The Fiction of our Objectivity

Posted: January 18, 2012 in Uncategorized

I’m enjoying a provocative read now, David McRaney’s, You Are Not So Smart (Gotham Books, 2011). The book shares insights from the cognitive sciences and brain research having to do with the assumptions we make, biases we hold, and the choices that result. The intro goes this way:

    Misconception: You are a rational, logical being who sees the world as it really is.
   Truth: You are as deluded as the rest of us, but that’s OK, it keeps you sane.

The book explores Cognitive Biases, predictable patterns of thought and behavior that lead to incorrect conclusions, Heuristics, or mental shortcuts, that make us jump to conclusions, and Logical Fallacies in which we make judgments absent crucial information or by missing an essential step.

All of us participate in this all the time.

We have habitual forms of thought that keep us from actually seeing situations for what they are; we screen out the data we don’t want and focus on the data we already agree with. If you subscribe to this blog you are evidencing, in part, a cognitive bias. You are admitting these thoughts but screening out the thoughts of that other blog you don’t want to read. I treasure your bias, thanks for being here!

As a preacher I experience that every Sunday at the back door of the sanctuary.

“Thanks preacher for your inspiring sermon on A, B and C.”
“Well, thank you, but I said D, E and F.”

No matter, whatever was said was redirected by the brain to conform to what the listener already wanted to hear. Words triggered already existing associations.  Any information that contradicted any cognitive bias was either screened out or immediately labeled as wrong and omitted to keep the bias in place.

Ever wonder why no matter the subject at hand some people come up with the same conclusion with the same idea and even the same words? Cognitive bias. Habitual thought admits only selected data and reshapes it to fit the preoccupation that’s already there.

I like the mental shortcuts, or Heuristics. They help us survive. Half of what we do in life we do with shortcuts because we don’t need to go through a diagnostic process to walk to the car, put the key in the ignition and drive away. We do that with lots of shortcuts. And we do that with ideas and communication. I bet you know what I’m going to say next, what all this is going to lead to, don’t you? You could just interrupt me and say, “Get to it, I know.” That’s because the life short-cuts we normally make for survival are inappropriately applied when we should listen very carefully to the logic from beginning to end. Therefore we miss it.

Ever been in a study group, reading some provocative thinker, and someone says, “I just don’t get so-and-so, why they think that?” And then that person proceeds to state an opinion which is almost identical to the author’s position. They made a shortcut, went to the end and drew conclusions before reading it all. Everyone else in the group, saving their short-cuts for some other grand occasion, look up and say, “Well, that’s exactly what the author said.” The person is baffled. They made a heuristic leap and don’t know how they could have missed what everyone else and their dog saw.

Most common are the logical fallacies which come as the result of lack of information. “There are weapons of mass destruction.” That is said, that conclusion drawn, with inaccurate information. Then the conclusion is defended with vigor. And then when the missing information is presented the ego will not allow it to be admitted, which leads back to or results from cognitive bias, that a decision has been made before the information is in. An ideology is often blind to the truth of things.

We all do it. I do it. But more than being comforted by the idea that our number is legion, perhaps our slowing down, becoming attentive to the moment, to ourselves, to the hum of the mind, we will begin to notice. Some of it comes with our hard-wiring, our survival instinct, ways to make it through life without exhausting ourselves. But other habitual thinking, decisions and actions become fatal and destructive.

Religious doctrines can be like that. A doctrine crystallizes a belief, making it a normative way to see God, humanity or the world. Doctrines may, however, become cognitive biases and even function as heuristic short cuts. They may actually miss what was first absent, what has developed since, or maintain a distortion as though a truth. And if held too tightly they may actually screen out what God is up to in the rest of the world. I’m guessing that the scripture about Jesus healing the blind man is about more than 20-20 vision. It may be about healing the cognitive biases that keep us from seeing God and neighbor, seeing ourselves as God might.

At least I think so, or want to think so, or don’t have time or energy to think anything else, or would just rather not admit any other options for consideration at this time. That’s logical, isn’t it?

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