A cursory study of rudimentary neuroscience makes uncomfortable reading. It suggests, with strong evidence, that the way we think makes us ill-suited to thrive in the modern world. In fact, our thought patterns and mental blind spots imperil us all. We’re not up to the task.
We face an existential crisis, born of our neurological incapacities. It may be that we are too cognitively and intellectually impaired to ever be capable of the task of stewardship of the living world, but there may be societal changes we can make which will take us nearer to the mark. If we’re willing to become aware of our thinking flaws, we might be able to compensate for them.
Democracy is rendered impotent by the ideas we cling to doggedly. Today, many habits and accepted practices, which seemingly don’t matter, are in fact greatly exacerbating our intellectual inadequacies. Being lazy with our thinking makes our thinking worse.
Creativity, it turns out, has a crucial role to play. Far from being a hobby or privileged indulgence, the artist’s perspective holds the key to releasing us from our self-destructive emotional responses and demonstrates amply why truth is so important and manipulation so dangerously corrosive. Our very survival depends on changing our minds and dispensing with our most ingrained prejudices. Unfortunately, one of deepest cognitive flaws is that we don’t recognise the necessity, or our deepest cognitive flaws. We remain blind to our inabilities.
This might come as a shock to you, but we are all flawed, to some degree. As a species and as individuals, we have a poor grasp on complexity, we weigh and understand risks hopelessly badly, and we’re inadequately equipped to fathom science, economics, medicine and technology in sufficient depth or detail. In short, we default to taking people’s word for it and blunder through life, confronting these areas of our incompetence like proud toddlers – clumsily, but trying to style it out, as if we know what we’re doing and what we’re talking about. We don’t.
Even the most learned and well-read grapple hopelessly with information and concepts beyond their comprehension. The wiser we’re assumed to be, the less willing we are to confess our cluelessness on various topics. We think we have to appear to know it all, which is to say we’re all prone to intellectual dishonesty. Saying, “I don’t know”, equates to failure, inadequacy and shame. We have too much ego invested in trying to never look stupid. Unfortunately, stupidity is abundant and universal.
With this mixture of ignorance and denial, we make all our crucial, binding, far-reaching, consequential, collective decisions. That’s right. We are utterly dependent on our flawed thinking and lack of understanding. We’re like helmsmen without navigators.
The Dunning-Kruger effect damningly documents the observation that we lack the competence to be aware of our own incompetence. We think we’re smarter than we are, because we aren’t smart enough to recognise our intellectual limitations.
Recently, several organisations, including the British National Health Service, were subject to a malicious attack, which rendered key computer files into an encrypted state, inaccessible to their owners, unless a ransom was paid. Ransomware is a well known attack vector and engineering solutions already existed, or could be applied, but the people managing the systems that were successfully attacked lacked the will, the funding or the right attitude (or all three) to protect against this threat. Their evaluation of the real risks they faced was hampered by a lack of understanding of the technical issues. Consequently, they got it badly wrong, causing catastrophe.
We like to think that our thoughts are our own, but the facts are that we believe what we’re told. In Daniel Kahneman’s terms, our type one thinking bias leads us to accept information from people we trust, uncritically. We then rationalise what we believe as if we had come to our own conclusions independently. Propagandists, like Edward Bernays, who went on to make a fortune in public relations and advertising, realised early in the twentieth century that, “We are governed, our minds are moulded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of”. Bernays’ biggest and most notorious success was in recruiting young woman to smoke, thereby greatly increasing the profits of the tobacco companies, while consigning generations of young women to poor health and ultimately, to grisly, painful, early deaths. In short, we’re programmed by other people for their own purposes and we don’t acknowledge the fact.
But that’s not the end of our programming. We’re more than complicit in brainwashing ourselves. Since the 1980s, researchers were aware that there are ten basic personal values that are recognised across all cultures and age groups, in all countries. These are:
When it comes to nurturing human nature, three things stand out in their findings:
1. All ten basic values are present in us all and each one of us is motivated by their full array, but to widely differing degrees, that vary between cultures and individuals. We weight the ten differently to each other.
2. Each of the values can be engaged in us, if it is triggered. Remind us of security, for example and we’ll likely take fewer risks. When power and achievement are brought to top of mind, we are less likely to care about others’ needs.
3. The relative weights of these different values changes in us not just over the course of a lifetime, but many times a day, as we switch between social roles and contexts (e.g. work, home, in a social setting). Just like muscles, the more any one value is engaged, the stronger it becomes.
