Back in the early 90&#x2019;s I was a trainee Commercial Pilot with hair that could probably produce more lift than most of the light aircraft I flew. One brisk morning, I was told by my Instructor, Bob, that we were going to do our first lesson in Instrument flying. Now, flying comes in 2 flavours: 1. Visual: flying only when the weather is nice enough to clearly see the horizon and land below you. This is the domain of rookie and weekend pilots. 2. Instrument: flying with little to no external visibility &#x2013; being allowed to punch into the clouds. This is the serious stuff, for more advanced pilots. I was eager to do it, so we had our pre-flight briefing, grabbed a Cessna and headed out.
Bob got me to level out at 5000&#x2019; in the Southern Training Area, and put &#x2018;the hood&#x2019; on me: a plastic contraption designed to stop the pilot seeing anything but 6 instruments.
Bob asked me to maintain straight and level flight. I scanned my instruments and was doing just fine. He then asked me to maintain altitude and perform a standard rate turn. It was a bit harder, monitoring each changing instrument and adjusting while I turned, but it was doable. I reached my heading and rolled back out to straight and level. Then I noticed the attitude indicator &#x2013; the instrument that shows you the horizon &#x2013; wasn&#x2019;t quite straight so I dipped the right wing slightly. I looked across to my turn and slip indicator. That seemed a bit out too, so I kicked in some left rudder. Then the directional gyro started turning. My altimeter was rising. The artificial horizon was slipping off the gauge. I could FEEL I was flying straight and level. I KNEW I was flying straight and level, but my instruments were going haywire! Bob whipped the hood off me.
I&#x2019;d entered what&#x2019;s known as the graveyard spiral
In a recent study, the average pilot with no instrument flight training, entering clouds, lasted a mere 178 seconds before spiralling to their death. Why does this happen? We follow our intuition. Our vestibular senses &#x2013; those that tell us which way our body is oriented &#x2013; which way is up &#x2013; like all senses, can be misleading. Fair enough. My senses had led me astray. Lesson learned.
Next lesson, I wouldn&#x2019;t be fooled by this. But I was.
And the third lesson.
And the fourth. Each time, my mind would find another convincing reason that the instruments may be wrong: &#x201C;This aircraft has always had a dodgy vacuum pump. I bet it&#x2019;s gone.&#x201D; &#x201C;It might have been my senses last time, but this time, I KNOW the static tube is blocked.&#x201D; This fascinated me. I considered myself a smart, competent pilot &#x2013; yet I couldn&#x2019;t seem to accept the evidence over my intuition.
We&#x2019;re always told how amazing the 100 billion or so neurones that make up our brains are yet it&#x2019;s rare to hear about our cognitive shortcomings. That&#x2019;s what got me fascinated in the way the mind works. I wanted to know why mine was faulty.
In school, I was taught that the human mind works much like a modern laptop: &#x2022;Our senses act like high definition video cameras & mics, taking in every bit of information around them; &#x2022;Memories are preserved wholesale like data written to a hard drive; and &#x2022;And our brains process thoughts logically like we should all be wearing an Intel Inside sticker on our foreheads.
This is a poor metaphor. Mostly because it&#x2019;s completely wrong. It turns out that the &#x201C;faulty&#x201D; thinking that fascinated me was natural. This is how our minds are supposed to work. I just didn&#x2019;t know it because I was taught the wrong thing at school.
Our senses aren&#x2019;t like hi-def recording equipment. They don&#x2019;t perceive everything. In fact, they perceive only fragments
When pilots are taught to scan for aircraft, they break the sky up into quadrants because we only clearly see a tiny fraction of what&#x2019;s in front of us at any one instant. Our eyes dart about at 1000 degrees a second &#x2013; what&#x2019;s known as a saccade &#x2013; grabbing snippets of visual information and our mind fills in the blanks with what it expects to be there. Of course, looking at the sky, our minds just add a lot of blue, and an aircraft can easily be missed if it doesn&#x2019;t fall within the focus of a saccade. The rest of our senses act in a similar way, just picking up snippets of information and letting our mind create the reality of the world around us.
That&#x2019;s why we can easily trick our senses with illusions - and why people like Simon delight in knowing how you are going to perceive something.
