Whither Progress?

My fav neo-lib shill, S Pinker, retweeted one of his fellow enlightenment bros today:


(Disclosure: I do like Roser’s Our World in Data. It’s definitely interesting and sometimes useful, even if it doesn’t necessarily have the answers that many of its proponents believe it does.)

Here, we see progress framed as reducing human suffering. Looking at the comment thread (very much an elitist bubble, except for the ubiquitous guy-linking-Pinker-to-Epstein), there’s a lot of the usual bullshit, smugly attributing anti-progress sentiment to cognitive biases, political agendas, etc., but I find it surprising that none of the few critics here are peeling back the successes of progress, which is not especially difficult to do; every global problem where progress has emerged victorious invariably has its origins in progress itself. Poverty/inequality, epidemics, etc. all point back to sedentism/agriculture, arguably the foundations of human progress. The arguments in favor of these tend to revolve around human safety and food security, both of which are themselves easily debatable. When you tear those down, the arguments usually return to the life expectancy metric. Because babies are dying less and because we are on the whole living longer lives, surely that must mean we have made objective progress? Personally, I would not accept longer life as objectively better, either at the individual or collective level.

I think I’d be willing to concede that (and this is based on our largely hypothetical and anecdotal understanding of our own prehistory), we have made intellectual progress; maybe the human mind today (independent of changes in actual brain physiology) is capable of accommodating much bigger and more varied ideas than ever before? Whether this is objectively a good thing, I’m not sure. It definitely has made the human experience… interesting. Then again, perhaps the enlightenment bros’ crusade against magic and mythology is destroying certain forms of imagination, and maybe not so interesting after all?

When the progressist (and this is me sometimes when it suits me to shill for progress) reaches this point in the debate, he often throws down his trump card, saying, “well, would you rather huddle in a cold, dark cave, without all the wonderful doodads that progress has given us?” For anyone living comfortably (even one living in poverty) in a modern liberal democracy, the honest answer to this should generally be, “well, no, I don’t want to live in that cave! It would be damn uncomfortable!” But that’s just because we’re comfortable with the devil we know. The story we have of human life in prehistory certainly sounds like a hard one to be living, and it certainly would be unpleasant to suddenly be transplanted into that life. That’s not the same as if we were born into that life to begin with and to compare the two objectively. Regardless, the progressist will claim victory here, even though it really is a hollow one. (And he may realize it when he goes to his comfortable home with all the doodads progress has given us, gets bored, lonely, angry, and goes on social media to argue with anti-progressists.) Also, I’m not suggesting “happiness” is a better metric for what is “good”, as many anti-progressists are prone to do.

There is nothing axiomatic about “better” anyway. Humans, like other animals, need to entertain ourselves, and because we have such highly-developed brains, we do a lot of that entertaining inside our heads. Part of that is creating narratives to continually drive our actions. Progress is just another idea we’ve created to entertain ourselves with.

John Gray said in a recent article on Unherd:

The classical liberal economist F.A. Hayek wrote in The Constitution of Liberty (1960): “Progress is movement for movement’s sake, for it is in the process of learning, and in the effects of having learned something new, that man enjoys the gift of his intelligence.” But what is it that is learnt in the course of this purposeless process? Admirable for the clarity and honesty with which it is stated, Hayek’s idea of progress is as much an expression of nihilism as Derrida’s project of deconstruction.

I’m really not about guilting us into collectively throwing up our hands and “giving it all up”; for what then? I certainly wouldn’t know. I’m just recognizing reminding myself that we build intellectual projects to amuse ourselves. These projects are not themselves fundamental truths, nor are they derived from any fundamental truths other than our fundamental needs as meaning-seeking/making machines.

Pitbull Ate My Blog Posts

I know, it’s been over 3 months.

Wow. What the hell have I been doing?!? Nothing actually keeping me from posting a word or two here. But I think it’s normal for any conscientious human to feel the need to make excuses in this situation. Here are a few.

