Posts Tagged With: decision making

The Broken Geek: Thanos knows better than you (or at least thinks he does)

One of the biggest questions asked since Infinity Wars has hit the theaters has been “Was Thanos right?” This question pits schools of philosophy against each other, and speaks to the psychology and motives of those who seek to change the world, supposedly for its own good.

So was he right or was he misguided?

Let’s exlore. [spoilers]

The Philosophical Debate

When the philosophy of ethics are debated, it is standard practice to evaluate an issue according to the two main schools of ethics, mainly those of Deontology and Utilitarianism. Deontology, simply put, is the ethical school that states that ethical decisions are those made by applying moral ideals, duties,  and principles. What is ethical is what your morals say is right. Utilitarian ethics is the school that focuses on the effects of a decision. What is right in utilitarian ethics is what causes the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

Infinity War pits these two schools against each other. Captain America is the champion of the Deontological school. Early on, for instance, Vision offers himself for sacrifice to save the universe. He suspects that if Wanda uses her powers, she can break the mind stone and thwart Thanos’ plan without the need for anyone else dying, but he himself would die in the process. Captain American ardently refuses on moral grounds.

“We don’t trade lives.”

This statement and the logic of the decision made from it has been examined and criticized since the movie premiered, but the reasoning behind it is rooted in a moral principle he refuses to compromise on. The result of this deontologically rooted decision sets the stage for the climactic battle of the movie.

Thanos, on the other hand, is the avatar of Utilitarian ethics, specifically the sub-field referred to as lifeboat ethics. Lifeboat ethics specifically wrestles with situations of limited resources. Using the analogy of a lifeboat with a fixed number of seats and limited survival supplies, this school wrestles with the questions of who gets to be on the lifeboat, and who does not. In Infinity War, this is the philosophical argument that drives Thanos’ actions. Facing an environmental crisis due to overpopulation on his home moon, Thanos proposed cutting the moon’s population in half so that those left would have enough resources for survival. In his mind, there are twenty survivors in the sea, but only 10 seats/rations in the raft, and he feels that 10 must die so that the other 10 can live. In his twist, rather than argue who should deserve the privilege of living, he treats all people as truly equal and randomizes death so everyone has an equal chance at life.

This is the philosophical battle that lies behind the symbolic battle on the ground in Wakanda. The iconic scene where Captain America catches Thanos’ gauntleted hand was set to be the symbolic denoument of the philosophical battle between them. The pause itself was more a point of Thanos’ hesitation of belief in the face of Cap’s “argument.” There was no reason why, after all, that Cap could have stopped the hand of a being who was strong enough to treat the Hulk like a ragdoll. Thanos’ pause, instead, was a pause in his resolve as he faced this mere mortal who stood against him all out of deontological principle.

thanos catch
[Source: http://fandom.wikia.com/articles/10-greatest-captain-america-fights]

Those who argue that Thanos was right in his philosophy do so on the grounds of Utilitarianism, that the hard choice he makes will ultimately be best for the universe. Those who condemn Thanos do so on the Deontological principles that deem his killing as mass murder that is never ethical.

However, there is more to this question than just the question of philosophy. There are deeper issues that drive the question of what actions need to be taken to solve a problem, and these lie in the psychology of those making the choice.

The Psychology of the Choice

One of the biggest aspects of moral decision making that often gets overlooked, however, is that despite the philosophies utilized, research on ethical decision making shows that these decisions are often more made emotionally at first, and then are justified later. [Haidt, J. (2001). “The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment.” Psychological Review, 108, 814-834.] Because of this, just discussing philosophy is never sufficient to examine a decision, you must also look at the emotional factors.

This blog has explored the personality types of the core Avengers team before, and how it has driven some of their conflicts. A good argument can be made that Thanos falls within the paranoid personality organization. A look into his backstory shows that he was ostracized from birth due to his physical disfigurement, setting him apart and socially isolating him. This set up for the sense of “badness” that he would have to choose to internalize or project within his own psyche. When his people were facing an environmental crisis due to overpopulation, he argued utilitarian lifeboat ethics, suggesting he kill have his home population. His people refused, and the planet collapsed. His response to this, however, was to become a world conqueror that would destroy half of the population of the worlds he conquered. He would boast of the utopias he created by this path, as if he was trying to prove that he was right all along, that had they let him , he would have been the savior of his home planet as well. This thinking style reflects the heart of those with a paranoid personality structure. They face their sense of badness by externalizing it. They aren’t the bad ones, the badness is the evil force outside of them, and they have to be the heroes to find and destroy it, and usually it is at any cost. This is what lies at the heart of Thanos’ motivation and why he clings to the Utilitarian school. If he can present the solution, he is no longer the outcast, but the savior, and he is willing to do anything to become that savior. (Cap’s depressive personality organization, however, causes him to internalize the badness, which made him more prone to attach to a external ideals and a deontological leaning, as well as hold other’s lives as being more important than his, so while he won’t sacrifice others, he won’t hesitate to sacrifice himself.)

