Have you thought about (HYTA) how scarcity affects us?

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          You did never know by observing our fellow man, that many of our ambitions and hidden motives are often driven by scarcity. It can summed up in a single sentence: we want more of what’s less, and less of what’s plenty. It’s not merely a game of economics or numbers. Scarcity, of which most is the result of deliberate man-made manipulation, allows for a subtle adjustment to social behaviour, much in the same way a ventriloquist controls the movement of a dummy’s mouth. The playbook of scarcity extends even to our perception of careers, romantic evaluations and price gouging.

          Perhaps the simplest and most well-known attempt at deliberate scarcity is the diamond monopoly by De Beers. Diamonds are uncommon, but unlike precious metals, rarely face high demands and can be found in sufficient quantities. De Beers through an exceedingly successful advertising campaign and their artificial control over how many diamonds were sold yearly, created and imprinted upon most people two false associations with diamonds: In addition to be being very rare and worth every dollar you spend, they are also symbolic of love and a compulsory accessory in a proposal. In one particular advertisement, it was even suggested that spending a month’s salary on a diamond ring was a  an optimal strategy to placate a woman.

          Yet, if you tried to sell your diamond ring back, as most would already know, stores have no interest in buying them. From an economic point of view, diamonds are worthless, much in the same sense that chocolates and roses are absurdly expensive (because people are buying them in mass) only on Valentine’s Day. Still, these associations have clearly stuck. Whether it’s the modern movie or TV drama, some kind of love is all too often linked to the necessary purchase of diamonds of some kind. By generating a sense of limited diamond supply, De Beers’ monopoly allowed them to build a credible sense of scarcity so that it felt legitimately OK to splurge on a thing of little value.

          But there are more serious issues at work with scarcity. As a fallout from China’s one child policy which saw many daughters aborted, drowned or abandoned, there are now disproportionally more men than women. This demographic advantage has empowered women: they can afford to be picky, to choose money over love and don’t have to worry about being unmarried. In an interview with a 34-year-old Chinese marketing executive, she said that when she caught her husband having an affair, she immediately divorced him without hesitation. Her explanation was simple: even though she was getting older and had an 8-year-old child, there were so many men that she knew it would be easy to get married again.

          What if men became few and far between? The reverse would be true: women will compete with each other, hold each other to some levels of distrust, are more likely to marry earlier and only consider divorce as a very last option. In short, what seems like rational and normal thought processes, are all an indirect and very subtle influence of scarcity. A simple gender disparity is enough to alter the methods, motivation and thoughts behind a population. It’s surprising (or maybe not) that scarcity can turn otherwise great friendships into strict competitions and transform honest manoeuvers into sly deception.

          And of course, deliberate scarcity is needed even in education and college entries. The number of applicants who can be allowed into prestigious programmes must be artificially controlled to give a sense of value. The intake of doctors and lawyers is purposefully, for better or for worse, carefully moderated by their corresponding agencies so as to preserve a careful limit on quality as well as quantity. It wouldn’t do to have too many people successfully become doctors even though it’s possible to accommodate them. And so, many gated man-made obstacles are present: the bell curve allows fine tuning of only the best, and various interviews and placement tests help thin out the lean from the slim even further. And so we will complain about the limited candidacy options, but still remain unhappy if there too many practitioners. There’s rarely any middle ground to be had.

          However, though scarcity can be applied (and manipulated) on a very broad level, there’s a huge functional difference for the individual. For those who have found their significant half, scarcity may simply be the unique composition of the person who means so much to them. Are there other people out there who are more beautiful, intelligent or successful? Of course. The basis for comparisons are endless, but because of either memories, history or emotional attachments, this in itself creates scarcity for that individual – no one else comes close. This person’s signature presence provides a deep emotional comfort and warm human tenderness that hits all the right notes. Individual scarcity then can simply be seeing someone for who they are and placing value on characteristics others may not find as desirable.

          Finally, scarcity can only mean so much to certain people. For those who never intend to be lawyers, the limited entries to be a barrister is no impediment. And for those who build a different relationship, item scarcity is not about a diamond ring but whatever in itself that has the deepest significance to them. It may be a rock, a book or even a pen. Scarcity is a powerful overriding psychological effect that finds its mark in everything we do.

