Strong emotion negates reason? Who would have thought!

My title is a little tongue in cheek but the recently released research paper Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government which is purported to scientifically prove that our political passions can undermine our ability to reason has created a bit of a stir. For me, this is not new news but the publications of this paper has set off a flurry of articles and deep concern as to ‘what can be done about this terrible problem’ in social media. Perhaps it is just the weight of these results, coming from a scientific research approach, shaking the collective reductionists’ belief that humans are rational beings that can be reasoned with. I feel, that when it comes to strong emotion negating our ability to engage our frontal cortex, this is something that has been understood and written about for as long as humans have been recording their ideas. How many families have waged dinner time war over political beliefs? I do not mean to belittle the reality of genuine warfare sparked by the same disagreements on a larger scale but anyone who has ever engaged in impassioned debate about politics can relate to this situation. Although, it can be a bit like being drunk with the haze of sober recollection affected strongly by indignation, or simply, inability to remember.

Strong passion will always be kindled when we ignite people’s innate beliefs. Politics, like all values, are a core belief for an individual. It is how we believe, right, wrong or in between, that our community and culture should be governed. Humans have created organised (governed) groups since the dawn of humanity. It is of vast importance, probably stemming from a desire to survive, to us. When we are challenged about something that potentially demonstrates our beliefs are wrong, the mind will not easily allow these ‘facts’ to overrule the belief. We justify our beliefs, often unconsciously or seemingly irrationally to others, in millions of small ways during our lifetime.

Some Facebook friends of mine are deeply concerned about this dire exposure of humanities failing, they are calling for dialogue as to what is to be done. This is no simple issue, we are talking about the recognition of a flaw in human reasoning which goes unnoticed by the the purpetrator. It is an innate system that probably, if we adhere to evolutionary concepts, was adopted hundreds of thousands of years ago. Perhaps it arose as a survival mechanism confirming solidarity within the group and avoiding potentially resource threatening ructions. This is all conjecture, but it would seem that there was some adaptive purpose to this way of thinking? Or not. The question is why does it matter? Do humans not have the freedom, the right, to believe what they want to? Even if it means that they wrongly associate poor economic growth with a government they do not support? Generally we all want a better world but we do not all agree on how to go about achieving that.

It could be that as our values are formed early in life, or when our identity is being formulated, we were operating more from our mammalian brain rather than our frontal lobe or higher cortex. Perhaps we simply return to that part of our brain when values and beliefs are, even unconsciously, evoked.

Technologically speaking it is not as though we have the capacity to run an architecture upgrade on our organic hardware to tweak this operating, or rather processing, error. So other than informing ourselves to be on guard for this bias there is very little that currently be achieved toward a change. Perhaps in future times there may be a humanity 2.0 upgrade but if there were, I sincerely hope that none of changes made related to consciousness merely subtle improvements or enhancements that are well within the control of the user. For introducing AI into the mix is a sure fire way to destroy humanity.

Only in a truly homogenous society would you find this kind of agreement and even then, perhaps not. The loss of individuality would, in my mind, be far too greater sacrifice. Other forms of society that might not have this issue of potent beliefs might look like the following: a society entirely made up of psychopathic humans (or sociopaths); one made up of autistic humans (although it is more a lack of ability to communicate not feel that autistic people express) or a society built completely on rational thought such as would be conceived by Artificial Intelligence. Another, purely fantastical, would be the society we have encountered within the Star Trek universe, in the form of Vulcan culture.

The idea of fixing this terrible issue is likely fueled by a few things, one would be the desire to create a better world and another, more insidious, is that we want others to think as we do. The later smells dangerously like, albeit potentially naïve, baby steps toward dictatorship… I guess it is disconcerting to think that regardless of our articulacy and surety of the facts we may never convince someone with differing political beliefs (and perhaps differing beliefs of any kind) to sway their convictions. But I am sure most of us, already know this having tried or been on the receiving end of such a discussion. I wonder if the human experience is simply to have the grace to accept our differences and the limitations of our incredible organic system and understanding that humans may never develop a utopic environment where all ways of thinking can be truth and understood as such. If we ever overcome such an issue, I am immensely curious as to what kind of world we would be living in.

Painting ‘The Box of Pandora’ by Olivia de Rossi, 2009


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