2007 : WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?

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Psychologist; Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics, Department of Psychology, Harvard University; Co-author, Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People
Psychologist; Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics, Harvard University

Unraveling Beliefs

If I were an average white woman living in the United States in 1850, I would already have been dead for 10 years. Not an ideal position from which to contemplate optimism about the future, you say. But consider this:  In the snap of 150 years, the life expectancy of this very group catapulted from a dismal 40 to a respectable 80 years. Given my own privileges, this means that I will write 30 more responses to the yearly Edge question. Yippee.

How can life expectancy, seemingly so determined by biology and the conditions of life, double so fast? Advances in science and technology are no doubt the drivers of the rapid changes in nutrition, medical care, and standards of living that account for this doubling. But such advances were themselves possible, even imagined, because of something else: changes in mental states we call beliefs—beliefs about the worth of a life, beliefs about what it means to be happy, beliefs about health and prosperity including about who deserves it and who does not.

Many others in this volume will speak about specific human accomplishments that are legitimate grounds for optimism. I am inclined to focus on an aspect of the mind because it, I believe, is the font of the many possibilities that give us optimism.

I am bullish about the mind's ability to unravel the beliefs contained within it—including beliefs about its own nature (and I am bullish on this in a year when the CEO of Goldman Sachs took home 53.4 million as a bonus).

What gives me particular optimism about the future is the ability of humans everywhere to go against the grain of their own beliefs that are familiar, that feel natural and right, and that appear to be fundamentally true. What makes me optimistic is the possibility that we can (and do) unravel the contents of traditional beliefs and even the process by which they were constructed.    

We've done this sort of unraveling many times before, whether it is about the relationship of the sun to the earth, or the relationship of other species to us. We've put aside what seemed natural, what felt right, and what came easily in favor of the opposite. I am optimistic that we are now ready to do the same with questions about the nature of our own minds. From the work of pioneers such as Herb Simon, Amos Tversky, and Danny Kahneman we know that the beliefs about our own minds that come naturally, feel right, and are easy to accept aren't necessarily true. That the bounds on rationality keep us from making decisions that are in our own interest, in the interest of those we love, in the long-term interest of our societies, even the planet, even perhaps the universe, with which we will surely have greater opportunity to interact in this century.

Here are some examples of what seems natural, feels right, and is easy to believe in—even though it isn't rational or true.

We irrationally anchor:  ask people to generate their social security number and then the number of doctors in their city and the correlation between the two numbers will be significantly positive, when in fact it ought to be zero—there's no relation between the two variables. That's because we can't put the first one aside as we generate the second.

We irrationally endow:  give somebody a cheap mug, and once it's "my mug" through ownership (and nothing else) it becomes, in our minds, a somewhat less cheap mug. Endowed with higher value, we are likely to demand a higher price for it than it is worth or is in our interest to demand.

We irrationally see patterns where non exist: Try to persuade a basketball player, fan, or statistician that there isn't anything to the idea of streak shooting;  that chance is lumpy and that that's all there is to Michael Jordan's "hot hand".

As natural as it is to anchor, endow, and imagine patterns, it isn't accurate, it isn't in our interest, and it may not even be fair. Likewise, research on the implicit beliefs and preferences we hold has shown that such "mind bugs" extend to the beliefs and preferences we have about ourselves, members of our own social groups, and those who sit farther away on a scale of social distance.

We don't intend to discriminate or treat unfairly, but we do. Such unintended consequences come from aspects of our mind that seem natural (helping somebody close to us like a neighbor or a nephew rather than somebody more distant) and feels right (fearing somebody who looks physically different from us strange). Such responses are natural and feel right because they evolved in a world where such responses may have been useful.  And yet, they continue to operate even through the best person for the job isn't one's family member or friend, where in the strangeness of other cultures lie the most lucrative business opportunities.

Becoming aware of the buggy aspects of our minds is the first step toward unraveling them. How we discover what needs unraveling, how we do it, and how successful we are at it are complex issues. But the fact that we do it is impressive. One of the stories to come out of the 2006 election is that representatives who were successful at bringing home earmarks to their states didn't necessarily win because the electorate cared about something larger than their own backyard.  The ability to think about one's own long range interest, to self-regulate and delay gratification, to consider the well-being of the collective, especially to view the collective as unbounded by religion, language, or nationality requires a mental leap that isn't natural or easy. And yet each new generation seems to be able to do it more successfully than the previous one. The standards for how we treat ourselves and others get higher, we examine our beliefs with more and more powerful lenses, and we turn our minds inside out and shake out the rot.

Why do we do this? I'll argue that we do this for at least three reasons. First of all, because newer laws demand it (we work next to gay co-workers because it is the law and soon minds are changed). Second, old beliefs come unraveled because such unraveling is in our self-interest (India is cool because India generates revenue and soon even Bollywood is spoken about positively).

Most importantly though, we unravel existing beliefs and preferences because we wish them to be in line with our intentions and aspirations and recognize that they are not. I see evidence of this everywhere—small acts to be the person one wishes to be rather than the person one is—and it is the constant attempt at this alignment that gives me optimism.