So have you thought about (HYTA) how scarcity affects you?

 

Have you thought about (HYTA) why it’s so difficult to change someone’s mind?

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          When I was younger, I used to be in deep admiration for those who could do what I sometimes struggled with: being able to speak volubly with enviable eloquence, humour and confidence. They were, I observed to myself, so certain about everything they said. Ironically, despite having read widely, my present self is even more unsure than I have ever been. The more knowledge acquired, the more you realise how little you really know of anything.

          How then, can anyone be so resolutely confident about religion, politics or morality? But – and I believe this is true in most cases – those who speak so wonderfully are also the least likely to change their minds. In fact, the more persuasive a speaker, the more wary I am. If you look past the glossy presentation veneer, you will see an ugly and stubborn mind that may not necessarily have good reasons to sustain its beliefs.

          In the furious science vs religion debate (evolution vs creationism) between Bill Nye the science guy and Ken Ham the religious fundamentalist, a closing question was asked: What, if anything, would change your mind? Bill Nye stoically replied that he was willing to believe in religion if some form of strong & testable evidence could be presented. Ken Ham’s confident answer, however, was especially telling: “No, no one is ever going to convince me that the word of God is not true.”

          And that quite nicely summarises most of our social interactions. We almost always want to persuade others to take up something we believe in, follow what we like or agree with our opinions. Conversely, we are far less inclined to allow ourselves to be persuaded of a contrary statement. We seek out information that matches what we are in agreement with and make no effort to explore our hesitations. Uncertainty is not encouraged but is instead smothered to death.

          In a dinner I had many weeks ago, religion became a main (and serious) talking point. No surprise since it influences your moral attitude and understanding of the world. Though an atheist (a label I rarely use), I remained open to having my view(s) changed and so I listened deeply to my friend’s religious arguments. Unfortunately, the totality of the entire two hours could be outlined as follows:

          God is a divine being beyond human understanding. You cannot apply logic or reasoning to it.

          God’s actions cannot be judged. Only he knows what his celestial plan is. His acts of violence cannot be understood by human means.

          Therefore, no matter what you say or how difficult it is to justify my position, I won’t change my mind.

          Given the amount of convenient exceptions and innumerable fallacies present, there was no argument to be had. She simply would not entertain any possibility that she might be at the very least, slightly wrong.

          Here’s another example of how difficult it is to change minds.

          Despite Donald Trump’s bad business acumen (he went bankrupt at least ten times), blatant racism and repeated sexism, Trump supporters continuously defend him by playing down his deficiencies and dismissing his flaws as ‘good attributes’ to have in a leader. His audio recording of how easy it was to abuse his power to forcefully get any woman he wants has been accepted as ‘men’s locker room talk’ and therefore no big deal. (it isn’t)

          In the face of irrefutable evidence, people simply do not change their minds. They will however, seek to either downplay the evidence or twist it around to support their cause. This quirk of the mind is, like many cognitive biases, well-understood in Psychology. And this also means that even if genuine evidence existed to undermine the ‘truth’ of religion, you can be sure that the faithful will never revise their opinions at all. If anything, it will more likely strengthen their resolve. For many who think logic and evidence is an effective persuasive tool, it’s probably somewhat depressing.

          So what’s the point of persuading people when hard evidence (not anecdotes) can barely sway them, or if they are outright determined to completely hold on to their opinions? There’s honestly little that can be done except to educate the young on how to think well and clearly for themselves. Those younger are usually not yet locked down by their beliefs and are still forming an understanding of how the world works. Assuming they have an opportunity for exposure to authentic critical thinking, their capacity to think independently will likely stay with them for life.

          Maybe it’s just me, but I believe some of the most fulfilling conversations to have are a deep willingness to listen, a tacit respect for equal speaking room, an outright love for change and a want to be changed. There’s something indescribably marvelous about embracing uncertainty with such a person and to be humbled but intellectually invigorated. Here, there’s no need to change minds. Hearts will change. It’s a pity such a moment is far too often the exception rather than the norm.

