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Sunday, May 8, 2016

DISCONNECTs: Blame the Brain?

In our last posting, we raised the specter of DISCONNECTs defined briefly as “inability to recognize or even allow oneself to see connections that exist between ideas (concepts) and concrete realities.”  We also emphasized that there is a strong element of denial involved in any such disconnect.  In addition to the “authoritarianism” that pervades the followers of Donald Trump, disconnection is a major ingredient in their make-up.

In our first posting on this topic on May 1st, we made a point of the failure of right-wing office-seekers and office-holders and their followers to understand the connection between many of their policies and beliefs and the devastating loss of human potential that grows from their denials of reality.  Their restrictive and regressive policies that are supposedly meant to curtail government spending actually end up driving us in a direction that is curtailing too many opportunities for investment in human potential and creativity.  The debits, the losses, the exploitation that results from their policies, their words, their beliefs and their actions (and lack of same) are even now evident in the losses we are suffering as a nation and a People:

·         underfunded and inadequate public schools,

·         a workforce still unprepared for technological advances,

·         wages still inadequate for millions who work more than one job,

·         a minimum wage that keeps people in poverty,

·         research slowing and diseases rising (malaria, mumps, new and old viruses),

·         people of color incarcerated beyond all standards of fairness,

·         minorities kept in segregated enclaves,

·         rights of all kinds (including the right to vote) abrogated by a corrupt justice system,

·         1 in 5 children born into poverty,

·         college graduates unable to deal with huge loans they owe, and

·         private companies exploiting the situation making profit from charter schools and prisons and military contracts. 
We could go on for a long time here, but time and space do not permit.  Let us instead conclude, as we did in Part 1 of this series, by saying that “WE CANNOT BUILD ON DISCONNECTS”.  We cannot develop human potential based on false premises, inadequate policies and distorted ideologies.  We cannot stem our losses by regressing to a society that demonizes government, praises violence and bullying, and substitutes bravado and braggadocio for leadership.  “WE ARE IN A BATTLE right now with the extremist forces of the right-wing who see no connection between their policies and the gaps, the losses and the exploitation we are experiencing.  We must take steps to prevent further disconnects and resulting losses to environment, human rights and human potential; and instead build an abundance of opportunity and equal justice.  

BUT, (as I concluded last time):” what if our brains are captive to something that prevents us from accepting new realities, global truths and concepts?  What if we are captive to certain biases that prevent us from seeing a way forward?  What if we suffer from a tendency (to believe "that reality is equivalent to our own beliefs?”  And so, we arrive at today’s post:  is our brain to blame?
I am grateful to Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler, authors of “Abundance: the future is better than you think” for explaining some of the scientific study that is extent on this matter, and for their opinions, ideas and conclusions regarding the future.  Although I don’t always agree with their conclusions or premises, I am grateful for the stimulus of their thoughts.  So, let us dive a bit deeper into the causes of disconnection.

Let’s begin with a quote from Abundance that sets the tone for the book and for this posting. 
“These are turbulent times.  A quick glance at the headlines is enough to set anybody on edge – with the endless media stream that has lately become our lives – it’s hard to get away from those headlines.  Worse, evolution shaped the human brain to be acutely aware of all the potential dangers and thus our news media and politicians focus on the grim to capture your mindshare…this dire combination has a profound impact on human perception: It literally shuts off our ability to take in good news.” (emphasis is mine).

That ‘shut-off” mechanism is what we shall be exploring here, but what the book is exploring is the real possibility of reaching a goal that many have long desired:  to "significantly raise the basic standards of living for every man, woman and child on the planet.” The authors believe that technology has the potential to do that within a generation – to actually “provide goods and services once reserved for the wealthy few, to any and all who need them or desire them.  Abundance for all is actually within our grasp.”  Then they assert (and document) that elements of this transformation are already underway.
BUT, so are elements of cynicism, pessimism and fear.  These reactions may be the biggest stumbling blocks on the road toward abundance.  Our brains are designed and have evolved to deal with stimuli in certain ways.  Unfortunately, this organ may not have caught up with global pace or even with the global nature and extent of information and technology.  And so, let us look more closely at our cognitive center for clues to prevalent disconnects:

1)      Beware the amygdala! 