This understanding of psychological motivation is important in arguing whether or not Thanos was right. Though a Utilitarian might argue that motivation is unimportant so long as the results serve the greater good, in actual practice, this motivation prevents a person from finding the solution that would actually serve the greater good for two very important reasons. First of all when one is motivated to be a savior, the goal of helping others is placed above the goal of solving the problem. The second reason is that in the real life, most big problems are too complex to solve by one individual’s actions.

With the first problem, that of the savior motivation, the issue that gets set up is one of priorities. If you are driven to prove yourself good and the other bad, your primary priority is the reinforcement of your status of savior. Because of this, when there are multiple solutions, and the better solution requires one to share glory in a way that sacrifices that savior recognition, they can’t accept it as contracts their primary goal. In short, they will surrender the more effective solution for the one solution of glory.

This feeds into the second issue, mainly that important solutions are so complex, that any simple solution will not be a long term effective solution. Large important problems exist because of a complex interaction of causes and require multifaceted interventions that rely on the dedicated work of a lot of people. As much as society likes quick fixes and prizes the unilateral actions of heroes (this is due to several intersecting motivations, some more noble than others, not solely due to everyone having a savior complex), such actions never cause stable solution. Backpacks that turn into tents won’t solve a housing crisis when there are complex social and political forces that would have the homeless arrested for even trying to use them. Nail polish that detects drugs won’t stop new drugs from being used or rapes that don’t rely on drugs, and do nothing to stop the fact that society continues to find ways to justify rape. Finding or creating a new miracle food crop won’t stop world hunger because the world actually overproduces and discards food as it is, and the miracle plant will get wasted because the problem of food access hasn’t been solved. While working in Africa, I saw several quick fix solutions come in and fail, and often the failure would leave the community worse off. And as the Film Theorists point out, Thanos’ quick fix would not work because he has not actually addressed the factors that lead to the overpopulation in the first place.

A real plan to save the universe would be one where you push the universe to save itself. In modern effective community development work, both domestic and abroad, effective interventions are developed in collaboration with the community itself. When I worked into the Peace Corps, we were taught to begin nothing for the first 3 months, and spend that time connecting to the community, identifying counterparts, and understanding the unique needs and barriers of the community. We were there to provide resources and technical knowledge, but for change to be stable, our goals had to be to empower the community to provide the real solutions. A plan to save the universe would have to be similar. Each world would have to be visited and worked with individually. This would take a lot of time, but a certain green gem would make sure that time were available.

What is interesting is that in the the movie itself, there is one person that takes this tactic, Dr. Strange. At first, Dr. Strange has a similar ethical battle where he and Tony Stark argued about destroying the time stone. Tony took the role of the Utilitarian while Dr. Strange took as stance involving the Deontological refusal to break his duty to protect the time stone. In his story arch, however, he struggled to balance the two as he ought to find the best possible plan to stop save the universe from Thanos. Rather than rely on his own beliefs and judgements, however, he consulted the time stone to help understand all the factors involved and built his intervention around what he learned. And in this final plan, he identified a counterpart, someone else who would lead the heroes to victory, even though he himself would be removed from the active role as a result. His motivation was primarily solution focused, and he chose the collaborative option that negated his own glory because that would lead to the best decision.

So in the end, the question of whether Thanos was right lies not in the philosophy used to justify his solution, but rather the psychology that drove him to choose that solution. Motivated to be a savior, he chose an overly simplistic solution that cut everyone else out of the glory. Thanos’ paranoid personality structure made him need a solution that put him in the superior position. He needed to have the answer that saved his people, and when they rejected him and died, he needed to prove that his solution was the best. In short, he needed to show everyone he knew better than them, and therefor was better than them, in opposition to the sense of badness he held. But in doing so, he chose the solution that would most likely fail in the long run. In the end, he was wrong, and wrong because he was driven to be the one knew best.

