Self-Preservation

Thanks to the reddits, I happened upon this site today: youarenotsosmart.com, and am now eagerly awaiting the release of the associated book.

The site is a collection of essays about the power of self-deception in the face of realities we do not wish to accept. One article in particular stood out rather prominently to me – The Backfire Effect.

I am keenly interested in how the notion of self as a persistent entity arises in the mind, and how our experiences and beliefs contribute toward that. It seems that we largely form our beliefs on the fly. We observe our environment and note things that seem important for later reference. The mind is constantly updating its working set with whatever incoming data that falls within the threshold of attention. As a loose algorithm, I would say it goes something like this:


teh brain

The Backfire Effect deals with the situation we find ourselves in when the incoming data contradicts the accumulated data which form our beliefs, and no amount of spin can be applied to make it conform. So how do we tend to react to this? According to David McRaney, we deny it. Not only do we deny it, but we become even more certain of our own correctness:

Once something is added to your collection of beliefs, you protect it from harm. You do it instinctively and unconsciously when confronted with attitude-inconsistent information. Just as confirmation bias shields you when you actively seek information, the backfire effect defends you when the information seeks you, when it blindsides you. Coming or going, you stick to your beliefs instead of questioning them. When someone tries to correct you, tries to dilute your misconceptions, it backfires and strengthens them instead. Over time, the backfire effect helps make you less skeptical of those things which allow you to continue seeing your beliefs and attitudes as true and proper.

Is this not a kind of extension of the physical instinct for survival? As in, the same thing that makes us flee predators or jump at an unexpected noise? As human beings, this instinct extends beyond the impulse to keep the body safe, because it’s not really the body we care about saving. It’s that accumulated set of memories and stream of ongoing mental chatter that we label ‘self’. I want my ‘me’ to continue. If I am my accumulated experiences and beliefs, tearing any of that away probably hurts a little. Even something incorrect or negative is still part of you, and excising it from your psyche might feel like the equivalent of lopping off an arm pinned under a boulder so you don’t die of exposure in the wilderness.

And the more central that belief is to what I feel is my self, the more difficult it will be to let it go. If a particular belief is essential to your personality, facing its destruction would be the psychological equivalent of death. If that is the case, then the reluctance to accept contradictory beliefs become far more understandable. Based on this, it would seem that the most effective – as well as the most compassionate – way to bring someone around to your point of view is to give them new information in stages. A gradual change feels a lot less like a violation of the self and a lot more like growth, which is far easier to cope with.

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