Excuse 1: I became a co-founder in a start-up business at the beginning of the year. It’s been ramping up recently due to interest from what could be our first customer, who could be bringing in another interested party. This organization is so big they are known to the average human in just about every country of the world. It’s a lot of work and it’s exciting, but it’s not making money. I’m used to doing relatively little work, and collecting a decent revenue from it. Now, I’m stretching myself in all sorts of new and uncomfortable ways, and there’s no guarantee of a financial return at the end of the day.

Excuse 2: I’ve halfheartedly been trying to work on some tunes for a musical theater project. It’s a collaboration with a friend of a friend. His focus is the words; mine, the music. My piano skills are severely wanting, but I feel like they’ve steadily improved since I started this. I would really like to see this through, but excuse #1 has been crowding it out of my head space.

Excuse 3: pitbulls

Excuse 4: I’ve been trying to cope with the stress of being on a highly dysfunctional strata council (what people elsewhere might call a condo owner’s association or a cluster-frack a go-go). I find it disturbing how much people can become emotionally invested in these things. Differences of opinion become personal slights to the parties involved. I hope I get out of it before it happens to me too.

Excuse 5: I’m sort of pursuing a love interest with clear impediments to long-term success: she’s married, she’s young, she practices a religion. The worst thing is, I know I could push just a bit harder, but having been on the other side of this before when I was married, I feel those stupid pangs of conscience. Still, I can’t help but look at a recent photo of the two of us together (wonder what her hubby would think if he saw that?) and feel like it would be so nice if we had that all the time. For now, we’re IMing a lot and finding opportunities to spend time together while in the company of others, which is for the best.

Excuses out of the way, let’s move on to more interesting things.

A recent study promoted on the APS website proves what I knew all along; extremists are stupid. You can read the complete study write-up here, but the gist of it is, people were asked their opinions on a variety of hot-button political issues (taxes, healthcare, climate change, the Iranian nuclear program). When asked to explain those issues, those with the most extreme opinions tended to be the ones with the poorest understanding of them. After they were shown just how ignorant they were, they were given the opportunity to revise their viewpoints. Generally, they tended to become much more moderate in their stance.

So, should I temper my opinion of pitbulls (and their owners)? Hell no, **** ’em all (and I don’t mean “fuck”). Same goes for system administrators who expect vendors to give them technical support, but refuse to follow vendor recommendations. Those ones who are so much smarter than everyone else, yet somehow aren’t able to solve their problems on their own. Here’s a clue for you guys: your technical skills are irrelevant. The legacy systems that only you know how to maintain, well, if you’re hit by a bus, you’ll be cursed posthumously for not grooming a successor, but eventually, things will sort themselves out, life will go on, and you will be forgotten. Start cultivating your soft skills now. You’ll be so much more valuable in the end, and people might actually tolerate being around you.

For some more positive vibes, here’s Bonobo in an exclusive session at KCRW from earlier this year, with Szjerdene on vocals and session musicians pulled straight out of the bleachers of Sheffield.

I’ll try to have something interesting to say soon.

Duck Test Failure, Part 2

ducks photo: Ducks at Queens Park 20130321-2027HBD-01_zps0b9154fd.jpg

In response to a recent post of mine about a friend’s suicide, a commenter referred to suicide as “an extreme position to take”.

On June 11, 1963, a Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Duc sat down in the lotus position in a busy intersection of Saigon. A 5-gallon can of gasoline was poured over his head by a fellow monk. He then lit a match and set himself on fire. He did not move as his flesh burned and his living body turned into a charred corpse. In the days that followed, there were several other similar acts of self-immolation by Buddhist monks.

These suicides were acts of protest against the South Vietnamese government’s mistreatment of Buddhists. These were indeed extreme acts, intended to draw attention to the plight of Vietnam’s Buddhists and put pressure on the regime (and its US allies) to carry out the reforms it had promised.

But these suicides were not due to mental health issues. I do not believe that most suicides are acts of protest or attempts to get attention, but I think that belief is not uncommon, and highlights a fundamental problem with our attitude toward mental health issues.

We are often dismissive of mental health concerns because most of us really don’t have a perspective on it, which was largely the point of my post. When you look at, say, a paraplegic, even if you’re not one, you can sort of speculate on the challenges they face on a day to day basis. On the other hand, when you look at someone with a mental illness, you cannot speculate (unless you’ve had one yourself maybe) because you cannot see inside their mind. You assume that, if they appear on the outside to be similarly-abled to you, then they should have the same problems as you. So if someone confides in you that they have suicidal feelings, and you have never had similar feelings yourself, except maybe as a passing thought, then you’ll judge it as such (“Aw c’mon, life isn’t that bad! There’s always a way!”), because that’s how you would have dismissed those thoughts from your own mind. Unfortunately, our brains are not all wired the same way. For many, they cannot simply “get over it”.

I believe there are usually neurobiological causes for persistent suicidal feelings. Whether it’s BDNF dysregulation (http://www.wjpch.com/UploadFile/113197.pdf) or something else, it’s not something you can simply shrug off with positive thinking or exercise or stupid platitudes, and dismissing people with suicidal feelings (or any mental health issue for that matter) as weak-willed or attention-seeking is like dismissing people with physical disabilities as not trying hard enough.

asshat photo: asshat asshat.jpg

Do Leaders Make a Difference?

There’s a great podcast over at BBC4 that considers the question of how much influence do leaders really have. It’s well worth the 30 minutes (only up on the site until October 2013, so hurry), but if you don’t feel like bothering, I’ll try to summarize.

It contains snippets of interviews with a variety of people (economists, politicians, historians, psychologists) of different political stripes (mostly left-leaning, but not all) talking about leaders in the spheres of politics, business, and sports and how much impact they really have.

One of the psych folks cited the fundamental attribution error as a driving force behind people’s tendency to blame or praise individuals for the success or failure of everything from the world economy to football teams. The fundamental attribution error suggests that people tend to attribute the cause of an event to the personalities of the individual actors (people involved in the event) instead of looking at situational factors (the context in which the event occurred), which often play a greater role. For example, if a company does poorly, we might be tempted to say, “they had poor management practices and made a series of bad decisions.” But other companies in a similar situation may have made the exact same decisions, but with very different outcomes. What was the economic climate like in general at that time? Was their target market particularly affected by a change in it? Were there geo-political issues? Some other factors not brought to light?

The reality often is more complicated than we want to admit, but we don’t want to consider that, because it’s too much work. It’s much easier to put a human face on it and lay the blame at the feet of some person when things don’t go our way. It works the other way too. If things go unexpectedly well, we might want to attribute it to some seemingly unique individual. Then we proceed to over-analyze this person in search of that elusive quality that others can cultivate in the hope that they too will one day be able to reproduce that success. As if the Midas touch could be distilled, bottled, and sold. 7 Habits, anyone?

So, we overemphasize the importance of individuals and their abilities, which leads organizations to focus on finding “rock stars” with mad skillz (at least until the next upstarts come along) and egos to match instead of finding people who are not only good, but more importantly, are able to raise the group’s collective capacity to do great stuff. And this, not by carrying them, but by helping them to up their individual game.

Anyway, that’s what I took away (with my two or three cents added for emphasis) and I agree with it for the most part. The one thing I think they all either neglected to mention or failed to recognize is that there are leaders that do affect positive change within their spheres of influence. Whether that change translates into financial success is another thing. But ultimately, it isn’t even about how much money they make, how many trophies they take home, or whatever legacy is important in their field. It’s about how they serve the people who work for them. Real leaders represent values that others can aspire to. They model behavior that makes others think, “hey, I can do that too.” When real leaders fail, they don’t point the finger at everyone else. And when real leaders succeed, they’re humble about it and they make everyone feel like they succeeded. These are the leaders with the greatest legacies of all.

How Steady Is Your Moral Compass? (or Swedes with Meta-attitudes)

One of the neuro/psych blogs I follow, Mind Hacks, lead me to an interesting article about a recent study out of Sweden where researchers manipulated unwitting study participants into defending a moral position that was supposedly contrary to their true beliefs.