We follow social norms, as we perceive them, typically preferring to do what we expect others will do. If we are in fear or filled with doubt, we especially tend to go with the crowd. Thinking about song popularity, as an example, each song’s popularity is due to social influence; popular songs are the songs people know others like. The more prominent information about other people’s song preferences is, the more likely a song will emerge as a smash hit. However, the harder it is to predict which song the hit will turn out to be. It has very little to do with the quality of the music, once it has reached a minimum threshold of acceptability. This kind of social behaviour is both highly contagious and highly uncertain, which explains why predicting the next chart-topping song or this years’ summer fashion trend is so difficult.
With social media and the Internet, we are more aware than ever before of the opinions, decisions, choices and behaviours of other people, which is why social media tends to become a self-reinforcing echo chamber. Who you choose to notice makes all the difference to your own opinions, choices, decisions and behaviours. Yet paradoxically, our ability to understand how it feels to live another person’s life is limited. We have empathy deficit.
The list of cognitive biases to which we are susceptible, yet unaware of, is long. There is availability bias, where we tend to make decisions on the basis or more recent or more accessible information. We suffer from loss aversion, which is the strong preference to avoid loss rather than to make an equivalent gain (we’d rather not lose, than win). We exercise selective cognition, taking on board facts and arguments that fit with our existing frames of understanding and world view. When it comes to risk bias, we underestimate the likelihood of extreme events, while overestimating our ability to cope with them. Wikipedia lists over 160 different cognitive biases that we all labour under.
Inescapably, the only logical conclusion is that what we assume to be true is probably wrong and we lack the cognitive abilities and intellectual honesty to own up to it and correct it. We are all harbouring epidemic pseudodoxy – the widely held belief in various things as true, when they are actually, demonstrably, provably false. Because these are cognitive deficits, they are actually more like tone deafness than ignorance or stupidity. We can be fully aware of these thinking biases, yet find ourselves utterly helpless to resist them.
When others call us out on our evident cognitive deficits, we tend to behave with shame, denial and violence, doubling down on mistaken ideas, rather than confessing our faulty logic and changing our minds. This is called the backfire effect. We double down and dig our heels in on nonsensical beliefs, in the face of unarguable evidence that disproves them. We can’t stand the shame of being wrong, so we become more stubbornly insistent that we’re right. Facts are ignored. We’ll happily argue that black is actually white.
This is not new and it’s old. In 1620, Francis Bacon wrote: “The human understanding, once it has adopted opinions, either because they were already accepted and believed, or because it likes them, draws everything else to support and agree with them. And though it may meet a greater number and weight of contrary instances, it will, with great and harmful prejudice, ignore or condemn or exclude them by introducing some distinction, in order that the authority of those earlier assumptions may remain intact and unharmed.”
When it comes to childhood traumas that we experience, research shows that we tend to perpetuate and propagate them, rather than curtailing them. We conclude that the trauma didn’t harm us, so it’s ok to inflict the same kind of trauma on somebody else. The truth is that our willingness to pass it on is proof that it did, in fact, harm us.
A lot of people place their faith in gut feelings, but research has shown, time after time, that gut feelings tend to run counter to evidence. We might feel satisfaction in jumping to instant conclusions, but they’re rarely reliable. Today, most of humanity’s biological, ecological, economic, social and political challenges are questions of organised complexity, but our capacity to comprehend complexity is perhaps the realm that is least understood. We’re just not very good at handling things that aren’t simple.
There are essentially two ways we can choose to handle new information. These modes of thinking are likened to being a soldier or a scout. If you are a soldier, some things are probably constant. Your adrenaline is elevated and your actions stem from your deeply ingrained reflexes to preserve the current situation and to protect against invasion. You feel a strong need to protect yourself and your side, and to defeat what you perceive to be your enemy. The scout, on the other hand, is not there to attack or defend. They are there to try to understand. They map the terrain, identifying potential obstacles and trying not to miss anything of significance. They are wary of deceptions and things not being as they seem. The scout wants to know what’s really out there, as accurately as possible. Both the soldier and scout bring essential perspectives in any army.
Using these two roles as metaphors for how we all process information and ideas in our daily lives, it turns out that having good judgement and making good decisions depends largely on which mindset you’re in. The scout mindset, furthermore, has little to do with how smart you are or how much you know. Rather, it is about how you feel. We tend to assign truth to whatever we are emotionally attached to. Open mindedness is hard to accomplish. Being open to what really is is a learned and rare skill. People tend to be soldiers, rather than scouts.
