Posts Tagged With: stupidity

Stop Being Stupid about Guns Part II

It’s been about 4 years since I pointed out how stupid this country has been about guns. Since that post, nothing has changed.

And its not like the American can’t agree on what needs to change or talk civilly about this issue, because in the periods between shootings, we can. For instance, most people, whether liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, gun owner or not, agree that we need a good system for background checks for gun sales. Every time I have brought up my plan for gun control, the audience, no matter if they are liberal, conservative, pro-gun, or anti-gun, have all stated that this is something they can get behind and support if it were ever to be implemented.

So we actually can have a civil conversation and agree on how to balance gun owner rights with safety and life. We can actually do this.

But we don’t.

And the reason is stupid.

You see, every time there is a shooting, rather than bring up all the civil conversation we had been capable of, everyone goes to their corners and regurgitates the same stereotypical talking points and shout them at each other. These tropes are so predictable that it could probably be turned into a drinking game or a bingo game. Rather than remembering what we have agreed upon, we end up arguing the semantics of the term “assault rifle,” asserting whether the first half or the last half of the second amendment phrasing is the most important, or we just degenerate into insulting each other. Everyone is yelling and no one is listening.


And none of this actually does anything to solve the problem that the majority of Americans agrees needs to be solved.

And many are quick to point out that this is the intention of the NRA and their pocketed politicians, that they purposely release a slew of distracting strawman arguments so that people can’t come together and pass the laws that will effect gun manufacturer’s profit margin.

But even if that is true, we don’t have to stupidly play their game. We don’t have to follow their fallacious arguments and chase their distractions.

Even if it is true that they are being greedy or evil, we are still empowering them, and therefor we are being stupid. And if we stopped being stupid, they wouldn’t be able to win.

So here is how we can stop being stupid about guns:
1) Keep having the conversation even after it has stopped being a social media trend. We should not only talk about it because it has become popular due a recent terrorist. Instead, actually commit to the conversation.
2) Find the points of agreement in this discussion. If you find yourself arguing over 99% of your opinions, make note of that 1% and build on it until you have a decent plan that people can civilly talk about and agree on. This will become the smart and constructive conversation.
3) The next time there is a shooting, and there will always be another shooting so long as we continue to be stupid about guns, only talk about the points of agreement. Every time people try to bring up the stereotyped and polarizing talking points, make the smart choice to redirect back to the constructive. Don’t chase the distractions and don’t play with the strawman, but rather only let the conversation be about what everyone is already agreeing on.

To do anything else would just be stupid, and we need to stop being stupid about guns.

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The Psychology of Modern Political Stupidity Part II: Hobby Lobby

With the recent Supreme Court case, in which it decided that Hobby Lobby, a corporation, can refuse to pay for their employee’s access to birth control on the grounds  that Hobby Lobby’s religious beliefs would be violated by doing so, people are upset and confused.

Confused because Hobby Lobby is a corporation, not a real person. How exactly does a legal entity have religious beliefs? How does a Corporation have a soul? What is the type of afterlife the Corporations prepares for?

Confused because preventative birth control is not the same as abortion. After all, preventative birth control prevents pregnancy, not terminates it. And also, while it opposes female birth control, it still supports vasectomies.

Confused because the decision seems to target only a woman’s reproductive choices. Arguments involving all the other medical conditions covered by the hormones in birth control were discarded.

Confused because it all just sounds really stupid.

I’ve discussed the origins of political stupidity before. It lies in the general human existential crisis. Man is terrified of death, creates symbolic structures to defend against that terror, and then enacts a series of well defined behaviors in response to those structures being threatened. I’ve also discussed the effect of role strain and its connection with misogyny, and how  people adopt  rigid gender roles  because of this existential crisis, an react reflexively and often violently when  those subscribed roles are “threatened.” These factors create a picture to explain how this all comes together. Corporations are a artificial entities created as an extension of the symbolic structures that man uses to defend itself against the fear of death. They are our golems,  created by our prayers and faith in those symbolic structures. To challenge their reality is to challenge those protective structures and leave us vulnerable to our terrors. The traditional gender role structure (as subscribed to by those with rigid gender hierarchies), is that of the man being the working bread winner, and the woman being the mother/ home maker. When you look at most of the gender based political stupidity, it usually takes on themes of defending this role structure.

Using this context, here is the the subconscious reasoning behind the (stupid) arguments made in this case, and the subsequent ruling. Corporations are avatars, and therefor are real people. To deny that is to attack the structure of our society. They are protective entities, and are therefor play an important role in our created social structure. Abortion prevents women from taking on their roles of motherhood, so it is a rebellion against the social structure. Contraception also prevents women from taking on that role, so it represents that same rebellion and there for becomes equated as being the same as abortion. Vasectomies are different, because they aren’t the decision of the woman, and therefor are not an act of rebellion against the social structure. The Corporations protect us from our terrors. women seeking birth control attack our structure and betray us to our terror. Because of this, the Corporation must champion over the rebellious women, and so Hobby Lobby had to win the case… Or so goes the stupidity of this decision.

And what role does religion play in this? As usual, religion is just a red herring. People may be making a religious argument, but it’s not a sincere argument, and the reason it is brought up is also the reason why modern political stupidity propagates. You see, humans feel first and then reason second. All human decision are based in emotion. Remove a person’s ability to experience emotion, and you remove their ability to make any decision whatsoever. One can use logic and reason enable better decision making, but only because they help us to train our emotional responses, they don’t supersede them. In regards to political stupidity, the decisions are first made to stave off the subconscious terrors (illustrated above) and then reasoning is applied afterwards. But because the reasoning is an afterthought, it is full of contradiction, misinformation, hypocrisy, and stupidity.

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The Psychology of Modern Political Stupidity: Why it’s so Manipulative and Effective.

