Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Cognitive dissonance - II

When you hear discussions about economics, politics, climate change, GM crops, etc., people will keep espousing the same views that they have held for years. As John Kenneth  Galbraith said, ' I react pragmatically. Where the market works, I'm for that. Where the government is necessary, I'm for that. I'm deeply suspicious of somebody who says, "I'm in favor of privatization," or, "I'm deeply in favor of public ownership." I'm in favor of whatever works in the particular case. 'It is rare that people will publicly repudiate their long-held views and say, unlike Mark Lynas, 'I am sorry, I was wrong.' It takes too much emotional energy to do so.

I would not have believed before reading this book that it was possible for an innocent man to be made to confess to a crime he did not commmit. But the book shows how it happens. The Innocence Project is a record of people in the US who have been wrongly convicted. In The Central Park Jogger Case,  five men confessed to a rape they did not commit. They were acquitted years later when the real culprit was found.

I have heard many discussions on TV about the evidence against various people for the crimes they have been accused of committing. But I don't recall hearing a discussion about people being wrongly convicted due to reasons other than malice. With a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, it would be naive to think that this does not happen.

It is not surprising that people who have been religious for a long time find it very difficult to give up their faith and perform incredible mental gymnastics to justify their beliefs. (For instance, see this video of Dan Barker speaking of the time when he was an Evangelical Christian. Even people as dangerous as the Salafis of Egypt manage to convince themselves that they are doing good by violence and murder.) Their view of themselves as good people (which is often true) is at odds with many things in their holy books and they come up with bizarre explanations to reduce their dissonance.

The brain is often erroneously compared to a computer. And memory is erroneously compared to the RAM with incidents in our lives being stored and retrieved on tap. But that is not the case.Memory is a self-justifying historian that resorts to confabulation, distortion and plain forgetting to preserve our core self-images. (Slate had an 8 part series on memory manipulation.)

It is not that people are deliberately lying. The memory automatically deletes embarrassing actions of the past. The authors quote Nietzsche: “Memory says, 'I did that.' Pride replies, 'I could not have done that.' Eventually, memory yields.” The authors of autobiographies may remember incidents a bit differently from what actually happened. "If mistakes were made," say the authors, "memory helps us remember that they were made by someone else." The contents of political memoirs have to be read with the same skepticism as what the writers of Yes Minister/ Yes Prime Minister (my favourite television series) said about Jim Hacker's diaries:
We believe that these diaries accurately reflect the mind of one  of our outstanding national leaders; if the reflection seems clouded it may not be the fault of the mirror.Hacker himself processed events in a variety of ways, and the readers will have to make their own judgement as to whether any given statement represents 
(a) what happened
(b) what he believed happened
(c) what he would like to have happened 
(d) what he wanted others to believe happened
(e)what he wanted others to believe that he believed happened. 
As a general rule, politicians' memories are less reliable about failure than successes, and about distant events than recent ones.
People in privileged positions often look down upon those who are less privileged. They are wont to say that their success is due to hard work and that luck has nothing to do with it. The curious aspect is that when those who are on the other side of the fence find themselves in a position of privilege, they think and behave in the same fashion that they had despised earlier. The authors of Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) write:
All of us are unaware of our blind spots as fish are unaware of the water they swim in, but those who swim in the waters of privilege have a particular motivation to remain oblivious. When Marynia Farnham achieved fame and fortune during the late 1940s and 1950s by advising women to stay at home and raise children, otherwise risking frigidity, neurosis, and a loss of femininity, she saw no inconsistency (or irony) in the fact that she was privileged to be a physician who was not staying at home raising children, including her own. When affluent people speak of the underprivileged, they rarely bless their lucky stars that they are privileged let alone consider that they might be over privileged. Privilege is their blind spot. It is invisible; they don't think twice about it.; they justify their social position as something they are entitled to. In one way or another, all of us are blind to whatever privileges life has handed us, even if these privileges are temporary. Most people who normally fly in what is euphemistically called the 'main cabin' regard the privileged people in business and first class as wasteful snobs, if enviable ones. Imagine paying all that extra money for a short, six- hour flight! But as soon as they are the ones paying for a business seat or are upgraded, that attitude vanishes, replaced by a self-justifying mixture of pity and disdain for their fellow passengers, forlornly trooping past them into steerage. 
'It is a good Divine that follows his own instructions', said Portia in The Merchant of Venice. Not many are that wise. What it all boils down to is that, in spite of the splendid achievements of many individuals down the ages, we are not much more than flawed primates recently descended from the trees which had made Bertrand Russell remark," It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this."  Here is Carol Tavris talking about her book at Point of Inquiry.

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