Even the most open-minded, however, suffer from a tendency to punish others for their selfishness, even if it costs us to do so. We’d rather not let anybody have any pie, than let somebody else have a bigger piece than we think fair. Foregoing pie, to punish somebody taking too much, runs counter to our short term interests. This is a deeply ingrained instinct, which served the purpose of ensuring the survival of the greatest number, millennia ago. Today, it stands in diametric opposition to the capitalist doctrine. No wonder we feel so conflicted.
Those that are aware of our cognitive foibles have constructed massive data analysis machines to manipulate us. People like Robert Mercer, Nigel Farage and Steve Bannon are thought to have made most use of them. Using big data computing power, public opinion is micro-influenced to cause the outcomes they desire. We don’t understand their desired outcomes, because their narratives are incoherent and self-contradictory, comprised as they are of a series of hot-button sound bites, carefully designed to manipulate your reactions, derived from big data analysis of which issues get under your skin most. For all we know, they might be influencing us for no other reason than to cause chaos and misery, leaving them free to live opulent lives unopposed. That could be all they want.
Playing us all, by preying on our collective intellectual and cognitive blind spots, ought to be a crime. Demagogues who make use of these methods, such as recent presidents and prime ministers are thought to have, are worthy only of our contempt.
When any mad billionaire decides he knows better than all of us, and so begins to enact his private vision for the world, through systematic global manipulation, you have all the proof you need of the veracity of the Dunning-Kruger effect. They have no sense of being inadequate to the task of ruling the world, yet set about doing so anyway. Blundering, blithering and blowing stuff up. Sadly for all tyrannical megalomaniacs bent on installing themselves at the summit of a new world order, the law of unintended consequences always takes precedence. Hubris is always their Achilles heel.
Credit scoring plays on our fear of exclusion to discipline us into compliance with the wishes of finance. It’s a billionaire scheme for mass manipulation. We change our behaviour to ensure we remain credit-worthy, but we are adjudicated against criteria purpose-designed to protect the power and privilege of bankers. We know they have little interest in rebalancing income and opportunity inequality, nor of protecting the living world which sustains us. Consequently, we are coerced into behaving in ways inimical to our best interests, just to make sure we remain candidates for a loan, when circumstances force us to need one. It thoroughly undermines democracy.
Manipulation for concealed ends is nowhere more apparent than in the mainstream media. What they are trying to accomplish, through the mobilisation of the masses by the expedient methods of lying, distortion, omission, obfuscation and deception, always seems to be at odds with what would be good for those masses. Turkeys are, time and again, stampeded by these organs of the media, into voting for Christmas. The real agenda of messers Murdoch, Dacre and Desmond, appears to be the protection of their wealth and influence, while maintaining access to supreme power and privilege. Their readers are mere pawns in their game.
The irony of the unbridled lust for power is that there is growing evidence that it may cause detectable brain damage. Subjects under the influence of power, in studies spanning two decades, acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view. Under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine, it was found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, called “mirroring,” that may be a cornerstone of empathy. This gives a neurological basis to what Is termed the “power paradox”: Once we have power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain it in the first place. While that may seem like the ultimate example of karma in action, are the power-crazed less culpable, if their brains are demonstrably damaged?
The neurologist and parliamentarian, Lord David Owen, writes about an affliction he labels “Hubris Syndrome.” According to Owen and his co-author Jonathan Davidson, hubris syndrome, “is a disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years and with minimal constraint on the leader”.
Its 14 clinical features, evident in a person with hubris syndrome, include:
1. Seeing the world as a place from self-glorification, through the use of power
2. A tendency take action primarily to enhance personal image
3. Disproportionate concern for image and presentation
4. Exhibiting messianic zeal and exaltation in speech
5. Conflation of self with nation or organisation
6. Using the royal “we” in conversation
7. Showing excessive self-confidence
8. Holding others in manifest contempt
9. Showing accountability only to a higher court (history or God)
10. Having an unshakeable belief they will be vindicated in that court
11. A loss of contact with reality
12. Resorting to recklessness, restlessness and impulsive actions
13. Allowing moral rectitude to obviate considerations of practicality, cost or outcome
14. Displaying incompetence with disregard for the nuts and bolts of policy making
Hubris has much in common with narcissistic personality disorder. Owen has founded the Daedalus Trust – an organisation for the study and prevention of hubris. However, businesses have shown next to no appetite for research on hubris. Business schools are not much better. Consequently, this malady, seen too commonly in boardrooms and executive suites, is unlikely to find a cure any time soon.