*update* The directors of the Infinity war just confirmed this:
https://www.msn.com/en-gb/entertainment/movies/avengers-infinity-war-directors-explain-why-thanos-didnt-double-the-universes-resources/ar-BBLnAZu

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How Racists get your Non-Racist friends to agree with them

So you have this friend who has never shown any racist tendencies. They never actively discriminated against any minority group, and many may have actively navigated multiracial climates, or may have even been mentors to a multiracial groups of youths. Then suddenly, they post something or say something that repeats a talking point from what has been identified as having a racist origin.

Holy s#@t! Is your friend a racist?

Probably not. More likely, though, they fell victim to what are some pretty manipulative tactics used by the real racists to get people to unknowingly support them. When society began to shun overt racism, racists had to find new ways to push others down and preserve their unequal power and privilege. After 60+ years of practice, they have developed methods that are a psychologically brilliant as they are insidious.

Now the key to understanding how they do this lies in the fact that moral decision making is an emotional, not a rational decision. Your rational mind can be used to shape and guide your emotions, but when it comes time to actually make a decision, you base that moral decision on whether you predict a result you find emotionally rewarding or emotionally disgusting. The goal of the racist it to reduce your friend’s feeling of disgust while simultaneously creating a way to trick your friend into feeling an emotional reward by agreeing with them.

1) They deny racism to disarm the disgust related to racism.

Your friends are not racist, and they know racism is wrong. When they see a racist event, that event will produce moral disgust which will be enough for most people to oppose the event, and work against the purpose of the racists who want to trick your non-racist friend into agreeing with them. What’s more, if your non-racist friend found out he or she was benefiting from the other person’s racism, that would create a sense of guilt, which is a very strong feeling of moral disgust that would turn your friend into a unstoppable machine to destroy that form of racism. After all, if someone hurt your friend you would be angry, but if someone tricked you into hurting your friend, that is the sort of scenario that creates movie hero revenge stories. So the trick the racists employ is to first deny the racism that occurs. They do this by either redefining racism so that it is not racism, or they minimize the reality of racism to reduce your friend’s motivation to act.

Racists trick your non-racists friends by clever repackaging of racial events. They deny the institutional racism that occurs by narrowly defining racism as individual violent acts, and when an individual acts out violently, they define away that act so that it’s the effect of a lone nut, and not representative of the system. They also redefine events to remove the racial context. Remember when your friend was supporting that voter ID law that disenfranchised black voters? They were told it was being passed to prevent voter fraud (which the racists forgot to tell your friend really didn’t occur on any substantial level), and so your friend made the moral choice based on the emotionally rewarding motivation of stopping a crime, and not because of any racism. When the Dylan Roof story first broke, pundits tried to pass it off as an attack on Christianity, not as racism. The Confederate flag is getting repackaged by racists because they know that your friend would never support it if they knew its true history as a use for racial intimidation, as that would cause moral disgust. But if they redefine it as Southern pride, then defending the flag is more about free speech and Southern identity, which can be emotionally rewarding fights to take on.

Minimizing racial impact serves to defuse your friend’s motivation to oppose racism when it becomes apparent. By denying the impact of a racial act, they can prevent your friend from wanting to take an action to oppose that act. Remember when Eric Gardner was killed by police? The talking point was “if he wasn’t resisting, it would have not happened,” presenting the issue more of one person resisting arrest, and less about a policing philosophy that targeted minorities unequally, that Garner was targeted so frequently and so cruelly that he had previously filed a lawsuit against the NYPD, or that he wasn’t actually violently resisting in a way that required him to be tackled and restrained by multiple officers. When people are actually killed in a racist event, the talking point becomes about crime in general, not about racism, with the intended effect of people seeing crime, not racial targeting for violence as the problem. People speaking up against the Confederate flag, or any racially motivated symbol or statement, the talking point becomes that this is about people being offended, not about the threats of violence intended. After all, terroristic speech is very specific and the impact cannot be denied. but if something were merely “offensive” then that is a subjective response, emotional and unrelated to any actual realistic consequence, and therefor much less likely to get your friend to oppose the speech.

2) They create an emotional conflict against opposing racism by forcing your non-racist friends to benefit from it.