This is NOT a new ferocious animal, but an almond-shaped sliver of the brain’s temporal lobe that is responsible for primal emotions like rage, hate and fear.  Its job is to be on high alert for danger and threats – for anything in our environments that could threaten our survival.  And since nothing is more critical to the brain than survival, the amygdala is like an early warning system, always on alert.  In fact, it is alert and anxious under normal circumstances, but when stimulated, becomes hypervigilant.  This is because our early warning system was designed and evolved in an era of immediacy when threats were of the 'tiger-crouched-in-the-bush' variety. What’s worse, once stimulated by threatening information or circumstances, it is almost impossible to shut-off, and in our modern, information-saturated world, that is something of a problem.

Every second, an avalanche of data pours through our senses. We are saturated with information and a high proportion of it in major media (perhaps 90%) is negative or pessimistic.  Imagine the poor amygdala -- the first stop for all this incoming information is this small organ primed to look for danger and just looking for something to fear!  It’s like feeding a monster!  
This internal confrontation has a combustible effect on our perception.  One, it limits our attention because once the focus is on one thing, it misses the next in line. Two, once the amygdala is focused on bad news or threatening news, it stays focused on hunting bad news which it then finds in abundance.  Hence, more fearfulness.  Add to this, the tendency of the media to scare us on a continuing basis, and you end up with brains convinced they are living in a state of siege.  Dr. Mark Siegel summarizes this from his book False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear.

“Statistically, the industrialized world has never been safer.  Nevertheless, we live in worst-case fear scenarios.  The natural dangers are no longer there, but the response mechanisms are still in place and now they are turned on much of the time.  We implode, turning our adaptive fear mechanism into a maladaptive panicked response.” 

Think now of Trump and his followers: 

§  illegal border-crossing Mexicans described as mostly rapists and thieves – we’ll build a wall to keep them out (or is it to allay our fear);

§  Syrian refugees as monsters who must not be allowed into our country,

§  Muslims to be deported or detained if already here;

§  ISIS – that horde of Islamic terrorists (50,000 at the very most) - who want to destroy America and who must be destroyed even if we have to use atomic weapons on them;

§   mothers who undergo abortions – we have to punish them in case they influence others; and then there are

§  those snarky liberal protestors who foment violence and disorder – let’s beat them up and kick them out. 

 A desire to better the world is predicated on empathy and compassion.  These prosocial attitudes and behaviors are hardwired into the brain, but in an area that is slower moving and only recently evolved: the prefrontal cortex.  In dangerous situations, the amygdala directs information around the prefrontal cortex.  As a result, once the primal survival instincts take over, the newer, prosocial instincts stay sidelined.
“Compassion, empathy, altruism – even indignation – become nonfactors.  Once the media has us on high alert, for example, the chasm between rich and poor looks too big to bridge because the very emotions that would make us want to close that gap are currently locked out of the system.”  

So beware the amygdala and the blocking of compassion, altruism and empathy.  We have to train ourselves to awaken to more possibilities of human development and the universal need for compassion and empathy - standing with and for others, not against them.
2)      Beware of the blind spot.

Today’s world is very different from the one for which our brains were designed and in which they evolved.  The cave, the clan, the tribe, the manor, the village, my ‘country’ (home area).  Our brains evolved over many eras when reality was essentially local and lived-out in a linear defined area.  Most everything that happened in our ancestor’s lives was within a day’s walk from ‘home.’  In such an environment, change was very slow; the pace of life was also slow.  Life from one generation to another was essentially the same.  Change was gradual taking generations to come to fruition.  
Today, a week’s worth of the New York Times contains more information than the average 17th century citizen encountered in a lifetime.  Today change is exponential not linear.  It means we don’t measure change or time by 1+1+1+1, we measure it by 1,2 4,8,16,32 and so on.  Google Chairman, Eric Schmidt explains it this way:

“From the beginning of time until the year 2003, humankind created five exabytes of digital information.  An exabyte is one billion gigabytes (or a 1 with eighteen zeros after it).  Right now, in the year 2010, the human race is generating five exabytes of information every two days.  By the year 2013, the number will be five exabytes produced every ten minutes.” 

