspirations, and realities in profound ways. Heritage, and thus opportunity, play the biggest role in one’s socioeconomic status – although, “the system” benefits from people believing that it is hard work and intelligence that drives wealth distribution. Believing the American Dream keeps the masses contented. It keeps people striving, believing that they can rise up if only they are smart enough and diligent enough. A significant part of our population has figured this out – they are the disenfranchised. Without hope or opportunity it is hard to buy into the myth that one can rise out of the ghetto by working hard. It’s difficult to continually swim against the current; and for the fortunate, it is sometimes hard to see that there is in fact a current when one is floating along with it.
What is Intuitive Thought?
I have devoted numerous posts to a general category of cognitive errors and biases that are broadly lumped into errors associated with the intuitive mind. The lay notions of intuition are often referred to as gut instincts and they are generally considered emotional and irrational responses. It is in this context that intuition is vilified. Such impulsive reactions are countered with teachings typified by adages such as: “Look before you leap;” “Don’t judge a book by its cover;” “Haste makes waste;” and “The hurrier you go the behinder you get.” Although this narrow understanding of intuition is in part correct, it largely misses the mark regarding this very complicated and sophisticated neuro-system. Intuition is largely misunderstood, and has frankly not been well understood to begin with. Herein I hope to offer a cursory explanation of intuition and broadly differentiate it from rational thought. The vast majority of the following content is drawn from Malcolm Gladwell’s intriguing 2005 book called ‘Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.’ Gladwell draws together a vast array of research from cognitive and social psychology and a number of other sciences in an attempt to elucidate this ambiguous concept.
Rational thought serves as a good starting place because, in fact, it offers a good point of comparison helping to bring intuition into slightly better focus. Reason is the hallmark of rational thought. It involves an active application of the cerebral cortex, whereby personal history, knowledge, and active cognitions are employed in a conscious manner to solve problems. The keywords here are active and conscious. When we engage in reasoning we are generally aware of the cognitive effort directed toward this process. Another aspect of relevance to this process is the passage of time. Reason-based thought is not generally instantaneous. Although solutions may seem to pop into awareness out of the blue, generally some measure of time passes as we strive for enlightenment. Think of an occasion where you had word finding difficulties. You probably actively thought about the word, the context of the word, and so on. If you failed to recall the word you may have cognitively moved on to something else, only to have the word come to you. The former was rational thought; the latter, the result of intuitive thought.
Intuition is different from rational thought with regard to those key variables. First, this instantaneous process is seemingly unconscious. Second, it is automatic (or at least seemingly so) consuming no apparent effort or time. The popular and scientific literature is replete with descriptive names for this seemingly mystical capacity. Gladwell uses a full complement of these terms and he sprinkles them throughout his text. Terms that emanate from the sciences include the adaptive unconscious, unconscious reasoning, rapid cognition, and thin slicing. Other descriptive terms include snap judgments, fast and frugal thinking, and eloquently the “mind behind the locked door.” Regardless of what we call it, intuition is constantly at work, drawing instantaneous conclusions outside of our awareness.
Because of the nature of this process, Gladwell notes that people are often ignorant of the secret decisions that affect their behavior, yet they do not feel ignorant. We often behave in manners driven by the adaptive unconscious and later try to justify those behaviors invoking the rational brain to do so. This fact is what calls into the question the reality of free will. Intriguing isn’t it! It is as though there is a covert super-powerful, super-fast computer running in tandem with our overt reasoning computer: yet outside our awareness this covert computer remains ever vigilant, soaking in the world through our senses, and actively directing our behavior.
Although the adaptive unconscious lies outside our direct control, life experiences, practice, and our intellectual pursuits contribute to the data set that is used when snap judgments are made. The more informed, erudite, and experienced one is, the more accurate one’s rapid cognitions become. Just think about driving. When learning to drive there are an overwhelming number of things to think about – so many in fact, that mistakes made are likely due to “analysis paralysis.” Too much to compute! Through practice and repetition, all those things we previously had to actively think about become more automatic. We don’t think about the countless micro adjustments we make on the steering wheel as we drive down the highway. Novice drivers must think about these adjustments, along with attending to their speed (generally with gross applications of the accelerator and brakes), and myriad other factors that seasoned drivers do not overtly contemplate. The novice’s driving is chunky – experienced drivers, with the benefit of many miles in the drivers seat, are generally more smooth and more refined in their driving.
Experts in their given fields become more intuitive or automatic with regard to their area of expertise over time as a result of exposure, learning, and practice. Their thoughts become seemingly automatic, their judgments and reactions more spontaneous – all of this in many situations without the expert even having to actively think. In these cases (where there is sufficient expertise) snap judgments can be even more accurate than the arduous process of working through problems rationally. On the other hand, this intuitive process can lead to problems because it is remarkably susceptible to prejudices and errors. This is particularly true, as you might surmise, in areas where the individual lacks experience or knowledge.
Under certain circumstances the adaptive unconscious serves our purposes very well. In addition to those situations where one’s expertise applies, we tend to effectively use snap judgments in social situations, in complicated situations, or in life or death situations that necessitate quick decisions. This is where evolution has played a role in shaping this capacity. It has had the effect of contributing to the survival of our species. He who can make effective snap judgments in life or death situations is more likely to pass on this very capacity. And tens of thousands of years of such natural selection has refined this capacity.