And we don&#x2019;t store everything we experience in our brains. Only fragments of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings and emotions are captured. When we recall a memory, it&#x2019;s a constructive process. Our mind grabs a few of these snippets &#x2013; and fills in the blanks to construct a realistic movie &#x2013;
&#x2026;based on a true story. And the next time you recall it, it can change again, so it&#x2019;s more like a screenplay based on a book, based on a true story. Each time you recall that memory, it can be one step further from reality - yet seem as true as if it just happened.
&#x2026;and how we process information. Our cognitions. They&#x2019;re adapted mainly for survival in small groups &#x2013; great for discovering patterns &#x2013; not so good for higher order, logical thought. That horrible feeling I experienced when my intuition conflicted with the evidence before me &#x2013; the feeling caused by trying to hold conflicting ideas simultaneously &#x2013; that&#x2019;s known as cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance is how the mind resolves internal conflict without us even being aware of it. It&#x2019;s an adaptive mechanism. Can you imagine if we changed our beliefs every time new information came along? We wouldn&#x2019;t make it to work of a morning. My mind was simply protecting its prior concept of reality &#x2013; the one that was stronger &#x2013; my intuition. When cognitive dissonance kicks in, our mind scraps the weakest idea. It goes for the path of least resistance. The more invested in an idea you are &#x2013; the more time, effort, or resources that have been pumped into it &#x2013; the stronger it becomes &#x2013; the more likely it will win. This is how we develop irrational behaviours
Like smoking. My friend, Janine, is a warm, intelligent woman. She works as a nurse in intensive care. She knows what smoking does to you first-hand. She experiences it every day. Yet she&#x2019;s a smoker. She&#x2019;s not crazy or stupid, so how does she reconcile this? One evening we were having dinner with friends and she ducked out into the cold for a quick cigarette. When she came back, I asked her why she smoked. I knew she&#x2019;d tried quitting a few times. She wanted to live a long, healthy life like the rest of us, and she knew the damage smoking does. Janine looked at me and said: &#x201C;I&#x2019;m a nurse, Ash. I work long, irregular hours. I don&#x2019;t get to exercise, and don&#x2019;t eat a very healthy diet. Smoking keeps my weight down. If you think smoking is bad for your health, you should see the long-term effects of obesity.&#x201D; Just like that, Janine managed to rationalise away the dissonance between her behaviour and her knowledge. To create something worse, so she could choose the lesser of two evils. She&#x2019;d tried to give up smoking before and failed&#x2013; so now she found it easier to rationalise her behaviour.
Cognitive dissonance is also a great defender of our self-concept. That part of our mind that says &#x201C;I&#x2019;m a smart, moral person.&#x201D; It&#x2019;s probably the reason George Bush can&#x2019;t admit that he was wrong about Iraq. There were no weapons of mass destruction; no happy Iraqis greeting the US troops; and mission was not accomplished when he said.
But Bush was a man of his convictions. He saw himself as a good, moral, and ethical Christian. He was President of the United States, Leader of the Free World. Unfortunately, he also created the perfect context for making bad decisions. Bush was well known for demoting or firing anyone who questioned his judgements. Surrounding himself with Yes Men cocooned him from experiencing cognitive dissonance. Once George Bush decided to attack Iraq, he needed evidence of weapons of mass destruction. So, his staff diligently cherry picked intelligence reports &#x2013; finding the most tenuous scraps that would bolster Bush&#x2019;s beliefs.
This is known as confirmation bias: seeking information that confirms our ideas and minimising or discarding evidence to the contrary &#x2013; and it&#x2019;s one of the most common things our mind does to protect us from dissonance.
...and it&#x2019;s only one of many such cognitive biases. In fact, you&#x2019;re probably experiencing one right now.
In fact, you&#x2019;re probably experiencing one right now. Major industries are built around these weaknesses in our reasoning. From:
Cosmetics: creams that reverse ageing &#x2013; a pseudoscientific pipe-dream
...through Vitamins & supplements to boost your immune system. I hate to say it, but a boosted immune system is known to the medical community as an auto-immune disease
...to Alternative medicine that will rid your body of toxins and align your energies: concepts that were discarded once we discovered the vascular and nervous systems. Billions of dollars each year is cashed in on faulty beliefs that have been cemented by cognitive dissonance.
Just the other day, I took this photo on a tram in Melbourne. The bracelet the young man in the suit is wearing is a...
Power Balance bracelet, and it retails for $60.
The promoters say this piece of silicone with a small plastic hologram (available from China for $0.50 each) makes you stronger and more flexible. On face value, that&#x2019;s just stupid, but this young man&#x2019;s belief probably formed incrementally.
Before he bought it, this guy probably would have seen a favourite athlete - like Brendan Fevola &#x2013; wearing it. Power Balance sponsors & supports sports stars from all codes. They want elite athletes to be seen wearing these bracelets, so people think: if a top athlete is wearing this, it must be good.
He probably went online to look up Power Balance, and saw one of the many testimonials or impressive balance demonstrations (old tricks used in Martial Arts and Applied Kinesiology) they have posted on blogs and YouTube. The next time Fevola scored or did something remarkable, it would prove to the young man that Power Balance somehow works. He then invests $60 in what&#x2019;s effectively a rubber band with a plastic sticker. The placebo effect is great with non-specific, subjective feelings, so he would probably feel a bit stronger and more balanced once he puts it on. When friends ask him how it&#x2019;s working for him, our young man in the suit would clearly recall some of his better sporting performances, but he&#x2019;d fail to recall all of his average or below average performances. Each time he&#x2019;s asked, the memories of specific performances become even more impressive, solidifying his belief that the plastic hologram stickers are reacting positively with his body&#x2019;s energy. Then a mate tells him it&#x2019;s a scam. In double-blind, controlled tests, it&#x2019;s shown to have absolutely no effect.
When faced with an unwinnable argument, cognitive dissonance can cause an angry reaction: &#x201C;Science doesn&#x2019;t know everything! Don&#x2019;t be so close-minded. You have to try it yourself to understand!&#x201D; Weirdly enough, encounters like this will actually solidify his faulty beliefs. His mind has painted itself into a corner. Unfortunately, the ferocity of our reactions from cognitive dissonance can also lead to much more. If you believe in something long or hard enough, you may even fight to the death to prove you&#x2019;re right.
This is why we have ideological wars: People killing each other to prove who has the better imaginary friend, or who holds the &#x2018;real truth&#x2019;.
But there is hope. Science is testament to that. It&#x2019;s not a thing, or an organisation. It&#x2019;s a process, and the body of knowledge resulting from that process. The process of science was designed specifically to address human bias, and discover how the world actually works.
The scientific method is a systematic approach that follows a series of steps. Unlike our natural tendency to start with a conclusion, and seek evidence to support it, science is about: making a prediction, testing it, and THEN drawing conclusions. To further mitigate bias, you also have to be transparent about what you did and how you came to your conclusions &#x2013; so others can look for fault in your methods or reasoning. And unlike the way it&#x2019;s portrayed, science isn&#x2019;t about Eureka moments. It&#x2019;s long, repetitive, detailed work that usually takes years for each researcher to yield tiny increments. As we just heard from Temple Grandin &#x2013; there are people who are passionate about and excel at this detail-oriented work. And with enough people making their small contributions and sharing their findings, amazing progress is made.
In the area of medicine alone, the discoveries of science have meant I&#x2019;ve never seen a child afflicted by smallpox or polio. I&#x2019;ve never been affected by a loved one dying of measles or diphtheria. These were all mass killers before we developed effective vaccines to prevent them.
If it weren&#x2019;t for some very clever recent advances in science, I would have lost my Dad twice over the past 15 years. He avoided a massive heart attack by having a balloon pulled through his heart to flatten the fatty deposits. He also avoided being consumed by cancer by having tuberculosis injected into his bladder, causing an immune response that attacked the cancer. It&#x2019;s not just medicine that benefits from reducing the impact of cognitive dissonance.
Decision making of any kind &#x2013; whether it be about consumer goods, relationships, or public policy can be made better by understanding how our minds work. By being aware of cognitive dissonance and the biases that affect us, and being transparent about how we reach our conclusions. We can certainly start by getting rid of those outdated metaphors and teaching children how the mind REALLY works &#x2013; and why science is so valuable.
Just like, as a pilot, I had to learn to trust my instruments over my instincts &#x2013; and it took many sweat-soaked, white knuckled flights to do this - we can all learn to overcome our weaknesses in reasoning: to evaluate the evidence before forming a belief.
We can all learn to use our minds more effectively: and I think that&#x2019;s an idea worth spreading.