Respondents consisted of 160 volunteers (100 female) between the ages of 17 and 69 (Mean 29.5, Standard Deviation 10.8) picked “at random” walking through a park. They were asked to review statements on a variety of topics ranging from privacy to conflicts in the Middle East and then indicate on a scale of 1 to 9 how much they agreed with each one. The respondents were shown one set of statements while filling in their responses. When they were done, the researchers used a little slight-of-hand to replace those statements with another set of similar but slightly altered statements, while leaving the respondents’ choices unchanged. For example, if the respondent saw a statement that read, “Large-scale governmental surveillance of e-mail and Internet traffic ought to be forbidden as a means to combat international crime and terrorism,” the altered statement would have the word “forbidden” replaced with “permitted”, effectively reversing the meaning of the respondent’s choice.

What’s interesting is that supposedly, when shown the altered statements and asked to explain their choices, about half of the participants did not even notice the statements had been tampered with, and 69% agreed with at least one of the altered statements.

People were even willing to argue in favour of the reversed statements: A full 53% of participants argued unequivocally for the opposite of their original attitude in at least one of the manipulated statements, the authors write. Hall and his colleagues have previously reported this effect, called ‘choice blindness’, in other areas, including taste and smell and aesthetic choice.

While I think this study is interesting (and not a little scary), I’m not sure what the take-away is or if there even is one at this point. I’d want to dig deeper to learn what motivated the respondents to switch sides. Why would they not simply say, “Oh, that doesn’t look right. I must’ve picked the wrong choice, because that’s not how I feel!”

Was it just ego demanding they stick to their guns, even if it hadn’t actually been their original choices (or rather, their original statements)? Or do Swedes have a particular propensity for playing Devil’s Advocate? Or do they have an innate moral flexibility the rest of us don’t? Or was it some competing researchers who wanted to have a bit of fun and decided to pay a bunch of people to “randomly” walk through the park where they were delivering the survey, just to screw with them 🙂

The researchers themselves seem confused and not quite comfortable with the conclusions that could be drawn from what they observed:

… the notion of opinions instantly reversing through CB creates considerable tension…

Mmmm, tension indeed. So their conclusion was pretty safe:

… the current study challenges our basic conception of what it means to express an attitude, and demonstrates a considerable malleability of everyday moral opinions. Future studies will determine how our CB methodology relates to established meta-attitudinal and implicit response time measures [45], [46], and to further explore the role for self-attribution and post-hoc rationalization in attitude formation and change.

It would be interesting to see another group of researchers try to reproduce this.

Anyway, here’s the link to the full study report, titled Lifting the Veil of Morality: Choice Blindness and Attitude Reversals on a Self-Transforming Survey. Judge for yourself.

And here is a video from what’s probably my favorite Swedish band.

The Presumption of Decency

Edward Glaeser is a professor of economics at Harvard who does research on urban growth and he’s written a short essay on a topic completely outside his area of knowledge. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting read. It’s titled The Presumption of Decency and I urge you to check it out.

I think he touches on a deep-rooted flaw in human thinking habits, one that frequently puts us on a path to a mindset that enables us to justify committing some the most atrocious acts against other human beings. And despite the remorse we may feel afterward, we do it again and again.

The fact is, our perspective-taking abilities are generally not very good. We also have incomplete access to the situational information of others. So when we try to understand the behaviors of others, we tend to assume it’s due to negative motivations or personality flaws. Social psychologists refer to this as a fundamental attribution error.

For example:

Ellen is ignoring me. She’s being a bitch.

Ummm, maybe Ellen is busy?

On the other hand, when reflecting on our own actions, we tend to be more forgiving. For example:

I have so much to do right now. I don’t have time to answer that email.

Are you really so busy, when you’ve already answered messages from several other people?

I suspect we are doubly likely to fall back on this heuristic when trying to understand those who are in conflict with us:

The police won’t let me take my bike through this gate. They are morons.

Maybe at one time, this was a useful heuristic, helping us to quickly identify potential threats so we could eliminate them before they became immediate dangers. But if something is not an immediate danger, shouldn’t we not be relying on a heuristic when we try to understand it? Shouldn’t we be making the investment of time to investigate more deeply to form a better conclusion?

Now that humans have armed themselves with weapons capable of death and destruction on a massive scale, perhaps it’s time to call this out as detrimental to us as a species. That is, if continuation of the species is important to us.