The catch is that there are erroneous thought processes that are artifacts, residuals or the direct consequence of the adaptive unconscious. Issues such as essentialism, pareidolia, and superstition fall into this category, as they have been ushered along with the survival advantage that the adaptive unconscious has conferred. Cognitive errors and biases hamper the effectiveness of the adaptive unconscious because of its inclination toward implicit associations and other accidental error imposing tendencies. Implicit associations are automatic and non deliberate pairings we make between concepts, people, things, etc., (e.g., African Americans are athletic, blonds are scatterbrained, gay men are effeminate) as they are folded into memory. This is an intriguing concept, one deserving its own post, but you have to take the Implicit Associations Test, particularly the race test, to get a true sense of this powerful bias. Confirmation bias, self serving bias, as well as the numerous other cognitive biases are likewise linked to this influential super-computer. However, just because we cannot directly and purposefully access this incredible system, does not mean we have to bow entirely to its influence. In fact, we can proactively prime this system through active learning. And we can be aware of this powerful system and the advantages and disadvantages it confers. We can learn of the errors it inclines us toward and monitor ourselves when it comes to our biases and prejudices. We can impose certain rules of thought when it comes to important issues. I believe that we all should take these very important steps both to make our intuitive brain more accurate and to buffer its influences in those situations where it is likely to lead us astray.
Gladwell, M. (2005). ‘Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.’ New York: Little, Brown and Company.
Posted by Gerald Guild
Categories: Adaptive Unconscious
, Erroneous Thinking
| Tagged: Cognitive Biases
, Confirmation Bias
, Erroneous Thinking
, Intuitive Thinking
, Self Serving Bias
My previous posts addressed several common cognitive biases while briefly touching on their subsequent consequences. In review, the Fundamental Attribution Error leads us to make hasty and often erroneous conclusions about others’ personal attributes based on our superficial observations. Generally such conclusions are in fact erroneous because we lack a sufficient understanding of the situational or external circumstances associated with the behavior in question. One particularly counterproductive manifestation of this tendency is the prejudice many individuals have regarding the plight of the poor. The commonly held misbelief is that the poor are so, because they are lazy or stupid or otherwise worthy of their circumstance. Further, the Self Serving Bias is manifested as an overvaluation of the degree of internal attribution the more fortunate make regarding their own personal social and economic position. The reality is that our social economic status has more to do with heritage than with personal attributes such as hard work and discipline.
Confirmation Bias, like Spinoza’s Conjecture facilitates the internalization of information that fits our beliefs and leads us to miss, ignore, or dismiss information that challenges deeply held beliefs. We are thus likely to dismiss pertinent and valid information that may move us from deeply held beliefs. And, perhaps most importantly, these tendencies disincline us from taking the additional steps necessary to critically scrutinize intuitively logical information. Thus we filter and screen information in a way that sustains our preconceptions – rarely truly opening our minds to alternative notions.
These biases are evident throughout society but are plain to see in those who hold strong attitudes about issues such as religion and politics. The overarching implications are that we tend to cherry pick and integrate information in order to stay in our comfortable belief paradigms. For example, some Conservatives are reassured by watching Fox News because the information aired is presorted based on the core political ideology of political conservatism. Its viewers are presented with information that avoids the unpleasantness of having to legitimately deal with divergent perspectives. Similarly, creationists ignore or negate the overwhelming evidence that substantiates the theory of evolution.
It is interesting to me that the positions held by divergent individuals, liberals or conservatives and skeptics or believers are often quite emotionally based and staunchly guarded. And rarely are “facts” universally regarded as such. We are even more likely to cling to these attitudes and values and thus be more prone to such errors in times of distress or threat. It takes careful rational discipline on both sides to constructively debate these issues.
The tendency to firmly hold onto one’s beliefs, be they religious, political, or intellectual, even in the face of compellingly disconfirming evidence, is referred to as “cognitive conservatism” (Herrnstein Smith, 2010). Between groups or individuals with divergent “belief” systems, the entrenched rarely concede points and even less frequently do they change perspectives. The polar opposites jab and attack looking for the weakest point in the argument of their nemesis. These generally fruitless exchanges include ad hominem attacks and the copious use of logical fallacies.
This is clearly evident today in debates between Republicans and Democrats as they battle over public policy. The case is the same between skeptics and believers as they pointlessly battle over the existence of God (as if existence was a provable or disprovable fact). And it is interesting that some individuals and groups selectively employ skepticism only when it serves their particular interests. This is especially evident in those who make desperate attempts to discredit the evidence for evolution while demanding that different standards be employed with regard to the question of God’s existence.
Because it seems that we as humans are hard-wired with a default for intuitive thinking we are particularly susceptible to magical, supernatural, and superstitious thinking. Compound that default with a tendency to make the above discussed cognitive errors and it is no wonder that we have pervasive and intractable political partisanship and deadly religious conflicts. Further ramifications include the widespread use of homeopathic and “alternative” medicine, the anti-vaccine movement, racism, sexism, classism, and as mentioned previously, ideologically driven denial of both evolution and anthropogenic global climate change.
It is fascinating to me that how people think and at what level they think (intuitive versus rational) plays out in such globally destructive ways. How do you think?