The dust has settled, the headlines have been forgotten and, three weeks later, the Melbourne Cup is just another public holiday. But, for a short instance, a large number of people raised an objection to the treatment of horses used by the horseracing industry. For those of you who missed it, the story went like this: following the race, two horses died, one immediately, and one a little later – both from being pushed too hard. Turns out that this is far from uncommon, in fact, according to the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses, in Victoria alone, a horse dies every three days in a racing-related incident.
So, following the high-profile, media-worthy deaths in the Melbourne Cup, there was, understandably, a relatively large outcry. The response from the racing industry was pretty typical, something along the lines of: it’s not our fault, we’re providing a service, the horses are well looked after, they like to run, jobs… I’ll leave it to others to refute each of these statements (my wife did a pretty good job a while back in her guest blog here). The problem goes a lot deeper than horseracing, and extends into pretty much anything that we don’t or don’t want to understand – so what I want to talk about today is the fact that, as humans, we’re not comfortable thinking about things that make us uncomfortable. For illustrative purposes, let’s call it Ostrich syndrome.
If you read this blog, you’ll get that humans are strange animals. Our biggest failing is that we think that we have a lot more control over ourselves, our thoughts, our feelings, and our actions than we actually do, and this leads to problems (read here, here, and here). We’re also vulnerable to a vast array of cognitive biases (see here), most of which are the result of a whole load of issues associated with living in an evolved brain. As modern humans, we live with a brain architecture that hasn’t changed much since our primitive origins, meaning that a lot of the things that it insists are important (e.g., our ‘negative’ feelings like anxiety) simply aren’t. Equally as difficult for us, is our brains’ built-in mechanisms for conserving energy: brains run on blood sugar and have evolved systems to reduce the use of that blood sugar wherever possible. And although we’ve been living in a world of doughnuts for some time now, we haven’t adapted. The upshot is that, because our brains want to conserve energy, we feel uncomfortable every time we have to think hard about something – we can do it, but unless we get a lot of training in thinking, and become used to it, we prefer not to (read here for a more thorough discussion of Type I vs. Type II thinking).
Here’s the problem: we’re inherently uncomfortable with thinking deeply about anything. We’re a lot more comfortable with our existing beliefs, assumptions, or opinions. Anything that challenges these assumptions, or that requires us to think a little harder than usual, results in varying levels of discomfort (from mild “can’t be bothered” to fierce “over my dead body”). In other words, we have a built-in dislike of anything that makes us think, unless it’s absolutely necessary (and even then we’ll resent it): Ostrich syndrome.
So when someone suggests that horse racing might not be as good for the horses as the images we’re brought up on suggest, or when we read that the global climate is warming despite having personally experienced a recent cold winter, or when we’re asked to consider the cruelty of animal slaughter for consumption but really like cheap supermarket meat, it’s pretty much guaranteed that, even if you consider the alternate viewpoint for a while, you’ll end up with your default, comfortable viewpoint. It’s just easier. In fact, it’s often worse than passive ignorance; many of us work extremely hard to maintain our worldview and resist alternatives at any cost (ah irony). Instead of engaging, questioning and evaluating our attitudes, we often respond angrily to anything that upsets our sensibilities. We dismiss out of hand, choose to believe simpler alternatives (read here), or attack the messenger using ad hominem arguments.
The sad truth is that most of the things we need to think about in the modern world aren’t rocket science, we just don’t want to think about them because they make us feel uncomfortable.
But we do need to think about them. Without thought and discussion, and a willingness to consider the evidence (even if it feels uncomfortable), we’re unable to take action. Without action, change doesn’t happen. Without change, we’re probably doomed as a species (read here).
The solution lies in embracing the value of critical thinking, of learning to be reasonable, of engaging in rational debate, and being very careful of our assumptions. In these blogs, over and over, I’ve suggested that we need to give a lot less credence to our emotions. Instead of taking them at face value, and acting on how we feel, we can learn to use our emotions as data rather than excuses, embrace discomfort as an opportunity to learn rather than as an excuse to run away, and recognise our choices, despite feeling uncomfortable. Learning involves challenge and the ability to accept criticism*, and once upon a time, because we got a lot of practise, most of us were pretty good at it (at school and university). Sadly, since we left school or university, most of us have simply forgotten how to learn – we do pretty much the same thing every day, without a lot of challenge or feedback. This is probably why so many online discussions quickly devolve into a version of “you smell…”.
Being more comfortable with our discomfort is not a question of intelligence or even education. It’s a willingness to experience discomfort by learning to question our beliefs. All of us are capable, but very few of us want to try.
* Imagine if, during high school or university, you’d received feedback on an assignment. Your teacher or lecturer had given you a low mark, but had provided a lot of feedback on how you could improve. Now imagine that, instead of taking that feedback on board, and working on improving your essay, you’d had a tantrum, insisted that you were right (and that the lecturer, despite having massively more experience and ability than you, was obviously wrong), and refused to modify your work. Imagine that you’d then got together with a group of other students who’d felt slighted because they didn’t get an ‘A’, and campaigned for the lecturer to be fired because his or her actions didn’t fit your world view. In that context you would have been considered ridiculous, but this type of scenario occurs all the time because we don’t want to have to think. It’s ridiculous, but it’s also a human trait, and it’s going to be the death of us all.