In "The Myth of the Rational Voter," Bryan Caplan shows how many voters hold mistaken views as determined by public polling about known facts. The “miracle of aggregation” — that a large group’s average answer tends to be nearly correct —generally saves democracies from widespread error. For instance, the average of a large number of individual guesses as to the number of beans in a jar has a high level of accuracy because the high guesses offset the lows. Grateful as I am for the principle of aggregation, its dispiriting corollary is that lots of voters hold incorrect views.
I have thankfully been corrected and re-routed in many things more important than politics. It’s hard to see your own mistakes, and even when you do, pride makes it very difficult to admit them. The higher the stakes, the harder to own up to them.
It is fundamental human nature to justify our actions no matter how misbegotten. Some mental design flaw seems to impel us to defend our decisions, against evidence to the contrary — not because they’re right, but simply because they’re ours. We’re hard-wired to justify almost any practice or opinion as long as it’s our own. As foolhardy as that may seem, you can watch it play out in a home or workplace near you. Although we find reasons to justify our actions after the fact and emboss upon them convincing arguments and proofs, if they are subjectively made, as many important decisions are, they may be wrong, even very wrong.
One of the most stunning examples of upside-down human reasoning is found in the abused spouse/partner syndrome. One person I know entered into an abusive relationship despite the most credible warnings of serious danger to herself, her children and other loved ones. She suffered painful, degrading and ongoing abuse; she risked serious injury and even possible death; she disregarded warnings given her by the perpetrator’s own family and previous victims; she still defended the abuser to police, family and self, and continued in the toxic relationship. This otherwise loving mother even persisted in the relationship under the real threat of losing custody of her children. Fortunately, she made it out alive. Many don’t.
The incredible subjectivity we allow to influence our decisions comes from the human proclivity to trust and believe oneself to the exclusion of other reasoned sources. It’s the voice of pride or ego. Like contact lenses on the eyes of one’s soul, the ego colors and warps our view of ourselves and others. Unless we learn otherwise, these lenses distort the truth to make it comfortable for us and to shield ourselves from the pain of acknowledging our inadequacy and from the need to change. The ego mounts a large metaphorical mirror on the walls of our mind’s eye to cleverly magnify our strengths and minimize our flaws. This skewed self-perception leads inevitably to self-satisfaction and self-justification.
As we accept our ego’s constant assurances that we are generally in the right, we set ourselves against the truth. Truth is a formidable enemy, indeed an unbeatable one. But no truer wisdom has been spoken than that the truth shall make you free — in this case, free from the chains of the isolation and consequences of stupid mistakes that come of over-reliance on ego-driven internal voices.
The danger that comes of letting our ego shield us from reality is far greater than the risk of losing an argument because we believe in mistaken facts. The real peril is deluding ourselves about the most elemental truths. The casualty in this will probably be our happiness.
Amazingly, no matter how great the distortions of our self-delusion, they are rarely perceptible to us. Like a giant tapeworm, the ego fights to maintain both its life and its invisibility. Even as the tapeworm eats the life-sustaining nutrients meant for us, we cover for it so long as we refuse to acknowledge that something is wrong.
Education, honest self-appraisal, listening to the criticisms of others, gauging our actions and views against the good people in our lives can help us see ourselves honestly. To see ourselves as we really are is one of the greatest of gifts. It is the beginning and the end of wisdom.
Greg Bell is the current president and CEO of the Utah Hospital Association. He is the former Republican lieutenant governor of Utah.