Monday, May 7, 2012

Humble Pie

Today was a pretty awesome day.

I'd been looking forward to it all weekend: I took my first bike ride of the season out to the Bay.  I really miss not being able to bike in the winter.  Oddly enough, biking makes me more motivated to swim.

My major projects for this weekend were, as I told one friend, to "mow the papers and grade the lawn."  I did it the other way around, though.  My lawn took over while I was away: I've been hard-pressed to find a clear 48 hours when I can get it cut.  It's the only time of the year my rechargeable electric mower isn't up to the task-- the first lawn-mowing of the season. 

If the weather would just stop with the freakin' drizzle, I could do it.

I've been reading Thomas Gilovich's How We Know What Isn't So.  The short answer is, we often don't.  Gilovich looks at all the reasons we think we know what we know and why we often "know" things that aren't really the case at all.

My favorite chapter is entitled, "Seeing What We Want to See."  Gilovich notes that "We are inclined to adopt self-serving beliefs about ourselves, and comforting beliefs about the world" (78).  That's why there are all of those "great guys" out there and a world full of self-proclaimed "smart, funny, sassy and wonderful women" just waiting for them.

And that's why they're all divorcing each other on a regular basis.

On an odd--but related--side-note, I'm a bit concerned at the personalized ads appearing on my Facebook lately.  Today, there was one for "senior men looking for faithful women."  It touted "real" men looking for "faithful women" to "take care of."

I'm down with the "real" and the "faithful" (as long as it's in reference to fidelity, not faith), but "to take care of"?  What am I, helpless?  Why am I being targeted in this way?  What in God's name did I post that triggered that particular ad?

Anyway, Gilovich notes phenomena such as confirmation bias (we tend to sort and identify input as "reliable" when it confirms what we already wanted to believe), and the fact that "the average person purports to believe extremely flattering things about him or herself--beliefs that do not stand up to objective analysis" (77).

Well, that's certainly unfortunate.  Anyone who has spent any time being chatted up at a bar or at the beach, though, knows this from (often painful) first-hand experience.

Luckily, I now have a pat response: "I'm sorry, but based on my initial observations, your beliefs clearly do not stand up to objective analysis."

It happens, Gilovich argues, because we adjust our standards to suit ourselves.  We lower that bar to just about our own level and then evaluate accordingly--insisting on our own "objectivity" as we do so.  As Gilovich explains,
By basing our definitions of what constitutes being, say, athletic, intelligent, or generous on our own idiosyncratic strengths on these dimensions, almost all of us can think of ourselves as better than average and have some "objective" justification for doing so. (84)
Nothing like stacking the deck.

For my part, I try to keep it real by doing something truly unintelligent at least once a day.  Usually, I spill something on myself, but today, for a change of pace, I belted my head on the door-frame as I was carting my rain-barrel up the stairs of my basement walk-out.  I yelled an obscenity, and angrily announced, "I always do that!"

According to Gilovich, this is another way in which we sort evidence to confirm our own presuppositions.  Logic would dictate that, since I haven't used the walk-out since last fall, I don't "always" hit my head when I use it.

I think I do, though, because hitting my head stands out as an "event"--if I don't hit my head, I don't pause at the top of the steps and savor the fact that I didn't hit my head.  I just go about my business.  I remember the few times I bang my head, and they stand out as the "norm."

This is also why I "always" get the shopping cart with the wobbly or sticky wheel, why I "always" get stuck behind a slow-poke when I'm late, and why I "always" use the wrong key when I first try to open my office door.

This is also why, in the end, we credit a thinker like Socrates with wisdom.  In Plato's Apology, Socrates acknowledges that, in contrast to his fellow-man, "I am better off than he is - for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know."

No comments:

Post a Comment

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."