Things We Get Wrong

Posted on 2017 February 12


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People are irrational and their decisions are based on emotion, influence, and random variables. Reason is mostly an illusion. — Scott Adams

  • My group is always right — We evolved as tribal villagers, living in groups that hardly changed over the generations. We depended on those people, couldn’t live without them. Outsiders — strangers from faraway — were destabilizing forces that had to be stopped. It didn’t matter what new or different ideas they brought with them; those ideas threatened the stability of the tribe. (After all, “If it works, don’t fix it.”) Today we’re crammed together in gigantic cities filled with strangers and jam-packed with new and evolving ideas. And still we bunch together in groups and fend off outside ideas. Yet those alternative views may be precisely what we need, given the dynamic and unstable reality we now live in.

I think there is a tendency for people to get rigid and caught up in their beliefs of what is right and wrong, and they lose sight of humanity. — Matisyahu

  • Our country, right or wrong — This is a variation on the “My group is always right” tribal attitude (see above), and it mistakes disagreement for disloyalty. It also undercuts civil liberties during emergencies, which is precisely the time such freedoms are most needed. Dissent is vital during wartime because it enables the citizenry to discuss the success or failure of the leaders’ efforts. Sports coaches who consistently lose can get fired; countries unwilling to replace their failed leaders can get destroyed.

To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. — President Theodore Roosevelt

  • If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything — We want to know the principles for a good life, but, absent a protective tribe with durable rules, we must cast about for answers. Our parents teach us one thing, our schools and places of worship another, our friends a third, TV and media a fourth, and strangers a fifth, sixth, or four-hundredth. Each of us ends up with a unique code of conduct. Since virtue  and a feeling of safety  lies in adhering to a code despite outside pressures, we become intolerant of people who violate our invented rules, and we grow rigid and unable to respond to the opportunities around us.

It is always better to have no ideas than false ones; to believe nothing, than to believe what is wrong. — Thomas Jefferson

  • If I’m angry, I’m right — When we defend our lives from attack, we don’t hem and haw over moral niceties (“Is it moral to kill this guy who’s charging at me with a spear?”) — we get angry and fight back. In political or religious conversation, it’s easy to become irate and defend our group’s ideas against any and all opposition. There’s no time to wonder whether the other side has a point — “My group is under assault! Fight back!” — so we shift into battle mode, hurling denials and insults. Studies show, in the brains of people engaged in political discussion, that the pre-frontal rational lobes are fast asleep, while the emotional (amygdala) and “Who goes there?!” (anterior cingulate cortex) portions are in overdrive. The irony is that, like drunks, angry people feel smart and capable when in fact they can barely think at all.

Speak when you are angry, and you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret. — Lawrence J. Peter

  • If an idea hurts, it’s wrong — This attitude springs partly from our tribal loyalties (see above) and partly from the attitude we’re born with, that pain is to be shunned. After all, if avoidance works with sharp objects, slippery surfaces, poisons, and creatures with gnashing teeth, it should work on unpleasant facts and ideas. Thus we reject as untrue any notion that feels uncomfortable to contemplate. Likewise, we yearn to believe ideas that sound wonderful.

Where belief is painful we are slow to believe. — Ovid

  • I love you, therefore you are good — The mistake is to assume the goodness of those we love. It’s perfectly possible to love someone who is also a liar/cheat/drunk/pain-in-the-ass. Once we bond to them, we become loyal in much the same way that we give our allegiance to a group or tribe, and thereafter it’s very hard to keep a level head when the person/group/tribe becomes unworkable or destructive. Walking away will tear you up, which is why few can do it. Thus we remain mired in unworkable relationships.

Sometimes you just gotta accept that some people can only be in your heart but not in your life. — anon.

It’s tempting to suggest a rule of thumb for all these situations, but reminders are hard to apply when we’re in the throes of intense feelings. Instead, we can know in advance that there’ll be pain and struggle, mistakes and regrets, that this stuff is hard for everybody, and that we mostly get through it anyway.

Despite knowing the pitfalls, you’re sure to make some mental mistakes when strong emotions swirl in your head. But you’ll survive.