Tuesday, November 9, 2010

How We Process

One thing we should all come to expect from elections is the increased level of hatred and ignorance which is conveyed by citizens across the political spectrum. The "my party" mentality is exhibited in the mantra to "vote the party line", which in itself implies a level of absolutism that should offend. Though masked as an ideological difference, the very idea that a political party, which is framed by a specific dogma, has the ability to solve the problems society presents may be the single most deceptive aspect of their pitch.

When ad campaigns focus their attention on qualifying someone as an "Obama Liberal" or a "Tea Party Conservative", the expectation is that the observer will correlate the phrase to a preconceived notion of the individual or group and subsequently your decision will not be made based on information supplied but distinct experiences and preconceived notions. When we fall for such a tactic we find ourselves lost as our decision is not based on the idea but on the presumption of the idea.

I found a post from 2007 by a Maria Binz-Sharf that referenced a talk on human information processing at the Columbia Business School. The speaker was a Thomas Mussweiler from the University of Cologne. Binz-Sharf writes:

Mussweiler went on to talk about various factors that influence the comparisons we make, most importantly the standards we employ for comparing information. His experiments used a technique called “priming” to activate certain standards – for example, subjects were asked to judge a trait in a person. The result shows that priming a trait concept (such as aggressiveness) will induce the subject to judge the target person according to that trait. In other words, once activated, standards are spontaneously compared to the target person.
We shouldn't be so naive as to expect us to remove "priming" from how we approach the world and the people we experience in the world. Doing so would eliminate a basic element of survival. We are obligated to discern a person or situation based on observable elements and in doing so can react in a manner which might ensure safety or success.

However, not all situations warrant an immediate reaction and it is those times, in which a more academic or cognitive approach is prudent if not responsible. For example, we don't succeed in college by our first experience of the text or idea. We evaluate what is being said, we look at alternate options and then formulate an opinion or response. The key is being able, to the best of our ability, to defend the position while being sympathetic to the counter argument. If I learned anything from my philosophy professors it is that.

Going back to the election, how then are decisions being made? If we are asked to judge a candidate through a narrow lense, how informed and accurate (and accurate is used very loosely here) can that decision be? Liberal, conservative, religious, democrat, republican, those terms don't really mean anything until we approach the idea. And even then it becomes a matter of understanding how the idea is to be applied.

Here is where the processing of information becomes our tipping point. If the scope is narrow then our understanding of cause and effect is narrow. For example, liberal idea A and conservative idea B, though appearing mutually exclusive, actually compliment each other to the extent that they address potential scenario K, O and W. The exclusivity, if we're not careful, is assumed based on nothing more than an association fallacy.

Politics were a convenient example as we just experienced the mid-term elections, but the idea of processing came about from a day spent sitting, talking at the St. John's Town Center. Manner of dress, a look or a physical display is observed and the mind tries to qualify the participant. A specific example that fascinated were drivers as they approached cross walks. Some waved the pedestrian by with such aggressiveness that they almost seemed bothered. I couldn't help but wonder what the driver saw the pedestrian as and therefore how they were processing this impediment to their destination.

While discussing this, my friend Josh spoke of how he marveled at the inherent complexity of the human being. In reflecting upon his comment I find it more appropriate than when he initially said it. How we process can be correlated to a lie and how entangled one gets when lying. The difficulty in not only making a decision but then making that next decision is contingent upon how informed the first choice was. If, like a lie, there is no depth of understanding then confusion prevails and we eventually become overwhelmed by choices for which we are unprepared.

As Binz-Scharf furthered noted, "I kept asking myself how the way we process information relates to how we search for it." This seems to me the integral first step. Am I looking to disprove or prove and if so am I approaching it with a bias. For example, is the pedestrian walking slowly across the street on purpose (i.e. it is a personal attack towards me)?

An old mentor once told me that if you go into a debate with the thought that you have nothing new to learn then there is no reason to engage your opponent. I can't imagine a more difficult task we are then asked to complete: Take the time to formulate the opinion only to hold it open to change. Yet isn't that the very nature of learning?

No comments: