Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Enslaving your own intellect

Scott Adams has a nice post about cognitive dissonance, the psychological discomfort that comes from holding conflicting thoughts, particularly when they relate to one’s self-image, such as ‘I’m a good husband’ and ‘I just cheated my wife’.

The mind tries hard to avoid dissonance and to avoid having illusions shattered, and so awkward facts can get rationalised away: ‘I was drunk, and I didn’t make the first move, so it doesn’t show what I’m really like’, ‘It was a mistake and won’t happen again’, ‘She’s been neglecting me lately so it’s hardly surprising’, ‘It was just sex and doesn’t mean anything’, ‘Woe is me; but my token guilt proves how much I love her really’, ‘I must keep this a secret to protect her from hurt’, etc.

To any reasonably impartial third party, such manoeuvres are pretty transparent. But from the inside, from the perspective of the person whose mind has quietly smoothed over the cracks, they’ll make perfect sense.

Scott says:

“The fascinating thing about cognitive dissonance is that it’s immune to intelligence. No matter how smart you are, you can’t think your way out of it. Once your actions and your self image get out of sync, the result is an absurd rationalization.”

It’s not just that this process is immune to intelligence – it actually feeds off it. The smarter you are, the more ingenious your rationalisations can be. When challenged by rogue mental states, a mindset or belief system will use whatever intellectual resources it can get its dendrites on to survive and maintain its integrity.

People are, in very many ways, not at all good at thinking logically. If you’re aware of the kind of biases you’re prone to, then you stand a chance of catching some of them (cognitive behavioural therapy basically trains people to beat their dysfunctional assumptions over the head with logic). But intelligence on its own won’t cut it, because its natural role is to keep the show on the road – which often means sacrificing accuracy to coherence.

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