Okay, that’s a bit of an oversimplification. But is it really? In this post I will be taking some of the main points from Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness to demonstrate the fallacious tendencies of humans (for sources, buy the book and look it up yourself).
One of the central premises of the book is that the brain is a liar. In one study, a group of volunteers were shown slides depicting a red car turning at a yield sign and hitting a pedestrian. Some of the volunteers were then asked a question: “Did another car pass the red car while it was stopped at the stop sign?” All the volunteers were then shown two pictures, one of a car approaching a yield sign, the other of a car approaching a stop sign, and were asked to pick the picture that they had seen. The results were shocking: 90% of the volunteers who were not asked the question pointed to the picture with the yield sign, but 80% of the volunteers who were asked the question pointed to the picture with the stop sign. This experiment, which has been replicated countless times and with the same results, suggests that humans don’t remember events entirely, and instead remember only the gist and fill in the missing details using other memories (such as the question about the stop sign).
The brain uses the same trick when imagining the future: when UVA and UNC fans were asked to estimate how happy they would be if their team won, they were happier when they didn’t have to describe the context. The brain initially only created the victory, without considering what would happen after (such as studying for a test). Moreover, a person’s feelings in the present can alter how they perceive the past and the future. People shopping on a full stomach are more likely to undershop for the week, people remember liking their romantic partners in the past as much as they do in the present, and people feel worse about their lives on a day with bad weather. We also let our assumptions about how we should have felt in a moment overwrite how we actually felt. Gender stereotypes are one example, with women in one study remembering having felt worse during menstruation than they reported in their diaries at the time. We remember extreme experiences (good and bad) better, so we remember them as having occurred more often in the past and as more likely to occur in the future. We also remember the end of an event better, causing us to believe that immersing our hands in ice water for 60 seconds was worse than immersing them in 60 seconds and then 30 seconds in slightly warmer water. The list goes on and on, but all told, retrospection and prospection are imperfect in humans.
In my opinion, however, the most important point in Gilbert’s book is how we like to cook facts to make ourselves feel better. People who were told that they had scored badly on an IQ test spent more time perusing newspaper articles that questioned the validity of IQ tests, while those that scored well looked for facts that supported IQ tests. When told that extroverts were more successful, people found it easier to remember events when they acted like an extrovert, and the opposite happened when they were told that introverts were more successful. We set different standards for facts we do and don’t want to hear – for example, people are more critical of studies that conclude results that don’t agree with them. We unconsciously surround ourselves with people who praise us and we ask them biased questions (“what do you love about me?”). Moreover, we compare ourselves to others all the time. People who do badly on tests compare themselves to people who do even worse, and if the stakes are high, they will actively try to hinder friends who are also taking the test. And when things obviously don’t go our way, we rationalize them: volunteers who were rejected for a job position by a jury were sadder in retrospect than those that were rejected by a judge, because the latter could chalk up their rejection to the uncontrollable whims of one person.
We do these things unconsciously too – when asked to define talent, volunteers defined it in ways that best described them, not necessarily others. Volunteers who were told that they were going to eat ice cream (which tastes good but is unhealthy) thought that spam (which tastes bad and is unhealthy) was more like kale (which tastes bad but is healthy), while volunteers who were going to eat kale thought spam was more like ice cream. Why? Because each person only thought of the good points of the food they were going to eat. For ice cream eaters, that was the good taste of ice cream, and so they compared the taste of spam and kale. Kale eaters, however, thought of the healthiness of kale, so they compared the healthiness of spam and ice cream. When something is irrevocably ours, we look for the good points even more than usual, which may be the reason why partisans are so zealous.
We miss out on so many details without realizing it, especially when we are not paying attention. In one study, a researcher approached college students to ask for directions. While the two were talking, two construction workers carrying a large door passed between the researcher and pedestrian, and in the process another researcher took the place of the original one. These researchers were very different, and yet most of the pedestrians failed to notice the switch. We also pay less attention to absences than we do to presences. For example, volunteers could tell the difference between a “special” trigram (a group of three letters) and “ordinary” trigrams when the special trigram contained the letter “T”, but not when it lacked that letter. When asked if West Germany and East Germany were more similar than Ceylon and Nepal, Americans picked the latter. They also picked the latter when asked which pair was more dissimilar. This was because when asked about similarities, volunteers ignored the absence of similarities, and when asked about dissimilarities, they also ignored such absences. The worst part, however, is that we don’t know that the brain is tricking us, and so we assume that everything we remember, imagine, and believe is true. In fact, most people think of themselves as more rational and intelligent than others.
What is the takeaway, then, besides the assertion of this post’s title? Gilbert’s book is about why we aren’t truly happy, but I think that the points he brings up can be used to interpret our society. We all hate it when the villain in the movie, TV show, comic, or book justifies their actions with some overcooked reasoning or stale generalization such as “my planet died because of overpopulation, so I’m going to snap my fingers and exterminate half the universe’s life, and everything will be fine”. The modern, real-life equivalent to this mysterious villain’s logic would probably be that of a conspiracy theorist or anti-vaxxer, and, while we might recoil and shake our heads, we ignore the same logical discontinuities in our daily lives; the only difference is that the conclusions we reach are less extreme. We can’t rely on our memory or our judgements, yet we hold such bold beliefs, whether explicit or implicit, as “binge watching Gray’s Anatomy and simultaneously binge eating cookie dough ice cream will make me happy and not wider” or “this blog post is too pessimistic, so I’m going to pretend that it’s all false”. In much the same way, we claim that “this presidential candidate is better than the other” or “schizophrenics are dangerous”, and we believe every bit of it. You might suggest that we stop being so stupid, but that is not an option. The truth is, the reason we wallow in stupidity is because it makes us feel good about ourselves, our past, and our future. The only people who are realistic about the degree of control they have over their lives are the clinically depressed, suggesting that unfounded optimism is the key to psychological well-being. Instead, we can simply acknowledge this human weakness and try, in some way, to compensate for it. If we can’t stop ourselves from making mistakes, we just have to have others pick up the slack. And, just like the Law of Large Numbers eliminates individual inconsistencies, if everyone can do this, maybe we can build a more rational society, one not mired in personally motivated fallacies.