Posts Tagged ‘self-serving bias’

Tolerating cognitive dissonance

November 4, 2012

The ability to live easily amidst contradictions is something Fitzgerald famously celebrated as a mark of intelligence. It is readily mistaken for the key to intelligent self-interest, one step up from lying to oneself for peace of mind when pressured to accept a falsehood, and one step down from admitting that even if the apparent truth would be risky to endorse, it is more likely to be true than the official line.

But as our troubled gut feelings like to remind us, like it or not, on some level we are all concrete thinkers who reject many apparent contradictions at face value. A sense of hypocrisy is tolerable up to a point, but there are times when we experience that dissonance physically as the focus of a passing feeling called regret. Conveniently, this dissonance can be resolved in hindsight, by rationalizing the regrets away.


Rationalizing and giving a dissimulating excuse are internal and external versions of the same arguments, but the only motive for rationalizing (internally) is fear of experiencing private shame. After all, privately felt dissonance carries no risk of embarrassment or punishment, unless somehow the belief you had done wrong would drive you to confess against your own self-interest to avoid the further private shame of hypocrisy.

If shame inspired no such fear perhaps it would not safeguard right action, but freedom to rationalize makes it a poor guardian of good conscience. Poorly armed against the self-serving biases of the ego, vulnerability to shame is easily rebuffed on principle as a slave mentality – as if willingness to confess against one’s self interest were a capitulation to the mob and not to a sense of higher purpose that the penitent wrong-doer shares and takes refuge in if the mob proceeds to condemn him on his own testimony.

Pervasive apathy towards injustice certainly suits the “sensible knave” described humorously by David Hume: “That honesty is the best policy, may be a good general rule, but is liable to many exceptions; and he, it may perhaps be thought, conducts himself with most wisdom, who observes the general rule, and takes advantage of all the exceptions.”

Hence the refreshing quality to antisocial aphorisms like those of the banned Soviet poet Kharms (the pseudonym of Daniil Yuvachev, who apparently starved to death in a lunatic asylum).

  • “Poisoning children is cruel. But something has to be done about them!”
  • “Old women who go around thinking sensible thoughts should really be apprehended with bear traps.”

Perhaps it is only the self-righteous who are completely unwilling to admit that any of their motives are selfish. In secular societies people worry little these days about self-righteousness. But whether inspired by religion or not, self-righteousness is characterized by the kind of self-serving bias that doesn’t discriminate at all. It gradually poisons one’s instincts by requiring unswerving indifference to cognitive dissonance to rule out any vulnerability to self-doubt.

This keeps the emotions boxed in, until they override reason with a more convincing deception that leads to seemingly self-defeating adaptive depravities instead – going mad, seeking escapism in addictions, etc. Indeed, refusal to take morality (or reality) seriously may be a more authentic description of a slave mentality, a reactionary hostility to the idea of justice in a world that excludes you from access to justice when you are the one being exploited and victimized.

But there is something nihilistic about rebelliously refusing to be shackled by a capacity for regret on principle, for it leads to rejecting all attachments that could be lost through one’s own choices, just to avoid ever circling back to bitter regret.

What sort of secular consensus could we reach as social animals to avoid these false alternatives? I especially like the way Eckhart Tolle cites an alternative translation of the Biblical word for “sin” in A New Earth, understood as merely missing the point of human existence, conveyed in a word also used for “missing the mark” with connotations of living “unskillfully, blindly” and merely through clumsy error “thus to suffer and cause suffering.”

In this context perhaps a wiser course than rationalizing away any personal regrets would be to live in a way more responsive to dissonance when deciding how to act (i.e., “acting in good faith”).

I have plans for my ego, you’ll see

October 9, 2012

When the ego argues with its perceived enemies, its argument is carried along mostly by momentum and enjoyment of pursuit, even if the nature of the desired intellectual victory is preconceived rather than a hope of pure discovery.

True, you entered Babylon
perfect and loved by all, crowned
king of the known world, roses
spread under your magnificent march
through the blue gates, Bucephalus
solemn, crowds in awe, cheering.

Inside, you accepted this, its cost,
chose not to shirk success.
You could want everything
and give away the great wealth
achieved, even to Persians

whose beauty in perfect
strangeness you knew could
reconcile Greek and Eastern ways,
not penance but duty, toward
mankind and accounting science.

This at all costs. You made yourself more
completely alone than a king dare be,
Hephaistion the only one,
could never survive without him.

I do not know how your dream
of him ended, but you reached
for death with a gift in hand:
the great ring, love the last thought.

“But of all these men,” meaning poets like Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, and Coleridge, critic William Empson warns there is an element of inane violence in their spirit of romance –  their energy – “an imposed excitement, a sense of uncaused warmth, achievement, gratification, a sense of hugging to oneself a private dream-world, is the main interest and material.”

Ideas are the motives of our crimes and wars, as much as material needs have ever been a cause of armed robbery or a slave revolt. And ideas drive oppressors too, both towards gluttony in acquisition and paranoia about their rivals.

These are two sides of one illusion, an exaggerated sense of their own vulnerability to destitution should they hesitate to seize everything they can for themselves.


Owning an idea, investing it with motives that are personal, and so harnessing one’s person to the inter-textual lives of the words that make it up and their indifferent fate as “other than a constellation,” does produce motion.

Why do we believe we even know what we’re trying to do, in these instances? The ego’s self-serving bias to credit oneself with every success and blame others for every failure internalizes as confidence all the effects of good luck and avoids a loss of nerve in the event of bad luck.

This bias is an excellent source of “forward” momentum when one is trying to pick up speed with which to bulldoze obstacles, but once your desires have been conclusively thwarted, the worldview collapses around you in paranoid ideation about why the universe is suddenly out to get you.

Whereas the insights that appear to you out of a private silence can truly surprise you, instead of reinforcing your enthusiasm for what you thought you already knew better than anyone else.

Sometimes it is out of rest that an insight arises that will transcend those very enthusiasms that have been keeping your mind on the offensive, they bring abrupt peace from the strain of the imagined yet deeply felt conflict.

“what I am in the music – buoyed and supported above dreams .. the starred peacock .. cancelling my forgotten fear of strangeness and catastrophe in a destitute world.” – Palace of the Peacocks

You have to know these things: where the birds are to be feared for enchantment, where the swallows are laden, whose are the peacocks and the swans, and what season marks the passing through of the thrush where you live.


You have to know better, this time, than to back away from the tropical canopy in trepidation having noticed that the flattery is not what is answered or was spurned by the birds you have so long admired from the middling branches. Neither did they scorn in particular at the dirty jokes you told about them in resentment of such ostentatious and forgetful charm.

“The main things which to me are important on their own account, and not merely as means to other things, are knowledge, art, instinctive happiness, and relations of friendship or affection” (Bertrand Russell).

What else is freedom good for in the hands of the solitary individual? Late walks in uptown Vienna, early afternoons by a window with a book, music in your own home, company of your choosing if they also choose you.

Any image of the European tradition too stern for this notion of luxury on a small scale as the fitting pinnacle of civilization is a bad mood provoked by the disappointment of no other ideal than this, an ultimatum about what else there is if not this much for all.

It is an affront and a spitting sense of impatience that alleges to Athens “more fitting, I ween, for an oily sardine, than for you or your city the phrase is” – of epithets “brilliant” or “shining” – and says to us now of the lazy urbane, “a strange disease of modern life .. its sick hurry, its divided aims.”

And the retort it deserves is given in the same voice, Matthew Arnold’s “nursing the unconquerable hope .. clutching the inviolable shade …” There is a defense to be made for the ego’s active stance, especially when its appetite for violence is turned against illusions of credibility surrounding entrenched misunderstandings that enslave the mind.

Activity keeps despair at bay, whether you keep a garden in a prison camp or in a fort abroad. Macedonians built rose gardens at the borders with Scythia too.

A confiscated farm leads to a caterwauling fit for Virgil’s “little domain” built and left to unfamiliar hands, that belonged “between the hills and the marshes, with its coolness and its springs, its wide pools and its swans, its bees in the willow-hedge,” for even bystanders can say as Sainte Beuve did, “we see it from here, we love it as he did..”

A Roman might generally know better than to believe in a dream like the one that possessed Ennius, of being inhabited by Homer’s soul himself, yet not know better than to write. “The motive for writing poetry and for reading poetry is the desire for Heaven before the time. It is Roman to wait patiently for Heaven, as Scipio was told in his dream. But this patience in waiting pent up a poetry deeper than poetry of Greeks.”

W.F.J. Knight says all this of the appetite for hexameters in Latin, despite every obstacle to suppressing vernacular verse forms in favor of those from an older language. They could not resist a chance to “become a student of style.”