Your non-racist friends would not actively discriminate or seek any benefit from racism. However, the system is set up so this happens whether they like it or not. What’s more, not only are your friends receiving benefits, they are dependent on them, every non-minority does. If your name sounds African American, you are less likely to get call for a job interview. In today’s job environment, where there are more seekers than jobs, you need to be appreciative for every employment chance you get. But when reminded of the fact that people could have been denied your interview slot just because of how their name sounded, that can quickly create a huge sense of guilt. So, do you give up your hard to find avenue to financial stability and overall survival and risk another few months/years of financial disaster in the name of equality, or do you accept the job and feed your family? This is a hard choice to make, and one that we are being forced to make. What about the justice system? Though blacks no more likely to be criminals, they are more likely to be arrested, convicted, and receive harsher sentences than whites committing the same acts. When an officer pulls you over for running a stop light or for driving with a burnt out headlight, but then lets you off with a warning,  only to then see an African American getting pulled over, harassed, and even beaten, are you supposed to still be thankful for that preferential treatment, or are you supposed to go to the local station and turn yourself in for abuse just to even things out? These scenarios produce a lot of guilt for obvious reasons. Now you can fight against the system to correct the problems, which is a long term fight which will cause you to have to accept the racists benefits in order to survive the battle to see it to the end, or you can deny the racism in order to deny the guilt for s quick relief.

And guess which option the racists will help your non-racist friends out with (hint, see above)

3) Racists use anger to knock your non-racist friends offbalance

Anger, if properly balanced, can be a very useful emotion for flagging a problem, and motivating you to solve the problem. But if anger becomes overwhelming, it can actually shut down higher rational thought, a process known as the “amygdala hijack.” The racists know that if they can overstimulate your non-racist friends with anger, they can move them past the stage of being motivated to solve a problem, to a stage where they can be manipulated to react without thinking, and react in a way they prefer.

First, racists prep the stage by creating an us-them environment. Now because they are motivated to deny the actual racism, they redefine this us-them along non-racist lines. They choose the sides in ways that your non-racist friends to associate themselves with the racists on other characteristics. Ever wonder why there is such a rigid and adversarial conservative/liberal relationship these days? The truth is that that real conservatives and real liberals are actually quite capable of existing together harmoniously without the vitriol, and in fact, the world functions better when the two are working together to develop balanced ideas. The reason these two groups are forced into conflict is that is sets up the mindset that there is an us and there is a them, because when you are angry and have to choose which side to join, you are more likely to reflexively help out the people you see more like yourself. When the Dylan Roof terrorist attack happened, certain groups were working very hard to redefine it as an attack on Christianity, because they knew that this kind of act would hijack their us-them system, placing them in the “them” category. But if they redefined it as an attack on Christianity, then making the attack one on the majority of the country, that would place them back into the “us” category.

Next, the racists get very angry the moment there is a threat your non-racist friends see something that might reveal the racism. Because of human empathy, emotions can stimulate like emotions. This is why we are happy when we hear a child laugh, cry during sad movies, get scared when a Jason pops out of the woods in front of that teen, etc. The racist get proactively and seemingly uncontrollably angry, yelling and shouting until they are red in the face, to bring your friends into an similar state of anger. The angrier the racists proactively make your friends, more likely they will trigger the amygdala hijack, and the less your friends will be able to think in that moment. Whenever one of these incidents happen, watch what happens with certain pundits, they  go from calm smugness to red faced, finger pointing, full on anger mode.

Finally, the racists reinterprets the problem as a “them” attacking the “us” and hands your non-racist friends a solution that involves defending the “us” by reinforcing what are the racist’s secret goals. Your non-racist friends are too overstimulated at this point to see that the goals will ultimately serve to propagate inequality, they are just motivated to get this perceived attack on them to go away. This is why any attempt for social justice gets quickly redefined as an attack on the majority group. When people started pointing out the difference between how Dylan Roof was treated, and how several African Americans have been treated by the police, people interpreted this revelation as a statement that Dylan should have been abused, not the intended statement that was meant to say that if Dylan could be apprehended without incident, so could the others. But rather than see that it was a statement that violence was unnecessary in all the cases many of your non-racist friends interpreted it as promoting violence towards Dylan because he was white because this system has primed them to see such statements as an attack on their “us.”

