Cognitive Illusions

Only a collective epiphany can save us now.

Charles Peterson

The human eye has a blind spot – a small portion of the visual field, about the size of a pencil eraser – where the optic disk is located. We aren’t normally aware of this blind spot, but with one eye closed, any object passing through this small area will disappear momentarily. Our visual field appears seamless because of an optical illusion: Our mind conspires to fill in the blank area with the colors of what surrounds it. We have other blind spots too – a whole series of what psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls “cognitive illusions” – that our minds and our culture work to obscure.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman, a Nobel laureate for his work in behavioral economics, uncovers several mental blind spots. There is, for example, the “focusing illusion”: When we focus on a single factor like how much money we make, we inevitably overestimate its importance to our overall well-being. This explains why surveys consistently report that people think they would be happier if they were wealthier while also proving on the contrary that rich people are no more happy than the less wealthy. The same distortion of reality happens when we focus on any single factor, from whether we live in California to whether we own the latest gadget.

Some cognitive illusions are more pernicious than others. Kahneman has identified one cognitive illusion in particular that overturns the core assumptions of capitalism. He calls it the “endowment effect”: we exaggerate the value of objects that we possess. In one experiment, Kahneman collected a random group of students. Half the students were given a coffee mug and the other half were asked to buy those very same mugs from their classmates with their own money. Typical economic theory would say that the two sides would haggle and eventually come to a mutually agreeable price – that the market would self-regulate. In a review of Thinking, Fast and Slow, Freeman Dyson explains what actually happened: “The average prices offered in a typical experiment were: sellers $7.12, buyers $2.87. Because the price gap was so large few mugs actually sold.” Sellers ground the market to a halt, overvaluing their mug simply because they possessed it. “The experiment convincingly demolished the central dogma of classical economics,” Dyson writes.

Kahneman’s “illusion of validity” describes the tendency of experts to trust their own judgment. Dyson refers to the example of the “Apgar score” (a statistical formula that uses heart rate, breathing, reflexes, muscle tone and color to judge the health of newborn babies) to illustrate this illusion. Turns out that the Apgar score “does better than the average doctor in deciding whether the baby needs immediate help.” In other words, a basic formula anyone can do consistently outperforms the opinion of a trained medical professional.

Applying the illusion of validity undermines experts across all disciplines, including economics. After studying the “investment outcomes of some twenty-five anonymous wealth advisers” over the course of eight consecutive years, Kahneman discovered that they performed just about as well as random chance. Their management of financial flows, Kahneman concluded, is a “dice-rolling contest, not a game of skill.” And yet, Kahneman also found that these same experts will persist in believing their intuitive judgments are correct, forcing them on us all, even in the face of tremendous counter-evidence. As Dyson puts it, “the illusion of validity does not disappear just because facts prove it to be false.” Breaking through this barrier is the essential crux and challenge of cultural jammers.

We live in a world where a constellation of cognitive illusions – that infinite growth can be sustained on a finite planet, that consumerism can make us happy, that corporations are persons – are dragging us into an ecological apocalypse. These cognitive illusions won’t disappear because they’ve been proven false – they must be overcome at a deeper level. We need something other than rationality, statistics, scientific thought … we need something more, even, than what has passed for activism thus far. We must spark an epiphany, a worldwide flash of insight that renders our blind spots visible once and for all. This collective awakening begins the moment we look inward and ask ourselves: Am I caught inside a grand cognitive illusion?

Micah White