Spiritual Insurrection

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

82 comments on the article “Cognitive Illusions”

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Anonymous

Okay have it your way. All the cops and military personnel are zombie killers who only want to serve the elite. They want to bomb the homeland and shoot their own families and see to it that complete fascism is had by the uber rich foreign interest One Percent.

Personally, I believe we need them and I'm not ready to write them off yet. I know there is not much hope for them to come over on our side yet, but we can't give up on them yet. Maybe you don't remember Vietnam but the soldiers finally had enough and became a movement.

Anonymous

Adbusters please fix the last two replies - they're appearing where they weren't originally posted.

Anonymous

I think you work for the elite oppressors. You are working against group cohesion and insisting on pushing out groups that are critical in reaching a critical mass effort. At some point these enforcers will have to choose between their paycheck or their family/country/their own hold on their property.

While the police/troops may never come to the aide of the American people, they must know that we want and accept them in the event that they want to make this move or it won't happen like we need it to. Many will. Many have. Don't forget Bradley. He is not the only soldier that is fed up and the people stand with him. Like supporters of Bradley, it is important that WE MAINTAIN OUR HUMANITY and make that a constant that all can count on.

No one is saying cops/troops are not dangerous to the movement or the people in the movement until then. No one is saying that there are not many that are rotten to the core either..

Anonymous

You're childish in your insistence and the script you're working is old hat. The answer is still no. As in no to pigs and Military personnel. Welcome to Occupy, pig - thank you for the life-threatening head blows yesterday. Welcome to Occupy U.S. troop. Thank you for killing my children. Enough of your stupid shit, pig.You leave a lot out between the sadistic crimes your boyfriends commit and the welcoming ceremony you want them to have.

Anonymous

I don't give a rat's ass about the cops particularly. I give a rat's ass about us the people. If the heat moves to honor their oaths to the PEOPLE, the elite will be DONE. It is this critical group that could make a difference. Im not saying do anything but I am saying if the cops make a sincere effort to jump ship, that would be a good thing for us and a bad thing for the elite.

Anonymous

So you want cops and Military personnel with histories of lethal violence against the very people we care about to join us. I know some people who'd like to see your butt buddies go to jail. Your nazi-style bullshit propaganda oughta get your rat ass locked up, too. I'm not joking.

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