4) Racists use insult and sarcasm to reward your non-racist friends.

Ever wonder why certain pundits spend a lot of time making infantile jokes and throwing sarcastic insults at people? This is because this is the final step in manipulating your non-racist friends.

Aggressive behaviors have a rewarding effect on the brain, stimulating the same brain areas as are stimulated when you use cocaine. In addition, humor can short circuit a person’s shame response and normalize prejudicial views. Add these two together, and you have created a system to both remove any guilt over a possibly racist and reward people for sharing it through the use of mockery and insult.

Essentially, these jokes are not just jokes, but the final piece in how racists get your non-racists friends to agree with them. The biggest bit of evidence of the fact they are not just jokes comes from the reactions that get invoked when someone points out the harm done by the joke. You see, if a joke were just a joke, and really didn’t mean anything, then the joker would be willing to put the person above the joke and apologize, or at least passively refrain from telling the joke in the future. But if that joke were actually important, if the joke meant more than the person, then the response would be to attack person and the reason to oppose the joke.

And when it comes to these jokes, which response happens more?

What is interesting is that this last point can actually invoke the cycle of manipulation again. Someone points out the racist content of the joke, so the racists then 1) deny the racist content, 2) cajole your non-racist friends into admitting the humor 3) reframe the opposition as political correctness or oversensitive offense attacking the “us” group your friend belongs to, and 4) reward your friend with new jokes.

So what does this mean?

First, your friends are not actually racist, they are just falling victim to a very sophisticated form of manipulation.

Second, to be effective in countering this manipulation, you have to likewise raise the level of sophistication in your responses. The moment you start accusing your friend of racism, you leave them feeling attacked, and will actually push them further into the clutches of the manipulating racists. When you accuse your friends of blatant racism, you are, in turn, othering them, creating a separation between you and him/her in the us-them mindset that has been built up. What is needed is that you need to take time to craft a deprogramming argument. Your friend will agree with you if you give him/her reasons to agree, but you have to be willing to make that effort. You see, you have one thing that the racists who are manipulating don’t have: a personal connection. But the moment you start throwing insults and attacks, you can fracture that connection and lose your edge.

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Why people do the things they do, for better or for worse

This post has been bubbling under the surface for a while, but it’s been hard to figure out how to really put it into words. However, a reader recently contacted me about a shame she had been holding in, and though I may not have been able to complete my thoughts on this, I think that it is important that I get this out. This is a post about why people make the moral choices they do. This is an explanation as to why people do some very good things, and why people decide to do some very horrific things. Originally, this was meant to try to get people to look inwards at their own actions, words, and choices, But now I am hoping it can also help people to let go of the shame that they may be taking on.

To ask the reason for an action is deceptive. The assumption is that there is thought process involved, that the reason involves reason. We like to believe that we use a sophisticated logic to carefully control the decisions we make. But the truth is the contrary: we make decisions based on emotion, not logic. This emotional decision making was uncovered in the research of Antoine Bechara and Jonathan Haidt. Bechara’s research on individuals with a specific brain damage that inhibited emotional expression showed that without emotion, even the most basic decisions were also inhibited. Haidt’s work showed that people make moral decisions first and then add logical explanations afterwards. According to Haidt, certain actions are encouraged by the “moral elation” done by the decision, and inhibited by a “moral disgust” against the decision. The decisions we make are dependent on the emotional weight we give them, not the logical weight. A decision is encouraged if there is an emotional reward, and discouraged by the emotional revulsion. Logic can play a part, but only in that logic can change the meaning that trains emotion. Ultimately the decisions are emotional. The reasons people report are developed as an afterthought.

But what does that really mean?

When a person decides to do something, the decision is based on their anticipated emotional response to the act. An act is not caused by a reason, but rather the person acts according to how they think they will feel after the act. Two people can face the same screaming child, for instance, and have totally different responses. People can slap the child, not slap the child, or beat the child viciously.  The option they choose depends on their emotional reaction to the concept of hitting a child. A person who feels a sense of wrongness, disgust, or revulsion to the idea of hitting a child will do anything they can to not hit the child because they know they will feel horrible after striking the child. A person without this disgust will be more likely to hit the child to get the response of quiet they want because they will not anticipate feeling bad about hitting the child. But a person who feels a sense of reward over exercising power through abuse will not only be more likely to hit the child, but will look for reasons to hit the child because they anticipate feeling powerful and “good” after striking the child. So when it comes to whether or not a particular person will hit a child, it has less to do with the actual screaming of the child, and more to do with the person’s feelings about the action of hitting the child. The person may talk about styles of discipline, but the prime motivation behind the action is that emotional response. Similarly, two people can see the same child with a spilled ice cream cone and decide to either buy the child a new ice cream or keep walking. The person who stops and buys the child a new ice cream cone either anticipates an empathic reward for the generosity or a sense of revulsion of leaving the child in that state of suffering. The person who keeps walking lacks that sense of revulsion for allowing the suffering to continue and does not share that same anticipated reward for helping. Again, any explanation give for the choice is an add-on.

