I started this blog post a while back when I first heard the expression “you can’t polish a turd, but you can roll it in glitter”. It got me thinking about all the ways (as human beings) we delude ourselves and others, so much so that many of us live in an almost exclusively self-manufactured and illusory world that’s completely out of touch with what’s going on. So today I want to write about that.
If you haven’t come across the expression before you can probably figure out what it means: shit is shit, and you can’t do anything about that, but you can sprinkle some shiny crap on it and pretend that it’s something else. In other words, we can and do tell ourselves that our reality is pretty, even when it’s just a veneer over the underlying stinkiness.
Here’s the deal: we insist on editing our world view in order to reinforce itself. On the one hand, this self-delusion allows us to persist in the belief that we’re more important, interesting, intelligent, or talented than we actually are, and allows us to justify our actions in support of these fallacious views. On the other hand, it forces us to treat the changeable crap in our lives as if it were immutable: poor self-concept, bad relationships, shitty jobs. Why do we do this to ourselves?
OK – quick sideways step. I’m talking mostly about ‘first-world problems’ here. People living in genuine distress, hardship or poverty also delude themselves, but aren’t always in a position to recognise or do anything about this self-delusion. As I mentioned last week – for the majority of people reading this blog, life is devoid of real hardships – although this doesn’t stop us from making up reasons to be miserable…
Onwards… There’s a pretty good set of neurological and psychoevolutionary reasons for our tendency to roll turds in glitter. First, we’re highly resistant to change. Humans evolved to reduce the amount of variability in their environment – a trait that helped us to stabilise the immediate risk to ourselves and our tribe. By keeping to set routines, we could reduce the likelihood of the unexpected, limiting the chance of catastrophe. Consequently, we resist the notion that our preset worldview might be faulty, incomplete, or dangerous. But evolution also required us to, occasionally, take risks. Exposure to risk from time to time can have a big payoff: finding a new food source, increasing security for the tribe by expanding our territory, or limiting the number of local predators. As such, we’ve developed the ability to downplay the likelihood that a perceived risk will actually be dangerous. This helps us expose ourselves to risks, because our reduction of the perceived danger means we’re less likely to activate a fear response, and more likely to engage in the risky behaviour. Third, there’s the blood-sugar thing. As Daniel Kahneman has pointed out (and I’ve reiterated in many of my blogs), complex thinking requires a lot of blood sugar to fuel the brain. For most of our evolution, we couldn’t rely on a readily available source of fuel, so we evolved limiting mechanisms to reduce our need for complex thinking (and blood sugar top-ups). To compensate, we evolved rapid thinking systems (Kahneman calls them Type I versus Type II thinking systems) that perform calculations quickly and without needing to call on deep thought. In many situations, Type I thinking works very well, especially when you need a fast solution and don’t have the time or resources available for concentrated thought – it also lets us pick a simple, comfortable solution (even if it’s incorrect or ineffective) when we feel pressured or overwhelmed. Fourth, there’s self-illusion (see here). We don’t actually exist as a thinking ‘me’; instead, we’ve evolved the ability to monitor all of the various hardware and software modules that comprise ourselves, and extrapolate the illusion of self-concept. This allows us to integrate a lot of disparate information, and create a convincing narrative. Fifth, there’s the fact that our manufactured ‘self’ performs a series of neurological tricks to maintain the illusion that we’re in control. Although most of our behaviour is initiated by other modules in the brain before we become aware of it, we convince ourselves that ‘we’ were the ones to initiate said action. So as I type, my motor control centre is sending commands to my fingers before I’m consciously aware of doing so, but it feels like I’m the one sending the commands. Sixth, as I’ve talked about before (here), we’re hardwired to trust our models of the world, even when they’re proven to be faulty (over and over again).
Put these six issues together and you get an unhappy accident: the massive capacity for self delusion. In other words, due to a series of evolutionary adaptations that helped us to survive, we inherited a buggy platform that actively encourages us to make it up as we go along. Worse, we’ll try hard to convince ourselves that we were in control all along, and that our world-view is correct, even though we receive clear, strong and consistent evidence to the contrary. We’re preprogrammed with the tendency to stick our fingers in our ears and shout ‘lalalalalala’. Yes folks, evolution has prepared us to roll turds in glitter.
The problem doesn’t end with us as individuals though. Because our capacity for self-delusion is so ingrained, it’s found its way into most aspects of human functioning – especially organisation and governance. Not only will groups of people constantly sprinkle glitter on turds and tell us that they’ve created art, we’ll believe them. And herein lies one of the major problems for humanity. We evolved a cognitive platform to help us survive, but as we’ve developed technology we’ve also changed our environment to one that is no longer suited to the platform. We are no longer able to trust our evaluations of the world, but we’re hardwired to believe that we can. So we’ll create a set of cognitive illusions to convince ourselves in the trustworthiness of the world and systems we’ve created. Personally, I believe that this is the main reason why, in the modern world, very few people are capable of happiness or satisfaction, we’re just confused and bewildered most of the time, and go to a lot of effort to convince ourselves that everything’s fine. After a while we’ll believe the bulshit, even if it doesn’t ring true, and even though it leaves us feeling empty, disenfranchised, and a bit sick. Worse, we’ll justify our poor or irrational behaviour as effective and important. It comes down to believing the magic trick – hey presto, this turd (substitute anything a politician might say) has been magically transformed into something much nicer (insert political spin jargon here).
Which means we’re probably going to delude ourselves into extinction (see here).
OK – enough doom and gloom (yes, I have a tendency to spend the first thousand words or so talking about the crappy stuff). Yes, we’ve inherited a neurological platform that works against us in the modern world. Yes, we’re hardwired to self-delude. Yes, we’re probably doomed. But, there’s a hack. Not a solution, mind you, but a great cognitive hack for overriding our inbuilt systems (he’s going to say mindfulness isn’t he?).
It’s (wait for it) mindfulness! Well, sort of. Actually, it’s conscious awareness of the neurological limitations of our own systems. In other words, learning that the system is likely to offer a false or skewed viewpoint on reality, and to use (for want of a better term) a software patch to correct this error. Because we can’t trust ourselves to make rational decisions, especially based on our ‘gut feelings’ (see here) we need an alternative decision matrix to refer to. I like to call this anchoring, but call it anything you like. Instead of insisting we know what to do when we actually have no idea, and then making a poor decision based on the emotional and cognitive imperative of the moment, we can evaluate the present situation based on a separate platform. This requires some deep (Type II) thought: what is actually effective for you based on the evidence of your past behaviour and its consequences? What provides longer-term meaning and satisfaction, even though it might be awkward, uncomfortable, or even distressing in the short-term? Remember that, when trying to determine this framework, you’ll probably be self-deluding by making stuff up to fit a viewpoint of events (see here for a discussion of values). This is why working with a psychologist can help – it’s easier to be objective about what actually happened.
So this software patch is actually about avoiding the turds in the first place rather than pretending that they’re something else. It involves some honesty, a lot of objectivity, and the willingness to act on your values, even if it feels difficult or unpleasant. It involves understanding that, through no fault of our own, we’ve inherited a cognitive platform that is built to delude us, but also that we have the capacity to be aware of these system errors and to act in an alternative way. In a nutshell, it comes down to two words: awareness and action. Awareness of the error, and the application of an alternative behaviour (followed by evaluation of its effectiveness and evolution of the ongoing alternative model).