Mental flabbiness

David Brooks cautions against mental flabbiness in today’s NYT op-ed column. These days, he says, “we’re all less conscious of our severe mental shortcomings and less inclined to be skeptical of our own opinions.” He quotes part of a speech on “The Psychology of Human Misjudgment,” given by Charlie Munger of Berkshire Hathaway:

“We have confirmation bias; we pick out evidence that supports our views. We are cognitive misers; we try to think as little as possible. We are herd thinkers and conform our perceptions to fit in with the group.”

We try to think as little as possible. Hmm. Let’s fight the good fight, AGAINST this human frailty. Whattaya say?

Warning: The David Brooks piece begins with several paragraphs from a first-person account of a “mastectomy without anesthesia,” performed in 1811. It’s extremely difficult just to read the account.

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One Response to Mental flabbiness

  1. Full disclosure: I’m commenting on my own posting. But I want to paste in something that a NYT reader, Elizabeth Fuller, wrote in response to the David Brooks column. What follows is her response in its entirety (it’s number 28 in the list of Readers’ Comments):

    When you stop to consider all the schemes afoot, the manipulation of language, the searching for sound bites taken out of context–all the work undertaken to make the other side look bad–cognitive flabbiness doesn’t really seem to describe what’s going on. It seems to me more a case of a psychological mindset that ignores the goal and focuses instead on winning. It’s combat mentality. Small successes in combat often involve demonizing the enemy. There is no time on the battlefield for empathy, for reflection. The generals draw up the battle plans, and the soldiers carry them out, because that’s the way war is done, the way individual battles are won. We are not just at war in Afghanistan (and still, arguably, in Iraq); we are at war here at home, and retreat and reflection are just not part of winning at all costs.

    I would argue that the war we are engaged in is not just party against party, but the individual against the world. The ascendency of the individual above all else is our real problem. So many of us join protests not to support ideals, but to keep what we have, to protect our “rights” and our material possessions. The bad players on Wall Street were not intellectually lazy; they simply didn’t care about the larger picture, about all the other people involved. If all we care about is ourselves, looking good is paramount, and admitting we may have been wrong is too great a price to pay. When we make gods of ourselves, the fear that we are not as great as we might wish causes us to resort to mindless bravado, to amass goods that raise our social status, to undergo plastic surgery, and to do all the other things that serve to enhance ourselves.

    Recent studies have reported that empathy is on the wane. We seem increasingly unable to see beyond ourselves. It makes sense that in a nation where people capable of empathy care about each other, we might examine policy to see what has been successful and what has not and move forward, not focussing on the individual or placing blame or giving credit, but working together to make things function better in the future. It’s also obvious that if all we care about is ourselves, raising our taxes or sacrificing anything for the greater good becomes out of the question. Legions of smart, intellectually rigorous people can marshall troops to support either side.

    It seems to me intellectually engaged people see the wisdom of working together, appreciate the value of society, and understand that it is well-run government, not unconstrained individualism, that holds societies together. Until we get beyond our combat mentally, though, real intellectual engagement may not be possible.

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