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

Unless oil is abiotic, not a fossil fuel. Which would make peak oil a false theory and a way to jack up the price of oil. In any case, people won't starve because of a lack of oil. The technology to replace fuel for transportation and other uses, already exists.

There are several reasons the Pentagon wants to control oil. Oil is traded using US dollars so the health of the dollar is directly related to its position as the world reserve currency. US oil corporations want to control the flow of oil, because that gives them more price control, instead of directly relying on OPEC to set production levels. And if the US military is indirectly controlling oil producing nations and the entire oil producing region in the middle east, that gives them leverage over China and Russia. And the last reason they want to control the oil, is because every military currently runs on oil.

If the US was serious about green energy and developing alternative energies, they wouldn't have to worry about oil and controlling the flow, going to war with nations who produce oil, or manipulating the price of oil. But don't expect it to happen this century, because the forces at play in the oil industry (and beyond) want to squeeze every last drop of money from the dirty, polluting, toxic, petrochemical industry, while they can.

Anonymous

Tell that to the Pentagon. I guess they forget to ask you for your expertise before they released their 20 YEAR PLAN FOR THE FUTURE last year?

Are you saying their 20 YEAR PLAN FOR THE FUTURE was some sort of elaborate hoax in cahoots with the petrochem industry?

Because that kinda would not make any sense, getting the entire rest of the world riled up and hoarding their oil.

Now would it.

There are a lot of holes in your analysis. Not least of which is THE WHOLE THING IS ABSURD TO BEGIN WITH. Ever heard of a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Anonymous

PS. I'm not meaning to be personal. I just got a pro US Mili Strategy slant out of that post.

Anonymous

The Pentagon plans and directs the murders of people who have fungible resources. Can it be trusted to provide a truthful explanation for why it plans and directs those murders? The DoD is trying to get stupid self-centered Americans to continue going along with its world wide murder sprees by telling them they'll be protected. That's what you're doing, too,

Anonymous

Never listen to what an institution proclaims, watch their actions.

The Pentagon has the most sophisticated propaganda machine ever invented. Don't forget, they learned from the mistakes of the Nazis. The Pentagon releases a PR plan that reduces operating costs and makes them look green. It doesn't alter anything. It helps distract from what they are actually doing in regards to military operations. The Pentagon is offsetting the slight spending cost reduction by brokering more arms/weapons deals offshore. This year will be a record 60 billion in arms sales for the US. They haven't scaled back on building bases in the middle east and elsewhere. They are still in Afghanistan until 2024. They are actually in the process of fulfilling a long term plan, which Wesley Clark touched on in this video:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fSNyPS0fXpU

You think the uprisings in Libya and Syria weren't US backed?

Anonymous

I love Adbusters, but I have a complaint for all of Adbusters. Here it is: the writers who contribute to the magazine use too many big words in ways that are way too complicated and vague. This is really important. Why? Because I gave my high-school aged kid a copy of the magazine, and he gave it back to me saying he didn't get it. He's a pretty smart kid, and he would be a perfect guy to recruit into anti-corporate campaigns. Please stop showing off, or talking like you're in grad school, or whatever it is that is going on. I'd love it if the good ideas in the magazine were expressed in a simpler way, but it's not just me loving it that's the point. The point is this: if the ideas in the magazine are intended for as many people as possible, why not write that way?
Here are some examples in the article above:
"Breaking through this barrier is the essential crux and challenge of cultural jammers."
"We must spark an epiphany, a worldwide flash of insight that renders our blind spots visible once and for all."

Ecstasist

Give your high-school kid a dictionary with it. What was too difficult? Crux? Epiphany? These aren't pedantic words (though pedantic is). Perhaps realizing that laziness is the crux of his ignorance will lead to an epiphany regarding the necessity of self-direction to self-improvement.

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