So have you thought about (HYTA) why it is so difficult to change someone’s mind?

Have You Thought About (HYTA) how darkly educational the US presidential debate is?

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          The second presidential debate was nothing short of a fusillade of acrimony, spitefulness and low blows which saw a crossfire (and repeated shelling) of personal attacks take center stage over political substance. With Hilary Clinton’s recently leaked Wall Street speeches and Donald Trump’s recorded boasting on how easy it is to have his way with any beautiful woman he sets his sights on, it’s hard to genuinely like either candidate. While Trump is obviously by far the worst choice for his repeated disrespect of women, lies and racism, there’s something telling about how both candidates have some of the poorest approval ratings in American history. But their clashes, conflicts and contradictions (the Trump and Clinton family used to be close friends) do bring out several conclusions that are grimly incompatible with the ‘positive teamwork’, ‘be a good person’ or ‘various moral rectitude’ that our schools, parents and social norms repeatedly drill into us.

          [Genuine politics is bitter, ugly and unhappy] A huge, jutting and ugly contrast from the promoted ‘good’ leadership behaviour that schools and workshops try to instill, let it be said that it is impossible to win if you are consistently on your best behaviour. Even when setting Trump and Clinton aside, many other previous presidential elections in America and beyond, have always ran attack ads and vicious news articles with the full intent of capitalising on an opponent’s flaw of character. It isn’t enough to show you are better; you need to completely waste your opponent even if it means exaggerating, using half-truths or acting on purported rumours. And these tactics of bringing your opponent to his knees, or going as far as to completely terminate him with no opportunity for comeback, is aptly referred to as Machiavellianism  – named after Niccolò Machiavelli who wrote in The Prince that ‘the employment of cunning and duplicity’ is required for general conduct. In the realm of anything political, philosophizing is a waste of time – only the swift and certain destruction of those opposed to you matter. History will remember the victors because they get to rewrite it. And psychology tells us that these very people will see themselves as doing the right thing, or believe they are the necessary saviours the world needs. Good behaviour only works if everyone believes and acts on it. The reality? One bad apple is enough to spoil the entire continent’s worth of apples.

          [Public VS Private]  Nowhere is it made more clear in this debate than the stark contrast between a person’s private and public life. Of course, there are plenty of stories awash with contradictions between the public and private. There’s the Buddhist monks who seek out prostitutes on the sly; celebrities who have sleazy affairs while riding the cause for anti-drug and pro-family campaigns; and of course, Bill Clinton the ex-president who lied under oath about his indecencies with Monica Lewinsky. When men misbehave, it’s often infidelity; women usually occupy other vices such as corruption or manipulation (though statistically, both genders cheat equally). But regardless of gender, who we appear to be in public is one splendid act. To successfully fit into the expected template of what is socially accepted is to meticulously mold your public image – a skill and artful lie we quickly learn without being taught. We circle around euphemisms and silently condemn others just so that we can maintain that so important squeaky clean image. Worse, what we do in private is something that’s absolutely terrifying to reveal in public. Our sly fantasies, sexual fetishes, and morbid habits are the true stuff of nightmares that authors conveniently leave out of the heroes they try to fashion in movies and perfect romance novels. Would you feel the same sense of inspiration and admiration if you knew Wonder Woman read erotica magazines and binged watched Korean love fantasies at night while fighting for justice in the day? I think not. But hey, reality (and therefore human nature) is really, really hard to accept right?

          [Religion & how it affects your beliefs and policies] Also taking the spotlight, albeit briefly, was the discussion of the term ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ which Hilary Clinton and Obama refused to use. They instead explained that the problem was not with the religion since a majority of Muslims are peaceful. It does unfortunately miss the point that Islam, like Christianity, contains considerable number of verses that diminish women and call for specific horrific punishments for various offenses, particularly when skepticism is shown towards Islam.

Look at this verse (among, many, many lines): ‘Quran 5:33 – the penalty for those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger…is that they be killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides or that they be exiled from the land.”

It’s the exact line ISIS uses to justify their gory killings. And it’s from the same holy book used by Muslims all over the world. To be clear, it’s not just Islam. The Bible is full of nonsensical violence too.