As a consequence, we suffer the reign of the hubristic. The hubristic, according to Chris Hedges (who I paraphrase below), take over in the final days of crumbling civilisations. Hubristic generals wage endless, unwinnable wars that ruin the nation. Hubristic economists call for reducing taxes for the rich and cutting social service programmes for the poor, projecting economic growth on the basis of pure myth. Hubristic bankers gamble on self-created financial bubbles and impose crippling debt peonage on the citizens. Hubristic journalists and public intellectuals pretend despotism is democracy. Hubristic intelligence operatives and agents orchestrate the overthrow of foreign governments to create lawless enclaves that give rise to enraged fanatics. Hubristic professors, so-called experts and faux specialists busy themselves with unintelligible jargon and arcane theory that buttresses the policies of the hubristic rulers. Hubristic entertainers and producers create lurid spectacles of sex, gore and fantasy.
It’s an out of control death machine.
In their lust for more, the hubristic are unencumbered by common sense, hoarding wealth and resources until workers can no longer make a living and the common infrastructure collapses. They hide away in gated compounds for the privileged, where they eat chocolate cake and order missile strikes. The state is a projection of their vanity. All empires ultimately crumble because the whims and obsessions of the ruling, hubristic class are law.
These rulers become the face of collective hubris. Behind their carefully cultivated masks, professing civility and rationality, there can be found blowhard, narcissistic, bloodthirsty megalomaniacs. They wield armies and fleets against the wretched of the earth, blithely ignoring the catastrophic human misery caused by their actions, by global warming and by pillages on behalf of global oligarchs.
To quote Chris Hedges directly, “This moment in history marks the end of a long, sad tale of greed and murder by the white races. Europeans and Americans have spent five centuries conquering, plundering, exploiting and polluting the earth in the name of human progress. They used their technological superiority to create the most efficient killing machines on the planet, directed against anyone and anything, especially indigenous cultures, that stood in their way. They stole and hoarded the planet’s wealth and resources. They believed that this orgy of blood and gold would never end, and they still believe it. They do not understand that the dark ethic of ceaseless capitalist and imperialist expansion is dooming the exploiters as well as the exploited. But even as we stand on the cusp of extinction we lack the intelligence and imagination to break free from our evolutionary past.”
“The more the warning signs are palpable—rising temperatures, global financial meltdowns, mass human migrations, endless wars, poisoned ecosystems, rampant corruption among the ruling class—the more we turn to those who chant, either through idiocy or cynicism, the mantra that what worked in the past will work in the future, that progress is inevitable. Factual evidence, since it is an impediment to what we desire, is banished. The taxes of corporations and the rich, who have deindustrialised the country and turned many of our cities into [investment-starved] wastelands, are cut and regulations are slashed to bring back the supposed golden era of the 1950s for white American workers. Public lands are opened up to the oil and gas industry as rising carbon emissions doom our species. Declining crop yields stemming from heat waves and droughts are ignored. War is the principal business of the kleptocratic state.”
“Magical thinking is not limited to the beliefs and practices of pre-modern cultures. It defines the ideology of capitalism. Quotas and projected sales can always be met. Profits can always be raised. Growth is inevitable. The impossible is always possible. Human societies, if they bow before the dictates of the marketplace, will be ushered into capitalist paradise. It is only a question of having the right attitude and the right technique. When capitalism thrives, we are assured, we thrive. The merging of the self with the capitalist collective has robbed us of our agency, creativity, capacity for self-reflection and moral autonomy. We define our worth not by our independence or our character but by the material standards set by capitalism—personal wealth, brands, status and career advancement. We are moulded into a compliant and repressed collective. This mass conformity is characteristic of totalitarian and authoritarian states. It is the Disneyfication of America, the land of eternally happy thoughts and positive attitudes. And when magical thinking does not work, we are told, and often accept, that we are the problem. We must have more faith. We must envision what we want. We must try harder. The system is never to blame. We failed it. It did not fail us.”
“All of our systems of information, from self-help gurus and Hollywood to political monstrosities such as Trump, sell us this snake oil. We blind ourselves to impending collapse. Our retreat into self-delusion is a career opportunity for charlatans who tell us what we want to hear. The magical thinking they espouse is a form of infantilism. It discredits facts and realities that defy the glowing cant of slogans such as “Make America great again.” Reality is banished for relentless and baseless optimism.”
“Half the country may live in poverty, our civil liberties may be taken from us, militarised police may murder unarmed citizens in the streets and we may run the world’s largest prison system and murderous war machine, but all these truths are studiously ignored.” Hubristic leaders embody the essence of this decayed, intellectually bankrupt and immoral world. They are its natural expression. They are the kings and queens of the hubristic. We are their victims.
