Five Basic Human Psychological Flaws

In preparation for New Year’s resolutions, LiveScience put together a sort of advice column meets science article with five different scientists each discussing a basic psychological flaw that all humans share. As I’ve said before, I always find this kind of information extremely interesting since it’s something we tend to deny or ignore, when openly acknowledging our unavoidable biases would be the best way of overcoming them. So let’s acknowledge them here!

Check out the article at LiveScience for the full scoop, but here are some excerpts:

1. We Fear the Other

… Social psychologists call this “in-group” bias; cognitive psychologists see its advantages in fluent, speeded-up processing of the familiar. We’re long used to who we are, and so no real thought is necessary to deal with ourselves. Thus, in order to preserve our precious laziness of thought, we heavily invest in surrounding ourselves with people just like us. We segregate into neighborhoods and work and leisure environments where any others closely approximate us in age, race, income, political allegiance and even sexual orientation or the accepted type of facial hair.

The consequence is that we never get to meet anyone who isn’t like us. This, in turn, leads to failing to imagine any Other, and to a loss of desire to even consider the Other as someone who exists, a real human being just like us, except not just like us…

2. We Indulge in Ill-Informed Stereotypes

… I study the brain in love. My colleagues and I have put over 80 men and women into a brain scanner (MRI), and we found no gender differences in romantic passion. This Single in America study tells it like it is: Men are just as eager to find a partner, fall in love, commit long term and raise a family. And the sooner journalists (particularly those writing for women’s magazines), social scientists (particularly those convinced that men are evil), TV and radio talk-show hosts, and all the rest of humanity that berates men begin to embrace these findings, the faster we will find — and keep — the love we want.

3. We Go With Our Gut

The emerging view in psychology is that morality is something we feel more than think. Rather than reasoning our way to decide what is right and what is wrong, there is now overwhelming evidence to suggest that moral evaluations are “gut” reactions that we justify after the fact with what seem like principled arguments…

When victims of misfortune are close to us — when we can see and feel their suffering — we are capable of incredible generosity and self-sacrifice. When our connection to victims is less visceral, however, even when we “know” full well of their suffering in a cognitive sense, we are often unmoved by their plight and able to rationalize our inaction… Our tendency to mistake what we feel for what we think, especially in the realm of moral judgment and
decision-making, plays a central role in intergroup conflict and moral hypocrisy, and because the problem lies as much in our guts as in our minds, it is a challenging weakness to overcome…

4. We Lack Empathy

In my view, the most pervasive limitation in people is the ability to accurately understand the feelings and needs of others, and to fully appreciate their own impact on other people.

This ability is typically conceptualized in terms of “empathy,” “emotional intelligence,” “social intelligence” or “interpersonal intelligence,” and it clearly varies in strength from person to person.

While I think that people broadly recognize the value of this ability for selfish gain (e.g., to be an adept communicator, or to “charm” others), it also plays a critical role in caring for others — empathy most certainly does this in motivating altruistic behavior…

5. We Act Out of Self-Preservation

One of the most disturbing things I have learned about people is that they are very self-protective, sometimes at the expense of others. My research in sexual harassment demonstrates that people will blame others in a manner that protects their own interests. People who unconsciously find themselves to be similar to victims of sexual harassment will assign a relatively stronger level of blame to sexual harassers. This is not particularly disturbing; what is disturbing is that people who unconsciously find themselves to be similar to sexual harassers tend to let people off the hook for sexual harassment and even go so far to blame the victims of the harassment…

These are pretty simple things, as with many biases and fallacies; the notable thing with all of these problems is that we all have them, whether we realize it or not.

If you think about it, all of these issues come down to faults in critical thinking. As the third point notes, we allow ourselves to behave immorally by rationalizing our feelings instead of applying our moral framework to the facts of the case. If we practice putting feelings aside and instead dispassionately analyzing the facts in front of us, we can avoid every one of these issues. That kind of thinking is what makes science go round, so the more we practice thinking like scientists, the easier it may be to stick to our morals instead of our guts. 

“Science can answer moral questions”

Here’s a TED talk in which Sam Harris argues that we don’t need to rely on conjecture or appeals to authority to find moral truths – we just need to look at the science. According to Wikipedia, “Sam Harris is an American author, philosopher, and neuroscientist, as well as the co-founder and current CEO of Project Reason.”

Unfortunately, I disagree with him, and I hope it’s obvious why I think he’s wrong. He immediately equates morality with human well-being, explains that through neuroscience and psychology we can measure well-being, and therefore through neuroscience and psychology we can dictate morality. If only it were that simple.

Not everyone equates morality with human well-being – in fact, I’d argue that few, if any, people do. There are at least two obvious alternatives to maximizing human well-being as the objective of morality – obeying a higher authority, or respecting human rights that appear self-evident. If someone finds a certain right to be self-evident and inviolable, for example, then whether or not it’s best for human well-being is absolutely irrelevant. One might assume that science could tell us how to maximize human well-being given the limitation of respecting human rights, but in any case that won’t result in everyone being able to agree on what’s moral or not. 

Sam Harris can claim that these alternative systems of values are wrong, but there’s simply no scientific basis for that, or for any system of values. He can use science to explain how best to get what we want, but not what to want – just like the chocolate or vanilla comparison he used, wrongly. 

This post of mine definitely seems to stray hard from science to philosophy, but I think it’s important to recognize the boundaries of what science can tell us. I think Sam Harris seriously misunderstands or misrepresents this. Science remains what it’s always been – our best tool for surviving and thriving – but how and if we use it is still up to us. 

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