Here’s one: ’15:18 And he [the Lord] sent you on a mission, saying, ‘Go and completely destroy those wicked people, the Amalekites; make war on them until you have wiped them out’. 

          And of course, we know that the consequence of having fundamentalist religious beliefs is that they always, always tend to always spill over into policies. For example, Christian evangelicals completely dismiss evolution and pretend climate change isn’t happening. Do you think such a president would even consider supporting research into evolutionary process or try his hardest to collaborate with other nations on tackling global warming? As uncomfortable as it sounds, if you are deeply religious, you should be automatically disqualified from any position of power. Policies should not be determined by religious rights but what’s scientifically and statistically understood. But because a majority of people in the world are religious, they are more likely to favour a candidate who understands and supports their belief – a completely absurd way of rational and democratic voting.

          In the end, maybe the idea of democracy is somewhat of a failure. No one needs extensive knowledge of politics nor a boot camp in logic but there should at least be an urgency to try to identify arguments and read up a bit more.  Are the majority of voters good critical thinkers with a decent grasp of political and world issues? Sadly no. And with the way this election is headed, there’s probably going to be more dirt uncovered, more lies exposed and more general ugliness. Even if Trump lost the election, remember that he had significant support from the masses who didn’t mind his bigotry, racism and sexism. The problem isn’t Trump. It’s the people who support him. 

 

 

 

Have you thought about (HYTA) how our advice and criticisms are often, if not always, hypocritical?

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          If I could count the number of people who are able to live up honestly to the very same advice and criticisms they all too eagerly dish out, I wouldn’t need more fingers than I already have. Both advice and criticisms are a curious part of the human condition: we often think others need them more than we do. And we regularly consider ourselves better than the average person and therefore beyond reproach.

          You don’t have look too far to find such examples. Pope Francis recently recommended that U.S. Catholics should carefully study their two presidential candidates (Hilary & Trump), pray and then vote. Having criticised Trump for being ‘unchristian’, his intent is likely an exhortation to the faithful to look deeply into each candidate’s moral and religious beliefs before going to the voting booth. Yet, his brand of thinking does not extend to whether religion could entirely be man made and false – an argument that is rapidly gaining traction in this modern era. Whatever thinking he wants you to do only goes as far as it doesn’t cause you to question your faith.

          And then there is Pastor Letsego who preached to his church congregation on biblical verses and Christian morality. He committed suicide after he accidentally sent pictures of his private parts to his church group instead of his mistress, who by the way was also a member of his church. Despite suspicions about his affair, he was on the record for saying that ‘he was a father to everyone and she (his mistress) was like his daughter.’ These behaviours are of course not limited only to religion. If you look hard enough, many historically famous people such as Steve Jobs, Issac Newton and even Einstein, often said one thing but failed to live up to the very issue(s) they heaped criticisms on.

          Even the future American presidential candidates are themselves monolithic monuments of hypocrisy – we know for sure that Trump is a hopelessly incompetent businessman and a psychopathic liar, and while Hilary claims to fight for the average American, she has been caught accepting generous ‘donations’ from Wall Street and ‘special’ interest groups. The barbed criticisms they trade over many issues are ironically examples of their inability to live up to their own advice. Why do we say one thing but completely do the opposite? Why do we expect others to live up to our absurd standards and yet give ourselves a free pass? For whatever reason, human psychology is obviously at work and these contradictory behaviours are not peculiar to those who study the human mind.

          We can indeed hold completely conflicting views in our mind and find no problems with it. Whether it’s the father who comes home and screams at his daughter for not studying enough and then promptly proceeds to lounge on the sofa for the next 6 hours playing hand phone games, or the principal who lies to gain prestige for the school and then goes on to happily teach moral education to a class of forty, we behave in ways that an independent observer could only, in the most optimistic sense, describe as alien and shocking. The people who are really in need of a wake-up call are often the very same people who dutifully try to dish it out.

