I have added a new book to my summer reading list: “Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)” by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. The book sheds light on a question that I’ve had for some time — namely, why some of the most intelligent people I know absolutely refuse to budge or even admit that they might be wrong when they are confronted with new data.
Love him or hate him, one simply must give Al Gore his due. He has raised the level of concern over global warming in this country to dizzying heights and has gained the adulation of many who never before considered themselves to be environmentalists. No, Al Gore is not the subject of this posting, human nature is. How- ever, one of my favorite quotes from Gore’s book and DVD, An Inconvenient Truth, speaks to human nature and to the biases in thinking that seem to be built into the way that we all tend to process information. The quote I like so much is this: “It’s not what we don’t know that gets us in trouble. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”
Based on recent neurological research cited in the “Mistakes Were Made” book, it seems that we’re all hard-wired to resist questioning our initial logic. This may explain why I have been known to drive on for miles, ignoring all the clues telling me that I’m headed the wrong direction. This may also help to explain why our President refuses to accept reality with respect to our prospects for a military solution to the violence ongoing in Iraq and why he ignored the advice of so much expert opinion on likely outcomes before starting this war (see my earlier posting on this, Iraq — an al Qaeda Tar Baby for Us). Al Gore didn’t originate the earlier quote, by the way. Mark Twain, did, proving that Twain, not Gore necessarily, was a man way ahead of his time in terms of under- standing human nature.
The following is an excerpt from the Tavris and Aronson book: “In a study of people who were being monitored by magnetic resonance imaging while they were trying to process dissonant or consonant information about George Bush or Jon Kerry, researchers found that the reasoning areas of the brain virtually shut down when participants were confronted with dissonant information. The emotion circuits of the brain lit up happily when consonance was restored.” This, the authors say in their book, was true regardless of the participants’ political affiliation.
Some time back I actually bought several copies of the Inconvenient Truth DVD and gave them to friends and family members who had sided with the prevailing conservative view on the global warming issue in conversations with me. Obviously I am strongly in favor of taking steps to curb human causes for global warming. One of my friends actually asked, handing the DVD back to me, “Why would I want to watch this?” Yes, this person is still my friend, but I was dumbfounded by his question. Why would he not want to try to understand something that is so important to me? Interesting. Turns out that his question was totally consistent with what the Tavris and Aronson authors say in their book. They report that researchers have discovered that when we read information that goes against our point of view, it can actually make us all the more convinced that we were right in the first place.
Being right, it seems, is not so important to us as not being proven wrong. So there’s a neurological basis for the old saying, “Don’t confuse me with the facts, my mind’s already made up.”
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