Let’s start by not always assuming the worst of others.

Renaissance Nerds

This past weekend, I attended a day-long unconference for freelancers. Having been a freelancer already for many years, I found the sessions I attended to be more useful as refreshers than anything else. Still, networking is good and events like this force me to do a bit of that.

By my estimation, attendees consisted of about 75% high tech/design professionals: web developers, graphic/web designers, social media marketing experts. Basically, lots of nerds, a sprinkling of cupcake girls, a dusting of headhunters, and a smattering of life coaches, for comic relief.

But the nerds, they aren’t what they used to be. They’re now what I like to call renaissance nerds. No longer the basement-dwelling social pariahs of yore, they’ve traded their pocket protectors for wetsuits. They do triathlons. They travel. They go to pubs and drink beer. They eat out at exotic restaurants and review them in their foodie blogs. They talk to girls! They do flash mobs. They speak eloquently and passionately at public events (though still about the same nerdy stuff). They appear to be fairly well-rounded individuals and generally they are. But of course, there are exceptions.

Sitting in on a couple of sessions, I had the misfortune of sharing the room with one of these. He happens to be a bit of a celebrity within the tech community and has words like “entrepreneur” and “hacker” and “infovore” attached to his various social media bios. In both sessions, he sat mostly staring at his phone, attending to his twitter account, but he did see fit to open his mouth on a number of occasions to tell various people (presenters and attendees alike) in no uncertain terms how wrong they were in their thinking and approaches. Furthermore, on each occasion, his volume was at least twice that of the person he was dressing down, making him doubly annoying.

Accepting constructive criticism is necessary for personal growth. If someone has proof or experience that’s contrary to yours, they should share it and you should consider it carefully. But there are ways to deliver constructive criticism to strangers on a public stage that I believe are more conducive to success.

I’m sure this individual likes to think of himself as a positive disruptive force. I assume he has some measure of entrepreneurial success (he no doubt has 20+ pre-IPO social cloud mobile API solutions between here and Silicon Valley, finalizing negotiations for third round funding blah blah blah), which he could point to as proof he knows his shit. And it’s true, that as much as I would have liked to tear him down, I agreed with the content of his message.

But form is important too. So is awareness of the context and audience. Most of the attendees and presenters at this conference were newbies (maybe not in their professions, but at least as freelancers). They are excited and scared, eager to learn and eager to share. At the point they are in their learning, they need some easy wins to give them confidence to keep moving forward. Taking an adversarial tone (“You’re doing it wrong!”) is a fantastic way to discourage them or shut them down completely.

See more on Know Your Meme

I’m not saying people need to be coddled. These are adults after all. But a person in defence mode may be too distracted to experience the learning moment you want them to have. If they’re too scared to share with other newbies because there’s some been-there-done-that know-it-all ready to tear them down, they may not bother trying in the future.

I’d like to say I hope I don’t have to come anywhere near him again. Unfortunately, he seems to attend a lot of these events. And unfortunately, if I cannot make a reasoned argument against him and I’m in the wrong mood, I may need to simply punch him in his fucking face.

I really don’t want to do that though. He may very well not be aware how much he came off as an ass. Nobody said anything, but then, most people wouldn’t in these situations. Drawing more attention to him would likely not have been helpful either. I’ve already touched a bit on the social issues my son has and what he may be facing some day when there’s no one providing play-by-play commentary for both him and the people around him. It is entirely possible that he could become one of these well-intentioned but socially inept individuals, but I sure hope not and I’m going to do whatever I can to make it not so.

It Was A Good Day

I hate people. The only thing I hate more than people are pit bull owners (and MMA fans). But I feel like today was a good day.

I was on site at a client. I had both professional and social interactions with a number of people. I feel like all of them were rewarding on different levels and to varying degrees. I hope these interactions were also rewarding for those on the other end, but I’m not always sure about that.

The human race has kept secrets from me. And I hate it for that. Which is why the world is such a scary place.