          This phenomena of failing to evaluate yourself in the very same criticisms and advice we dispense might fall under the shadow of an extremely well-known cognitive bias, the Dunning Kruger effect: low ability individuals fail to recognise their own lack of skill and proportionally believe that they are much better than others. It’s a frightening bias that’s on display everywhere, and also explains why we fail to see the hypocrisy embedded in our criticisms / advice. We just simply don’t consider ourselves part of the fault because we cannot recognise our inferiority. When our ego risks serious damage, we move into full recovery mode that leverages on denial and deceit.

          However, it’s important to understand that even if most advice and criticisms are often hypocritical, it doesn’t diminish the truth of their intent. Even if a murderer gives a tediously moralistic speech on why murder is wrong, we should examine the contents of his argument and not be fixated on his past history or deeds. Nor should we be swayed by his silver tongue (if he has any). But I know for sure that the next time someone starts with a holier than thou attitude of ‘let me tell you about how I struggled when I was…’ or ‘this is how you should lead your life…’, I know it’s most likely exaggerated and inaccurate. More importantly, I am acutely aware that most speeches are far less inspirational that they have any business being – the speakers themselves don’t act on what they preach.

          So, Have You Thought About (HYTA) whether you’ve lived up to your own advice and criticisms?

Have you thought about (HYTA) the mental associations we are trapped in?

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Take a look at the two sentences below.

The cat can be died / I want eat.

The ball can be bounced / I want to eat.

          Except for the rare few grammarians, it’s very difficult to explain why the first sentence is painfully grating on the ears while the second sounds correct. We simply know in an instant. As native English speakers, we may know little about the grammar rules governing our language but we have a very clear sense of what’s natural. Paradoxically, an adult newcomer to a language who studies all the grammar points by heart will still greatly struggle to develop a sense of what is natively OK. With every word and for every sentence, our mind has (from childhood) developed years after years of powerful mental associations that fly under the radar of our consciousness. And this holds true for many of our beliefs, likes and dislikes – most of our attitudes are hidden to us.

          To uncover these covert mental associations, the implicit association test (IAT) was developed. The results, which focused on attitudes towards race, have since been quite revealing: Even if you believe firmly in racial equality, or strive to be an egalitarian, you are more comfortable joking and talking to people of the same race. The more another race differs from us, the more unconscious distrust we have, and the less likely we are to hire or befriend them. It is no wonder that prior to taking the test, the researchers cautioned that knowing the truth of your hidden attitudes can be quite disturbing. These unfavourable mental associations persist despite participants growing up and working alongside someone of a different race, and can be predictably translated into discriminatory behaviour or worse, a contradictory self-denial we are familiar with – a political racist who spews bigotry and still insists he isn’t racist.

          However, the undercurrents of these associations run far deeper than just the issue of race. We have a great deal of mental associations related to what we consider pleasant, hurtful or meaningful. For example, children growing up in healthy families where both positive romantic and parental love are always on display, eventually associate love with sacrifice, mutual well-being and healthy communication. They recognise that playful encouragements and soulful conversations, not barbed criticisms, are key to a healthy relationship. When they grow up, they are likely to seek out these mental templates of love and reinforce them well. The same cannot be said for children who constantly see their parents quarrel or for their mother to storm out of the house. Intimacy becomes difficult for them because they have associated love with contention and prickliness. They hold back on conversations, may lean on spitefulness and often fail to empathise well with their partner.

          One might argue that these associations are trivialities, and that movies, books and education can suggest corrective behaviour. Unfortunately, mental associations are not just extremely powerful to the point of being overwhelmingly instinctive, they are also deeply embedded in our personalities. The followup question may well be “Can you overwrite your personality?” and we already know that’s exceedingly difficult. Still, it’s not entirely impossible to consciously develop awareness  but the effort must be longstanding and continuous. Sadly, once we transition into our teenage years, a great deal of our mental associations would have been locked down. And unless we are lucky enough to receive tremendous influence to understand and think in different ways, we will forever live within the confines of our minds.

So have you thought about (HYTA) what your hidden mental associations are?

Have you thought about (HYTA) the different types of lies we tell?

