Wednesday, March 11, 2009

I Was Right!

Any even mildly perceptive observer of the human comedy cannot help noticing the importance we all give to being right in our judgments. Whether it be supporting the “right” candidate (the one who wins), or taking the “right” political stance on the Iraq war (condemning or supporting it early), or selecting the “right” stock or selling the “right” house at the top of the market, or simply judging a new acquaintance “rightly” (I knew there was something fishy about him/her), we all do everything we can to make the “right” choices or decisions. And if we can’t always be “right,” then we make sure that we have ample reasons for having made a wrong choice, thus implying that, by all reasonable standards, it "should" have been right. In short, we—and this “we” can be an entity as grandiloquent as the Bush Administration or as humble as a weekend bettor at the race track—are always trying to justify our actions. Being right, or being seen to be right, is our constant preoccupation.

In fact, it is easy to observe that being right is a major component of our mental life. Whether we call it our “ego,” our consciousness, our narratorial self, or our left brain, it is clear both from our own observation and the relevant literature that we are constantly rationalizing our actions. In other words, though we mostly imagine that when we have a decision to make, we sit down and reason it out, making lists of pros and cons, and finally coming to a reasonable choice, in fact, research shows that it’s usually the other way round. We do something, decide something, and before we know it our conscious minds find ways to support it with reasons, with logic, with whatever we can find to shore up the rightness of our decision. Indeed, to fully realize this is somewhat disconcerting, for most of us like to think that “we” are in control of our lives. “I have free choice” is the essence of democracy. “I” decide to go or not go to the movies, date or not date that person, buy or not buy that service or new object, vote or not vote for that candidate, live or not live. But do I?

William Irvine, a philosophy professor and author of On Desire (Oxford U Press: 2006), takes up many of these issues in his book. And what he points out is brain research that shows that our choices and decisions are mostly made prior to our reasoning about them. They derive from unconscious wants or hates that stem from our emotions. Psychologist Timothy Wilson refers to this emotion-driven module as our “adaptive unconscious,” that more primitive part of our brain that detects danger, or perceives something desirable or good. And we are driven to get that which it perceives as good, and reject or flee that which is bad or dangerous. Unfortunately, sometimes what is perceived as “pleasurable” is not so good for us—like excess sugar or unsafe sex or big automobiles; and what is “bad” may actually be important to face. But since we have this ideal that says our conscious selves are in control, our minds turn the situation and its logic upside down. As Irvine points out, the mystery of our decision-making “leads us to the odd pass of assuming that we must have been consciously aware of what we wanted to do in performing actions we don’t understand…just to keep up the appearance that we ourselves are agents with conscious will.” In other words, we rationalize. Our conscious minds, our left brains, are rationalizing machines. That is what they do. ‘I just did something stupid. There must have been a reason. Of course, it happened because I was drunk, or tense, or ill, or, best of all, noticed a hidden benefit where no one else did.’

This subconscious level of decision-making has been tested in the laboratory. And what it shows is that our much-prized rational ability functions not so much as a decision-maker or truth-finder, but as a “machine for winning arguments.” The quote is from Michael Gazzaniga’s book Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique, who in turn cites Robert Wright, author of the Moral Animal, as follows: “The brain is a good lawyer: given any set of interests to defend, it sets about convincing the world of their moral and logical worth regardless of whether they in fact have any of either. Like a lawyer, the human brain wants a victory, not truth..” Gazzaniga’s own research shows some of the bizarre arguments his split-brain patients employ to rationalize their own puzzling actions (because one side of their brain cannot “see” what the other is doing). One woman, with a lesion in her right brain that causes translocations of space, was in a New York hospital but, despite her hospital garb, IV and wheelchair, firmly believed herself to be in Freeport, Maine. When Gazzaniga pointed to the hospital elevators and asked her what they were, she responded, “Those are elevators. Do you know what it cost me to have those put in my house?” Gazzaniga calls this left brain explainer “the interpreter,” because of its clear function of interpreting or rationalizing what it sees itself doing.

Both Gazzaniga and Irvine refer to the work of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio regarding the role of emotions in decision-making. Damasio has studied patients with brain damage to the ventromedial part of the prefrontal cortex. Though they are perfectly rational, test normally on moral scales, can find solutions to problems and see consequences, they exhibit almost no emotion. And with this defect comes an inability to make decisions. Damasio theorizes that this is due to the fact that having an emotional value connected to any option or choice is necessary to make that choice. In other words, consciously knowing about something isn’t enough to decide on its worth; the human brain requires an emotional response (it’s good, I want it; it’s bad, I don’t want it) to make a decision. Put another way, the decisions we make stem from emotional impulses, often unconscious, that are then ratified and justified by our conscious selves as if they had made the choice rationally, using good logic.

So next time you hear someone, or yourself, boast that “I was right,” consider what’s going on. It’s likely that something hidden—Irvine calls this our inherited Biological Incentive System—drove that choice. This is not to say that we have no reasoning ability at all, or that reason never figures in our decision-making. That we are not as impulsive or instinct-driven as most animals is evident. It is simply that, more than we know, what we boast about hides the true nature of our decisions and judgments. Given the critical nature of the judgments we are increasingly asked to make (about global warming, biotechnology, nuclear weapons, and so on), ignoring the basis for our decisions is, in effect, leaving those decisions to those who wish to manipulate us. And you can be sure that they are not overlooking the research about how most of us decide, and then deceive ourselves about how.

Lawrence DiStasi

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