Saturday, 12 June 2010

(1/4) Accepting and justifying traditions

Hello internets! My full-time practical training is over and vacation is here. Let's write!

I've got a series of posts lined up for you about norms, authority and traditions.

In this first post I'll discuss why we are unwilling to challenge the traditions we follow, and in the following posts I'll go into when this becomes a problem with norms, ethics and even game design.

People have a tendency to accept the norms, traditions and power structures around us as natural. Rather than asking ourselves "Why do we do it this way?" or "What does these traditions we follow lead to in practice?" we instead say "It's always been this way" or "It's just the natural way to it" to find justification for our way of life.

There is nothing strange about this. As you might remember from my model of mental health, we need some parts of our lives to be automatized, we need some rules that doesn't change. We just don't have the cognitive capacity to consider every action and decision in full. As a matter of fact, we want to avoid scrutinizing our assumptions and traditions... Because, what if we discover that we've been wrong all the time?

Cognitive dissonance
The sense that what we are doing is counter to our ideals, or that we act on different principles in different situations is nigh on unbearable to us, and we go to some lenghts to reduce this feeling. In social psychology, this feeling is called cognitive dissonance. Wikipedia has an excellent article on it, check it out! I quote Wikipedia:

The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, or by justifying or rationalizing them.
So let's say I beat up my kids every day to foster them into obeying my moral rules.
- One day a person comes along and tells me that moral humans are raised with a sense of trust, not with punishment.
- Holy shit! So I've been hurting my children with no good reason all this time? But I love my children! And loving and hurting someone does not match up!
- To avoid this sense of cognitive dissonance, I animatedly describe what an idiot this person is and how totally wrong sie is. By rejecting this idea and declaring it false, I can maintain my moral consistensy.

In fact, people spend a lot of time justifying their own behaviour. We like to believe that we always make decisions based on reason and ideals, and then execute these in action. In actuality, more often than you'd think we act first and afterwards justify what we just did with explanations, rationalizing our actions or feelings.

Instinct first, then reasoning
I bet all of you have been in a discussion when someone brings forward an argument for a cause, and when proven that this person is wrong in hir argument, sie changes the argument. Take a look at this, for instance:

Person A: "We need a death penalty as a deterrant for crimes like homicide"
Person B: "Actually, countries with a death penalty has a higher frequency of homicide than states without."
Person A: "Well, it's insane to spend money to bunch murderers up together in prison, they'll be out again soon, and worse than they were before!"

See what happened there? If person B is right, and person A truely believe that we should lower the amount of homicides, sie should rationally change hir position on death penalty, not change hir argument.

Rather than reaching his position through rational consideration of for and against arguments, Person A first of all feel strongly that murderers should be put to death, and then justifies hir feelings with intellectual arguments.

This is not necessarily wrong, we need our feelings to guide us and inform us of a situation. The most skilled practicioners leave room for intuition and gut feeling in a decision making process.

Generalizing and building ideologies
Also, by turning what we experience personally into something general, or law of nature, we can justify our feelings. "You ALWAYS leave your dirty socks on the floor! Can't you pick them up after yourself like a normal person?" justifies my frustration more than "I don't like it when you leave your dirty socks out". Feelings turn into arguments.

And this goes for ideologies as well! Let's compare conservatives and liberals:

On a neural level, conservatives react stronger and faster to scary stimulus. The ideology of conservatism is basically a body of intellectual arguments justifying why we should remove these scary stimulus. In the same way, the ideology of liberalism can be understood as a way to justify curiosity, sensation-seeking and egocentrism. Personally, I experienced a sense of not always being taken seriously as a child, and my own ideology can be understood as a justification of my longing for acceptance and approval.

This can be disheartening, but I feel there is something beautiful in how humans can create meaning. In the end, we live in a cold and objective world of chemistry and physics, but we have the ability to turn a meaningless nature into meaningful ideology, art and society, to build a rich world of the mind atop the world of materia.

Brain damage
People who have lost the part connecting the two brain hemispheres together, have in effect two brains working independently. During these conditions, the process of justification becomes extremely clear.

Show the message "Take out your red coat" to the persons left eye, and the right brain hemisphere will register and process this message, and have the persons left arm reach for the coat.

Then, ask the person why sie reached for the coat. Language is located in the left hemisphere, but the left hemisphere doesn't know about the written message, and the person will reply "Oh, I felt like taking a walk" or something to that extent, that is make up a reason on the fly for the action just taken!

First part in series. Next part: Accepting normativity.


Anonymous said...

Well, I see what you're getting at, but I see a problematic dualism in the uncritical distinction between "feelings" and "arguments", as if unarticulated emotions could not have a rationality of their own, or as if arguments could not have a productive, rather than merely a representative, function, effectively constructing the world in which we live rather than just being a free-floating set of coping mechanisms somehow floating ghostlike atop a "a cold and objective world of chemistry and physics". We shouldn't forget that chemistry and physics, as well as the psychology of feelings, are also attempts to justify the world as experienced -- i.e., as "felt".

Arvid Axbrink Cederholm said...

Oh, I agree absoluteley! Did my text come off as the opposite?

To clarify, when I refer to a world of chemistry of physics, I mean the objective world composed of physical and chemical phenomena, not the world viewed through these sciences.

Anonymous said...

Well, it's not really possible to make that distinction. The world can be perceived as being composed of physical and chemical phenomena only through the sciences of physics and chemistry. "Objectivity" is, in itself, a function of natural science, which the utter failure of philosopher's of science to define a standard of scientific objectivity that does not refer in a circular manner to natural science itself amply demonstrates.

But fair enough.

Arvid Axbrink Cederholm said...

I see your point.

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