I have a son who was diagnosed with a pervasive developmental disorder when he was about three. For those unfamiliar, Wikipedia or any number of sites on autism can provide more details, but the condensed version is, autism looks a little different in each person. Some “show it” more and some less. My son is what is informally referred to as high-functioning. High-functioning basically means parents have a lot of hope that if they do the right things (Applied Behavioral Analysis, gluten/cassein-free dietary regime, crystals, Santeria), the world won’t notice their child is different.

I’m not interested in comparing therapies and remedies. For my son, several years of behavioral intervention was hugely beneficial. For both him and us. Challenging behaviors are practically a thing of the past (we all had a lot to learn here). Receptive and expressive language improved immensely and language acquisition appears to be progressing more normally. He still has some motor issues and restricted interests will likely always be a challenge, but really, his biggest challenge, and the source of my greatest fear, is socialization.

I spend a lot of time trying to narrate my son’s experiences when we’re out and about in the world. I like to think I’m preparing him for a life where he’ll feel comfortable trying new experiences, setting and achieving goals, and most of all, having fun along the way. And yet, I have to wonder what kind of life he has ahead of him.

He is a beautiful boy. He is shy. He is intelligent (scary intelligent). People smile when they look at him. I don’t care to advertise his label, but I don’t hide it either. Sometimes, if occasion arises, I might drop a hint that he’s a bit different or even say outright that he has a label. And they’ll say, “well, he looks normal. I’m sure he’s fine.” And they forget he has a label. They probably even think I’m just some nutso parent who probably has the whole family take antibiotics for colds too. And that’s cool with me if it takes any negative attention off him. But then, some “challenging behavior” comes on. Some quirkiness. Or he’s no longer responding to questions, because he’s switching to off to take a break. And he’s not beautiful to them any more. How will those people deal with him when there isn’t someone around narrating the experience for everyone? When he’s applying for a job? Going to the hospital? … Sometimes, maybe it’s better to *not* look normal. In the civilized world, most people will recognize a person with Down’s syndrome and set their expectations accordingly (not always *appropriately*, but at least they’re trying). I have told my son that he is “different” and that our society has given him a label. It’s not a discussion he has actively engaged in, but I don’t doubt it’s in there. It’s a discussion I want to continue as he grows older and I hope it will help him in understanding himself and how people see him.

But aside from how the world perceives him, I worry about what he is learning from his role model. Can I show him what friendship looks like when I struggle to interact with people (unless I’m drinking)? Can I demonstrate for him what a loving relationship between “neurotypical” people looks like? Looking at his mother and me, I’d say not so much.

I’ve gone through much of my life not understanding the secret language and the hidden code of social conduct. This language, a combination of words, sounds, eyes, lips, hands, shoulders, who knows what else… This code, never spoken, but only broken by broken/defective people like me, like my son. How are we supposed to learn this fucking shit???

Anti-Western Protests in the Middle East: What Does It Mean?

Of all the news programming on TV, I like BBC World the best. They have without a doubt the most attractive selection of news presenters in the world (here, here, here, here, I can go all day). It may be one of the reasons why I think, for all the criticism of imperialism (and we must decry the tyranny of imperialism in all its forms), the English, as a group, in our age, have one of the broadest world perspectives and therefore the most entitled to comment on it. For all the socio-political-economic challenges brought by the resulting migration of peoples, I’m ever so thankful for the ethnic diversity. 

Anyway, my enjoyment of the newscasters has been marred by coverage of current events in the Middle East. And like any good American, my knee-jerk reaction was KILL THEM ALL.

I felt immediate disgust at myself. Not because my reaction was a contradiction of my liberal values. Rather, I felt I’d been manipulated. And I really hate that. The question is, by who? The media? Mmm–nah, that’s a (typically liberal) cop-out. Generally, I view all sources of information with mistrust, including my own empirical evidence (my world is a scary place, indeed). Was it that little shithead, lizard brain, reacting to some perceived threat to my survival? Yes, quite possibly, but being somewhat comfortable middle-class, somewhat educated, living in a Western society, I like to think we’re far enough removed from physical dangers that I’m able to shut down that crap quickly enough. I’m still working through this. To be continued…

But moving past that, and ignoring the motivations and actions of the master manipulators and bit players with agendas (and they are there too), I’ve wanted to try to understand the motivations of the “common people” who are now in the streets across the Middle East, protesting for… something. I feel like this is an even bigger minefield, fraught with so many potential bias judgements. It’s so easy to start talking shit. I do that quite well. But there is more at play than a First World mind can readily understand, even one who witnesses this first-hand on the ground. And maybe this is because we have cleverly learned to shut off that lizard brain.