 The problem comes down to this: we are trying to interpret a global world with a brain that was built for local scenes and scenarios.  We are trying to understand something we’ve never seen before – exponential change on a global scale.  We are attempting to adjust and adapt to rapid transformation that simply outpaces our anticipation of what is needed.  Our localized, linear brains are simply blind to the possibilities, the opportunities and the speed with which change can and will take place.  This puts us in a hole from which there appears to be no escape.  Many of us suddenly find government, its structures, regulations and policies unsympathetic, unable to solve our perceived problems and unwilling to even try.  Instead of dealing with possibilities and opportunities, we hunker down, and governing becomes dysfunctional.  We literally have a blind spot for the possibilities that underlie the vision of world abundance and of a “Brave New World.”
 
3)      Beware the cognitive biases

Lest we forget, the brain really is a wonderful construct.  In fact, it is amazingly complex and complicated in terms of the processes and functions it undertakes.  In a perfectly rational world, we would make better use of our brains and their processes.  When given a choice or opportunity, we would carefully assess the probabilities for success and failure, examine the possible outcomes, possibly test some of the premises and tentative choices, and then combine these processes to make the most logical choice.  But we don’t live in either a perfectly rational or perfectly stable and certain world.   

We live not only in an incredibly uncertain world, but we live in the midst of so much information and input that we simply don’t have the time (or the energy perhaps) to consider all the “angles.”  We can’t even know all of the possible outcomes, and even if we did, “we have neither the temporal flexibility nor the neurological capacity to analyze all the data.’  Rather our decisions are most often made based on “limited often unreliable, information, and further hampered by internal limits (the brain’s processing power) and external limits (the time constraints under which we have to make our decisions.” 

So what do we mortal beings do?  We have devised certain cognitive shortcuts: time-saving, energy-saving rules of thumb that allow us to simplify the decision-making process.  In the field of social psychology, this is known by the term “Heuristics”, but let’s just refer to cognitive shortcuts and avoid formal terminology.  Point is, these shortcuts have a history of helping us to make – on average – better decisions.

BUT, (did you see that one coming?) there are certain situations in which these shortcuts lead to rather severe systemic errors and misleading outcomes known as “cognitive biases” that are defined as “patterns of deviation in judgment that occur in particular situations,” or, “tendencies to think in certain ways that can lead to systematic deviations from a standard of rationality or good judgment.” 

Wouldn’t you just know that researchers have collected a very long list of these biases, and many of them have a direct impact on our ability to make rational and effective decisions?    For instance, confirmation bias’ is a “tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions – but it often limits our ability to take in new data and thereby change old opinions.” 

Guess what the author uses as his “great example?” Sarah Palin’s fully invented “death panels” related to Obamacare!  In the 2008-2009 debates over the administration’s proposed health care reform legislation, she claimed that the healthcare proposals would “create government-sponsored ‘death panels’ to decide which patients were worthy of living.”  This came out of “nowhere” but ‘nowhere’ was really the confirmation bias.  Far right Republicans already distrusted (and hated) Obama so reliable denials of any such panels simply fell on deaf ears, and the false claims persisted. 

Another example: the ‘birther movement’ revved up to fever pitch by Donald Trump.  Remember his claim that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and that there was no birth certificate to prove otherwise?  When the birth certificate from Hawaii was produced for all to see, Trump’s preconceptions had helped build one big misconception, and many have still not changed their minds even though documentation tells them the opposite of their preconceptions! 

The list of cognitive biases gets a bit long for our purposes, but here are a dozen more cognitive shortcuts in brief, for your consideration (with help from Wikipedia):

1)      Negativity bias – the tendency to give more weight to negative information and experiences than positive ones

2)      Anchoring or ‘focalism” – the predilection for relying too heavily on one piece of information when making decisions.; people with this kind of bias often cannot discern or imagine any other solutions. 

3)      Bandwagon effect – the tendency to do or believe things because others do; related to group-think and herd behavior

4)      Availability cascade - A self-reinforcing process in which a collective belief gains more and more plausibility through its increasing repetition in public discourse (or "repeat something long enough and it will become true"). Remember the “BIG LIE” maxim?