This is the neuroscience of Armageddon.
Given our susceptibility to our various cognitive deficiencies and impairments, surely it must be the case that undermining, manipulating and confusing people, maliciously and deliberately, ought to be treated as a serious crime. After all, our survival depends on it. Cynically calculated, these deceptions have untold consequences, beyond our capacity to absorb and shrug off. Those that push mind-altering drugs onto the populace, in order to fog their judgement and dissuade them from activism, by inducing an addled, irrational lethargy and insouciant apathy toward politics, are similarly committing serious harm. It’s not like messing with our beliefs and brains is a trivial matter. The lies and manipulations are decisive, in the end. They set us on the road to oblivion.
At least 100 different pesticides are known to cause adverse neurological effects in adults, and all of these substances must therefore be suspected of being capable of damaging developing brains as well. Such adverse effects are likely to be lasting and one main outcome is cognitive deficits, often expressed in terms of losses of IQ points. The combined evidence suggests that current exposures to certain pesticides in the EU may cost at least €125 billion per year, as calculated from the loss of lifetime income due to the lower IQs associated with prenatal exposure.
How can we address our cognitive disabilities and armour ourselves against these being used against us? The artistic approach has some answers. Training yourself to be open-minded, to be curious and free-thinking, seeing differently, through artistic practise, can mitigate against the worst effects of cognitive biases. We must take up the habit of healthy scepticism, synthesising ideas, analysing them and challenging what we’re told. It calls for extreme vigilance and exercising of our more cognitively demanding type two thinking processes, rather than lazily relying on type one. To hold onto your empathy and ability to see things from other people’s perspectives, you need to stay grounded, on purpose, valuing and nurturing your humility and experiencing life outside of your own cocoon of privilege. It takes an active commitment and real work to change your thinking.
Trying to counter these biases in our own thinking and encouraging others to follow suit gets very wearing. It’s the aspect of creating and accomplishing things that I like least – overcoming doubters and their objections. If, as a society, we remain fundamentally conservative and stuck in our ways, we aren’t going to make any progress whatsoever and so will succumb, like sitting ducks, to an Armageddon that has its roots in our own rotten modes of thought.
You might wonder how the human mind got itself into this predicament. We have survived and thrived for millennia, not despite our cognitive biases, but because of them. These so-called biases are the underpinnings of our heuristics, the unconscious mental short cuts we take every time we use a “rule of thumb” to make decisions. Over eons, the human brain has evolved to rely on quick decision-making tools in a fast-moving and uncertain world and in many contexts those heuristics lead us to make better decisions than exact calculations would do. When a lion is stalking you and your trusted elder tells you to run, overthinking the instruction will probably get you killed. Fast reactions are necessary. Is this still true as complexity increases, though?
“We live in the 21st century, surrounded by complex technology, and there are things that we will not be able to anticipate,” argues psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer. “What we need is not just better technology, bigger bureaucracy and stricter laws … but risk-savvy citizens.”
The consequences of many modern world problems are invisible, delayed, gradual and distant: four characteristics that our heuristic decision tools are infamously bad at handling well. The aim, therefore, should be to enlarge people’s capabilities – such as to be healthy, empowered and creative – so that they can choose to be and do things in life that they value.
We need to change the way we feel — to learn how to feel proud instead of ashamed when we notice we might have been wrong about something, or to learn how to feel intrigued instead of defensive, when we encounter some information that contradicts our beliefs.
Good ideas exist, but we need to embrace them instead of resisting them on discredited grounds. Changing our ideas is a key survival skill. Getting good at changing our minds, when we know better, is all that can save us.
As Upton Sinclair famously noted, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Perhaps it is time to break the link between what we think and a salary. It might be time for employers to butt out and let employees think however they want, free to express ideas that might be in direct contradiction to that of their firm or their boss. Conformity and compliance serves us very poorly indeed.
Of course, there’s no point in me trying to prove any of this to you. You’ll stick to believing what you want to believe, because that’s how you’re wired and how you’ve been conditioned to act. I can’t awaken you. You have to come to this realisation by yourself, like a stumbling toddler learns to walk.
Poet Taylor Mali said that,”changing your mind is one of the best ways of finding out whether or not you still have one.” This, indeed, is the very crux of the matter and the only antidote to the neurological features of our brains that will inevitably lead us toward a horrible Armageddon, unless we change them.
“If we choose, we can live in a world of comforting illusion.” says activist Noam Chomsky.
True, perhaps, but not for long.