This principle of decision making is extremely important when seeking to understand sexual assault motivation and where the blame needs to be placed. A person rapes another person because the rapist lacks the emotional disgust associated with the act of rape, and gets an emotional reward from the act of the rape. It does not matter what a girl was wearing or how much she had to drink, because a non-rapist would feel revulsion towards the act of having sex with the woman without consent, and the rapist will not only lack that same disgust, but will feel as sense of reward from it. The decision to rape lies not in the circumstance or the victim, but in how the person feels about the action of the rape. A woman could be passed out, naked, and spread eagle, and where one man could have the overwhelming urge to violate the woman, another man would have the overwhelming urge to cover her up and make sure she stays safe. And when a person has no revulsion to the act, but gets a reward from the sense of power, they will seek out a victim to rape based off that anticipated reward. The only victim characteristic that plays a factor is availability. If the one victim were not present, another one would be sought out.

For the readers who are taking on the shame for their abusers, I am hoping that this explains why no fault lies with you. Your abuser was primed to abuse someone before you came along. They just happened to find you first. It was not about your clothes, your body, what you were drinking, what you said, etc. It was about the abuser’s own feelings about the actual behavior that constituted abuse. Had you been dressing or acting the same way around a decent person for whom the idea of such an abusive behavior was abhorrent, you would have been left alone, and had you not been there, the abuser would have found someone else.

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Why Smart People Do Stupid Things: The Science of Bad Decisions

I recently had the pleasure of watching David Tennant’s performance of Hamlet. What I found so absolutely brilliant about his portrayal was how he focused on the bard’s illustration of the insecurities we all have when we make important and world altering decisions. The inaction that Hamlet is often criticized or is sympathetically explained as a struggle to make sure he is absolutely justified in the killing of his uncle and king. After all, if you were to meet a ghost who ordered you to regicide, would you rush headlong into the act, or would you check to make sure the apparition wasn’t a trick or a delusion? In contrast to this is the character of Polonius, the Lord Chamberlain to the king and father of both Hamlet’s friend and love interest. Despite his famous speech of advice to his son, he is generally regarded as the man within the play who is always wrong. Within the narrative of the play, when asked of Hamlet’s madness, he decides very early on the theory that Hamlet has been driven mad by his spurned affections for Ophelia. Desperate to prove his theory, he obsessively searches out and latches onto any clue that supports it, and his quest to do so eventually leads to his accidental killing. As I reflect on these two characters, patterns do emerge in how the ways they behave and make decisions determine the success of their actions, patterns that have actually been seen within research on success, failure, and decision-making.

The Dunning-Kruger effect was formulated in an investigation into incompetence. David Dunning, Justin Kruger, et al, sought to answer the question of why people make poor decisions or come to seemingly erroneous conclusions. According to their theory, people prone to failure and bad decisions have similar tendencies in their assessment of their skills, such as: overestimating their skills, failure to recognize skills in others, failure to recognize the limits to their skills, and the tendency to only admit a past lack of skill if they have be trained to improve it. In discussing the more experiential aspect of the Dunning-Kruger effect, what’s been illuminated is that there is a gross overestimation of skill, and a refusal to seek out feedback for improvement. Successful people, in contrast, actually tend to underestimate their abilities, and so their tendencies are to seek out feedback and development.