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          Lying, despite whatever moral instructions we received when growing up, is something we consistently do everyday. Even our parents who try valiantly to guide us are also complicit in the act of lying. Does “you are the smartest” or “grandmother is in a better place” sound familiar? It should. Because they are lies. Regardless of the language used or the ‘kind’ intent behind it, a lie is straight up just a lie. In a 2002 study, an estimated 60% of adults can’t have a 10 minutes conversation without lying at least once, and even then, that may well be an underestimation. That’s highly disconcerting. It doesn’t just mean that we are repeatedly being lied to but we are also blatantly lying to others.

          On average, we lie to our parents the most (86%). And though we lie the least to our spouses, it still stands at a shocking 69%. The numbers aren’t terribly surprising, and while we shouldn’t read too deeply in a single study, most of us familiar with self-deception and white lies can understand why the incidences of lying are so high. The lies we tell border on the extremes of consciousness and unconsciousness. And despite what we have been told otherwise, some form of lying is of course necessary, especially when lying to ourselves.

          In a single lifetime, a spider spins many different types of silk. The silk that makes up the eggs cocoon is different from the strands that line the outer edges of the web. So too do we tailor our lies according to the situation, sometimes being only dimly aware that we are lying. We weave a complex network of lies – a web of deceit that any spider would be deeply envious of. We may not intend to harm, but we certainly do not tell the truth. When asked about our day at school, we don’t tell our parents the full details of our misdemeanors, who we developed inexplicable feelings of attraction for, or those we violently disliked. And of course as adults, we lie on our resumes, during interviews and on dates. Lying is par for the course.

          The first type of lie we tell is already known to most people. Often called white lies, we rationalise the need for them so that we can ‘protect someone’s feelings’ or until ‘they are ready to hear the truth’. The husband who reassures his wife that the pair of jeans doesn’t make her look overweight is but one example; or an atheist who finds religious prayer ceremonies very disturbing but instead mumbles a few kind words; and perhaps the classic example of receiving a sales call and lying about how you don’t have time right now just so you can hang up as soon as possible. And the Japanese may well be right up the notoriety scale. Predisposed to be polite in almost every situation, a Japanese will praise you even if you are repeatedly (and clearly) incompetent. Depending on context, these lies can result in grievous injuries since like all lies, they are a deliberate departure from reality.

          And then there are the much more sinister lies we tell. Though the intent is still to minimise hurt, it’s mostly told to make ourselves feel better. When in bed with our spouse, sometimes we  end up dreaming or thinking about someone else – perhaps the very first person we fell in love with – and when asked about it, we will lie not only to spare feelings but also to reassure ourselves that we weren’t being unfaithful. Or in the case of religious conversions, plenty is confidently preached about the validity of the one true faith. Yet, many religious folks have never fully read their holy texts, nor do they usually live up to the moral standards they insist others must follow. So when they confidently lie about their certainty in the faith and rattle off quotes and verses, their primary motive is a psychological reassurance for themselves.

          Finally, the last set of lies we tell is well-documented. Consider the following questions:

(1) “I love you” – a lie told when a quick affair instead of a long term relationship is wanted.

(2) “Yes, I read most of the materials” – a lie told when asked by your teacher to explain why you failed the test.

(3) “I am aware of most of the issues” – a lie told when asked if you read or watched the nation’s speech / rally.

(4) “Yes, I am not too bad in teams and I am pretty honest.” – a lie told in an interview when asked if you are good at teamwork and owning up to mistakes.

          In many, many situations, ours answers given are almost always distorted. Even in surveys with full anonymity promised, participants continue to exaggerate (still lying). These lies are intended to meticulously present a favourable image: You don’t want to be misjudged as callous so you lie about loving another person, and in order to sound more hardworking and knowledgeable, you pretend to know more than you should by using hedging words like “somewhat” or “kind of”.  We want to be seen as the good and cool people.

          And this brings me to a final contentious bone of irony about lying and truthfulness. Honesty is probably an overrated virtue. In every situation above, if you applied a standard of total honesty, not only would you lose all your friends, you would probably find it difficult to live with yourself. And those who make a career in acting are more likely to unconsciously lie repeatedly – especially since their choice of words and carefully pruned expressions are going to be extremely convincing. After all, they know the right things to say and do to elicit a desired response from a date or a manager.