5)      Conservatism (belief revision) - The tendency to revise one's belief insufficiently when presented with new evidence.

6)      Declinism - The belief that a society or institution is tending towards decline. Particularly, it is the predisposition to view the past favorably and future negatively.

7)      Illusion of control - The tendency to overestimate one's degree of influence over other external events.

8)      Stereotyping -  Expecting a member of a group to have certain characteristics without having actual information about that individual - related to:

9)      Group attribution error -  The biased belief that the characteristics of an individual group member are reflective of the group as a whole; or, the tendency to assume that group decision outcomes reflect the preferences of group members, even when information is available that clearly suggests otherwise

10)   Illusory superiority - Overestimating one's desirable qualities, and underestimating undesirable qualities, relative to other people. (Also known as "Lake Wobegon effect", "better-than-average effect", or "superiority bias".)

11)   Self-serving bias - The tendency to claim more responsibility for successes than failures. It may also manifest itself as a tendency for people to evaluate ambiguous information in a way beneficial to their interests

12)   Spotlight effect - The tendency to overestimate the amount that other people notice your appearance or behavior.
Ø  If you see a rather suggestive resemblance to Donald Trump in what was just listed, you are absolutely correct in your assumption.  Not that all of us don’t, to some extent, possess similar biases at times, but “the Donald” seems to overdo on biases, and make some very poor judgments and decisions as a result.  Here is someone on his way to being the Republican Party nominee for President of this nation and the presumptive “leader of the Free World” who exhibits some of the worst cognitive biases in relation to decision-making that we have ever seen in our lifetimes.

o   He takes pride in obliterating his rivals by distorting their characteristics and their status;

o   He over-estimates his ability to solve global problems, and what’s more sees those problems in terms of making deals by which he will either get something for America or obliterate his rivals;

o   He believes in military power as the ultimate weapon to use to make others conform to our (his) wishes, our ways of thinking, and our control;

o   He has no real policies or programs to offer, but relies solely on his personal attributes, which is the epitome of a fascist or ‘authoritarian’ dictator;

o   He demeans women, immigrants, Muslims, and anyone who gets in his way, (including mothers who have abortions and groups like Syrians and Mexicans who seek a better life, plus the numerous other candidates for the Republican nomination!)

o   He wants to build a wall to keep people out of this country and in so doing, isolate us further from our southern neighbors; (can we remember another wall that eventually not only kept West Germans out of East Germany but kept East Germans isolated from their neighbors and relatives and indeed isolated them from the rest of the world.    Walls always have two sides to them and one targets outsiders, but the other isolates insiders.

Trump wants America to be respected and admired, but intends to use the concepts of awesome power, military might, restrictions, intimidation and coercion as his methods for achieving such status.  Negotiation becomes manipulation and coercion when tied to winning and losing instead of fairness and justice.  His approach is wrong, his concepts are distorted and his intended outcomes are short-sighted. 
Donald Trump epitomizes the cognitive biases that lead to poor judgments and limited if not downright poor outcomes.  The Donald depends far too much on his personality [cult of The Fuhrer (Leader)], and far too much on stereotypical interpretations of the world at large.  Mr. Trump is dangerous, not just because he is biased, but because his vision for this country is based on a brain infused with local prejudices un-informed by the vastness and complexity of our modern world.   
What is probably more frightening is the fact that many of his followers are relying heavily on their cognitive biases as intentional shortcuts to their decisions about Mr. Trump.  ln fact, based on the scientific research described above, one could venture to say that many of his followers do not have the capacity, nor the inclination, to weigh the vast amounts of information that indicate how wrong Mr. Trump is for the Presidency of these United States.  They have instead come to believe that reality is equivalent to their own biases and beliefs, and that Donald Trump represents that reality.  How else can we explain why working people would believe that Donald Trump will act on their behalf and to their benefit?
Next time, we’ll take a look at how we might overcome some of our cognitive biases and begin to look for truths and tools for making sounder judgments in order to open up abundant opportunities and outcomes for more people on a global scale.