If you are watching the current political debate (aka, if you are breathing and being constantly bombarded by it), you might have picked up on how it seems that campaigning politicians and certain state legislatures have detached themselves from any notion of rationality and reality. Laws have been passed requiring women seeking abortions to undergo mandatory probing so invasive, it could actually be considered sexual assault. Rights of access to contraception (a means of preventing abortions) are being denied based the beliefs of employers, despite the beliefs of the workers. Obama is back to being an alien Muslim. Corporations are people. The government wants ignore economic concerns just so they can take away your guns. Following a religion based on a guy who fed the poor and promoted peace and social justice requires ignoring the poor and promoting violence and discrimination. Rush Limbaugh is still on the air. It is just getting stupider and stupider.

But is there something more insidious behind the stupidity? What could be the gain from divorcing yourself from reality in such a way? And why does it seem to be working?

As it turns out, there is a specific psychological reaction that these stances are hoping to invoke: existential terror. Once they get this mechanism going, they no longer have to provide argument, no longer have to debate, and no longer have to justify anything. And here is how it works:

I have previously discussed the fundamental human existential crisis, that we are torn between our infinite creative symbolic potential, and our very finite material bodies. One of the consequences of this crisis is that, unless we develop very sophisticated methods of accepting our deaths, we reflexively deny our reality of death, and desperately defend that denial. The way that people deny death is that they come together to build a series of symbolic structures to act as shields. We call this “culture.”  Culture is not in itself a problem, it provides a necessary support and security that we need to function in a highly frightening reality. Ideally, the goal of these symbolic structures should be to foster an eventual independence from them through the creation of the more sophisticated acceptance of our mortality. Some symbolic structures have been able to do this, and have created some of the greatest leaders we revere. However, the larger part of society has not installed this important process, leaving us largely vulnerable to our fear of mortality and vulnerable to a manipulation by this fear.

When a person is reminded of their mortality, or when their protective structures are threatened, they react instinctively against it by clinging to their symbolic defense structures ore fervently. They quickly demarcate themselves from those not of their culture. People who violate their cultural norms are lashed out against, because those violations challenge their symbolic defense structures. People who defend their cultural norms, the “Culture Warriors” are looked to as the heroes to defend these symbolic structures and help the person to reestablish their denial of death. Simply put, when you remind people of their mortality, or when you threaten the symbolic cultural structures, they will react in terror and give their power over to the person who promises to reestablish their cultural safety as a  reflex devoid of higher evaluative rational thought.

This  is not hypothetical or theoretical. This has been confirmed in research.

The strange and surreal stances that are being taken in modern politics can be explained through this mechanism. If you look at the content of the stances, they either 1) contain a threat of mortality or 2) contain a threat to symbolic structure (culture, religion, etc) that defends against mortality. At the same time as these threats are presented the person who introduces the existence of the threat attempts to establish himself as the candidate who is the strongest culture warrior by providing the most extreme (and irrational) solution to the threat

Abortion for instance, is referenced both 1) as the death of the unborn and 2) a threat to a symbolic cultural ideal of strictly controlled sex (sex is our animal selves, and therefore must be controlled because to give into out animal self is to deny our shield of civilization). The more extreme you are in defending against this death and threat, the more of a hero you are. Abstinence is the extreme symbolic antithesis, and supports the cultural ideal. Planned Parenthood, is the cultural threat because 3% of it’s activities goes to providing safe access to abortions (and the deaths and maiming of back alley abortions are justified to the pariahs who challenge this structure). Contraception is off the table because it enables unwed sex, and likewise challenges the symbolic structures. All of this ignores the reality that abstinence only programs don’t work, and that through providing contraception and education, Planned Parenthood prevents twice as many abortions as it provides. If the goal were to truly end abortion, then you would endorse the evidence supported practices that actually reduce the unwanted pregnancies. However, the goal is to get elected, so you need to  become a culture warrior, reality be damned.

This can be seen in the other stances. Guns are another symbolic means of defending against death, which is why the threat of having guns taken away (note: usually brought into the conversation by those who support gun rights in the extreme, and rarely by their opponent, unless in reference to a recent gun related tragedy). Homosexuality is opposed based in it’s “threat to marriage,” another symbolic cultural structure, and homophobia more or less is caused by the threat it presents to rigid gender roles and rigid social hierarchies. Corporations are touted as the defenders of economic freedom, and to  challenge them based on crimes they actually commit is to challenge the symbolic status quo. Asking people to care about the poor or dispossessed, or have mercy on others challenges the absolute rightness of your defense system by pointing out some flawed consequences.  A mosque or Muslim community center becomes a symbol of cultural invasion and any request to respect the religious beliefs of another threatens the supremacy of your cultural shield.  Obama is not a citizen and a Muslim, making him someone not of our culture. The claims seem irrational until you notice the pattern. They all create symbolic threats that invoke a predictable reaction: “I will vote for you and do what you say if you make the fear go away.”

So that is the origin behind the stupidity of modern elections. It hurts us by creating oppressive extremist laws. It drags down the conversation by excluding real discussion on the topic, and silences more reasonable voices (yes there are some very reasonable voices in these parties), because once the fear structure activates, reason is thrown out the window. Finally it hurts us because it essentially “hacks” the election, focusing on psychological tricks, not the actual needs of the nation.

Can it be fixed?

We know what is causing it. Diagnosis is the first step towards treatment. And if our instinctual fear of death is the problem, then there is a solution that lies in conquering that fear. Some cultures have developed methods, so we know it can be done. And even though we don’t have to copy another culture’s way of solving this issue, it is possible for us to find one for ourselves. But we have to acknowledge the issue, the problems it causes, and the possibility for the solution.

Otherwise, we will just go farther down this political spiral of stupidity.

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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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