          Like it or not, lying, at least in a way that’s elegant and difficult to detect, is what keeps the clockwork gears of social interaction meshing smoothly. But I think there’s something deeply uncomfortable about being aware that many parts of a conversation are likely to be lies. And yes, that includes the motivational speaker, the teacher and prime minister.

So have you thought about (HYTA) what the types of lies you tell?

Have you thought about (HYTA) your blind spots?

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          In a single quick glance, most of us can confidently conclude that the tables above are of different shapes and sizes. Tilt your head from side to side, or if you must, incline it at an unnatural angle, and your conclusion will not be any different. The tables are as different as apples are from oranges. Yet,  despite what you can see, if the illustrations were printed, cut and rotated, the two tables are actually identical. It’s an example of one of many famous optical illustrations. Here, our brain unconsciously converts the 2-D image into the 3-D image we typically ’see’ in our physical reality, and it wrongly calculates the depth of perception. 

What’s especially fascinating about the optical illusion is not just the erroneous certainty we arrive at our answers, nor is it the tacit implication that our eyes (and perhaps our minds) can make mistakes in visual interpretation. Rather, and quite disturbingly, even when we have received the knowledge to understand the optical illusion, our brain still remains unable to see past the illusion. And this, despite what many will claim about being in control of themselves, showcases a signature property of our mind: a great deal of its processes are unconscious, involuntary, hidden and automatic. We are in many ways not just blind, but as Daniel Kahneman puts so wonderfully, we are also blind to our own blindness.

          Our nose for example obscures our optical vision and yet when we look upon objects in the distance or frown upon our worst critics, we never perceive our nose as an obstruction. Where there should be a nose, our mind has filled that blockade with an imaginary (but extremely effective) and seamless vision that blends in with what we can see. On the surface, these blind spots may seem harmless, possibly even superficial, but as many experiments have proven otherwise, they actually string together a coherent and continuous combination of hidden biases that operate without any input from us.

          In a famous study, after watching an automobile accident involving the collision of two cars, half the participants were asked the following question:

“How fast was the car going when it hit the other car?”

The second half received a slightly different question:

“How fast was the car going when it smashed the other car?”

          Those who answered the ‘smashed’ question not only gave higher estimates of the vehicles’ speed, they were likely to claim that there were broken pieces of glass at the accident even though none was shown. Aside from the dire implications for eyewitness testimony (and a good reason to be dubious of anyone who claims to have seen or heard a ghost, God or the Devil), it also shows how our mind does not act in isolation. How a question is phrased, how we think about the world, or how we react to the emotional triggers in us, can lead us to unconsciously construct falsified realities, hold prejudices and indirectly influence who we choose to love and hate.

          The ramifications are quite far reaching: we automatically feel a greater sense of trust for people who share similar facial features to us, those who have the same skin colour, or someone with a ‘baby’ face. And our brain makes its mind up and delivers its judgement in exactly the same time it took to confidently assert the image above was different: almost immediately. Left unmanaged, our brain can indeed subtly (and successfully) influence many of our decisions for which we will afterwards struggle to find rational reasons for. Time and time again, we know with certainty that human rationality is extremely limited.  

          These biases we levy on others, and which are similarly brought to bear on us, continue to have consequences in the judicial, ethical and religious world. And the funny thing about blind spots is that at a point when we most need to be rational, we often make slip-ups, and even the most educated and intelligent being, for all his awareness and knowledge, is likely no less vulnerable to his blind spots. Still, we can indeed correct and prevent these biases if we try very hard to avoid letting our brain coast effortlessly. But thinking in this way – logical, critical and reflective – is difficult in most situations and sometimes impossible in the most urgent of moments.

          Yet, we should strive to think well and acknowledge our blind spots because many of our critical decisions – who we love, who we work for and who we look up to – if made on a whim, are often carelessly instinctive. While there’s plenty to be said about following your guts and instincts (often from an inspirational quote or two), we now know more about where and when our senses can predictably fail us. We are after all, only animals.

          So have you thought about (HYTA) what your blind spots are?