Groupthink is a phenomenon first formulated as people sought to find the cause of certain policy disasters. Specifically, people wanted to find out why groups of experts would make disastrous decisions, even when there were warnings reasons to doubt the decisions. Groupthink was found to be a condition where group cohesiveness leads to the active or passive suppression of individual thinking, problem solving and ideas. Groups that tend towards groupthink are prone to develop and push consensus thinking, and doubt or dissent is repressed either through self censorship, or through pressure from other group members. Groups prone to groupthink have common characteristics. They believe their group is unquestioningly right, moral and invulnerable They tend to characterize those not in their group as stupid, evil, we, biased, etc. If someone opposes their decisions, they label non-conformity with the group as disloyalty. They tend to pressure towards self-censorship of dissenting views and see the creation of “mind-guards” who actively shield the group from contrary views or information though intimidation or faulty rationalization. As a result, groups prone to groupthink tend to overestimate their decision-making abilities and discourage feedback and information that is contrary to their beliefs.

The tendencies of people who make poor decisions, either on a personal or group level, do show some similar patterns, specifically an overestimation of the rightness, morality or competence, and a refusal to consider dissenting information along side the evidence or feedback. Polonius, for instance, was a man who saw himself as wiser than others, constantly proffering advice, and became fixated on Hamlet’s madness as being caused by his love for Ophelia, ignoring Hamlet’s constant statements of being upset over his father’s death and his mother’s rapid remarriage, despite the second alternative actually being offered by Hamlet’s mother. Hamlet, conversely, never fully accepted the theory that Claudius killed his father, and constantly questioned his abilities and motives, until he found the evidence during the performance of “The Mousetrap.” Now the origin of these problems is not the often blamed under the label of stupidity, as even the most intelligent can make these mistakes. Rather these patterns are both highly understandable, and highly human. Contrary to common belief, human intelligence is not strictly logical or rule based, but has a strong emotional component. This is not a weakness of human thinking, because rules are not really acts of intelligence, but are more like decisional shortcuts that work under very specific circumstance. Intelligence is more about adapting and or dismissing rules than obeying them. Emotions are an important part of this process, because there are often times where people have to operate in conditions where variables are not clearly known, and so the logic to be employed is not clear as well. Emotional information adds weight that aids when pure logic is not possible. In fact, as found in research on people with orbitofrontal damage to their brains, if a person’s ability to process emotions is disrupted, they also lose decision making ability. However, the problem that comes into play is that when the emotions one experiences are a response to a perceived threat, the subsequent emotions of anger or fear, if strong enough, can actually suppress reasoning. This response evolved as a survival skill, and is hard wired into the structure of the brain. Since the time it takes to determine a course of action through a complex reasoning heuristic could result in harm or death when facing an attacking tiger, there is an evolutionary advantage to the amygdala shutting down the higher brain functions to quickly get you to fight, flee, or freeze. Now the threats that can trigger this can either be physical or psychological, aimed at either the body or the mind. When said tiger attacks you physically, you either attack back, runaway, or play possum and hope it mistakes you for dead so you can run away when its distracted. When the threat is psychological, you either attack the idea without considering it, ignore or dismiss it to make it go away, or give into it so it doesn’t hurt you more. In that entire process, however, you don’t actually apply any rational thought process to evaluate it. In the case of the Dunning-Kruger effect or groupthink, the individual or group identity is built around the premise that they have a superior competence when making the decisions they do. Contrary feedback or opinion attacks that concept, attacks their identity and so such opinion or feed back is never sought out, and when offered, gets ignored, dismissed, or attacked.

In the case of poor Polonius, we are not given enough information on his background to judge why it was safer for him to fixate on Hamlet’s love for Ophelia. It has been suggested in some interpretations that he was complicit in the original regicide, and so focusing attention away from that murder may have allowed him to avoid any guilt over it. It may be he had suspicions of Claudius’ guilt, which threatened an existential crisis between his suspicion and his loyalty to Claudius, and so the death of Hamlets father, and quick remarriage of his mother may have been similarly ignored. Or, it may just be that once he decided on a cause, his self-perceived identity as a purveyor of wisdom was threatened by any other theory that could be put into play. At any rate, his insistence resulted in a maddening guilt being placed upon his poor daughter, as well as the actions that lead him to spy on Hamlet’s mother, and his accidental death. Had he, as suggested in tips for the remediation of groupthink and the Dunning-Kruger effect, sought out feedback, sought out dissent, sought out contrary views, sought out alternatives, and admitted his own limitations as Hamlet did in his constant doubt and questioning, he may have found the truth that Hamlet was not actually mad, but motivated to seek justice for his father’s murder. But then, the play would have had a completely different ending.

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