Issues of poverty, fear, powerlessness, frustration, all coming in to play that are truly beyond our realm of experience, and consequently, I think, beyond our true comprehension.

We have never lived under threat of death by bombing, no matter how many bloody corpses and wailing mothers we see on television (though we got a taste of that on September 11, 2001 when the World Trade Center in New York was reduced to rubble). We cannot truly conceive what it feels like to be dying because we cannot put something in our mouths to nourish us, no matter how many earnest actors we see holding fly-covered children in their arms. We’re spectators of great dramas, the fourth wall. But for millions of other people in the world, these dramas are their realities.

I need to write about this. It’s important. Not because I can solve it. Not the world problem. Not even my own feelings. I cannot solve any of that. There is no solving here. It’s painful. I just need to feel it right now.

Cognitive Dissonance: Dealing With Yours

Sour Grapes!

If you’ve read any of my posts, you will quickly realize that I’m not highly edumacated. That doesn’t mean I don’t like intellectual challenges. I’m curious about a great many things, but I tend to lack depth of understanding because I’m simply not disciplined enough to work hard at anything, especially learning. Nevertheless, I like to talk about stuff and I don’t need a doctorate to do so.

Psychology (and more recently the more “technical” cognitive sciences) has always intrigued me. I fondly remember my ‘tween years, perusing the Intro to Psychology section of my single-volume Random House Color Encyclopaedia and being convinced I was afflicted by fully 3/4 of the mental illnesses it described. Good times. Anyway, over the last year, this concept of cognitive dissonance has been itching my brain.

For the uninitiated, an example[1] to illustrate. Assume the following are two statements made by the same person:

“I’m a law-abiding person.”

“I download Hollywood movies from torrentz sites like ahoymovies.net[2]”

Do you see the conflict between these two statements? If you don’t, you are a fucking idiot and/or you’ve arrived at cognitive consonance through some deft mental manoeuvring, aka rationalization.

Perhaps your rationalization involved some lame excuses such as, “The Hollywood-industrial complex is bilking consumers out of millions”, “I can’t afford it”, “movies, like information, software, games, art, and beer, should be free”, etc…

Whatever the case, you are able to justify to yourself a behavior (statutory theft, which is what it is whether you agree with that law or not) that conflicts with your purported beliefs (that you don’t break the laws of your jurisdiction).

We do a lot of this excuse-making on a daily basis. So much so that we don’t even realize we’re doing it. If we were to stop and analyze the motives behind most of our actions, we might uncover a rather unpleasant truth. But we don’t do that. Because we need to do X, Y, Z, because <excuses> (“I need to survive”, “I have a family to support”, “it’s for the common good”, “to protect democracy”, blah blah blah).

And this excuse-making, we do it both individually and collectively, and there are always those who will seek to leverage this. (And no, this isn’t a conspiracy blog, sorry to disappoint!)

The unpleasant truth is most of our actions and choices are based on what’s most convenient. If we can be honest with ourselves about that, then hopefully we’re in a better position to honestly question ourselves, at least as far as such a thing is possible.

“I recognize that I am making the expeditious choice, but at what cost? To me? To others?”

When someone challenges you on your beliefs or your motivations and an answer is on your lips in 0.2s instead of 0.5, check yourself. Is that rationalization cached somewhere? Where does it come from? You? Your peers? Society? Does it need to be reviewed? Check yourself before you wreck yourself.

The theory of cognitive dissonance was first expounded in Leon Festinger’s aptly titled A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. I have not read it, because tl;dr, reasons, etc. 😉 But I highly recommend it to others!

Footnote 1: For a more neutral example, see Aesop’s fable of the Fox and the Grapes.

Footnote 2: At the time of this writing, ahoymovies.net is not a real site, but feel free to report back if it becomes one.