I’ve been going through a whole houseful of possessions, clearing out the past to make way for the future. Last week I recycled three decades of journals without reading a single page. A couple of friends helped me do the same with Day-timers: we ripped the wire spines out of 700-plus month-by-month calendars going back to the seventies. These chores are truly tedious, but the result feels like going on a supremely effective wonder-diet: every day, I wake up many pounds lighter.
This morning, I’m wondering how we can do the same things with our old, crusty habits of mind. I am yearning for a national mental housecleaning in the long run-up to the presidential election, before the debris piles up too high to see over.
If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know I often write about cognitive biases, the mental pitfalls characteristic of the human subject. For instance, we tend to inflate the importance of whatever is up in our faces, ignoring what observation and reason can tell us about its real significance. Nassim Taleb has written a lot about this. One example that always floors me is a study he mentioned in The Black Swan, in which people were asked to estimate their chances of being killed by a bomb. Most judged the likelihood quite low. When the same people were asked to estimate their chances of being killed in a terrorist bomb attack, their estimates were markedly higher. Yet the second question is a subset of the first; the first subsumes not only terrorist attacks, but all other types of bombing including war, so it must be the larger of the two figures. Why the illogic? Because the nightly news inflates our apprehension of terrorism until the pressure on our minds drives logic entirely out of the equation.
If we have minds, we have these biases. No one can escape them. They evolved as rules or shortcuts to help us make quick calculations when time matters: out on the savannah, the dangerous object occupying one’s field of vision demands immediate attention, irrespective of whether greater dangers lurk at a distance. But now we live in hugely complicated societies, so applying these same rules unthinkingly has huge and often terrible consequences. What are we to do?
As with almost every other form of learning, the answer is to cultivate self-awareness. Really, all we can do about it is notice our biases and correct for them as best we can. The most powerful tool in this regard is to check up on ourselves: our decisions, our predictions, how good were they? It’s just remarkable how seldom this is done. In this effort I commend Philip Tetlock, author of Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? For nearly two decades, he’s been tracking expert political predictions, and guess what he’s concluded? The experts are usually wrong and almost never held accountable for it.
(For a funny riff on this, watch the section of the June 4th “Daily Show” for a cascade of commentators in 2006 and 2007 predicting the inevitable coronation of Hillary Clinton and telling Barack Obama not to bother trying. That section starts at 4:28.)
Most of us don’t claim to be experts on this election, but our cognitive biases can still have distorting impact. How? Consider these examples:
- A smart and perceptive friend of mine was devastated during the Jeremiah Wright controversy, predicting the imminent failure of candidate Obama and characterizing this as “one of the great tragedies of American political life.” He deflected my advice not to believe everything he heard on TV. When I reminded him of this the day after Obama won the nomination, he said, “I really thought they had gotten him,” “they” being the powers of reaction and status quo.
Time after time, we unconsciously absorb the propaganda of those who wish to retain power, those who try to generate submission by advertising their own strength and reach. Like the Great Oz at the end of Dorothy’s journey down the yellow brick road, they are merely humans who know a great deal about deploying smoke-and-mirrors, and who rely on others’ fears to make their tricks work. When I find myself quailing at the might of the powers-that-be, I try to remember to ask whether I’ve been unconsciously co-opted onto their team by believing their propaganda.
- Last Tuesday night, friends were visiting as the Obama’s delegate count mounted toward victory. At one point, checking the online news, I called downstairs from my office: “Wow! Obama!” One friend responded with alarm: “What’s wrong?” There’s no question that we live in challenging times; much of what could go wrong does go wrong. And just the same with what could go right.
What futures are we privileging with fear-based expectations? And how can we avoid having these expectations influence the outcomes?
- Throughout the primary campaign, people expressed the fear that Obama would not survive this experience, citing our history of assassinations and scandals. Now, in the few days since he won the nomination, I’ve heard more references to assassination than I can count.
The people who hold this fear are expressing caring; fearing to lose what we hold dear is a normal, human reaction. But it’s also true that even in our violent era the odds of survivability for U.S. office-holders are extremely good. Those who are hosting this fear are reaching back to events of forty years ago for prior examples. Wouldn’t it be better to use that energy wishing Obama the longevity that has been the rule for most presidents?
We’ve got five months now to make this real and welcome the inauguration of President Obama, an event that can help crystallize the turning that is emerging in our society. So here’s what I want to ask: Take a moment to go back over the long primary campaign and inventory your own cognitive biases. Where did you believe something merely because TV pundits repeated it enough times? Where did you fall for certain-sounding predictions despite the sure knowledge that no one can foretell the future, that events have a way of confounding predictions? Where did your own fears short-circuit your desire and the energy you were willing to risk in pursuing it?
Obama’s nomination is proof positive that no matter how scientific-sounding, no matter how clotted with inside-baseball signifiers they may have been, it was a waste of mental space to believe the doom-sayers’ predictions—for that matter, any prediction—and a waste of time to follow and debate them.
What matters now is to want what we want and pursue it with vigor—and oh yes, regular house cleaning of cognitive biases. I think there’s a place to recycle them around here somewhere.