Monday, February 4, 2013

Deliberate vs...: A Post About Thinking (Part Three)

If you didn't read part one of this post series, you should really go back and do that. I don't actually say that very often, even when I do a series of posts. Generally, I try to keep the individual posts episodic in nature while being related in overall subject matter. However, this post is directly linked to the first post in this series, and, although you can read it all on its own, it won't have the same relevance. As such, I'm not repeating my disclaimer about how this is not meant to offend anyone.

Within the spectrum of how quickly people decide things (most people (80%) doing it quickly and with little to no thought), there are three categories of how people make decisions: emotionally, intellectually, and intuitively. As you may have guessed, the emotional decision makers are the ones that most quickly make decisions because they are reacting based upon how they feel about the subject. But it's not that simple...

Recent studies have shown that emotions are an essential part of the decision-making process for everyone. Yeah, it defies reason, because you'd think that making decisions is based on logic and reason and stuff, but, well, it's totally not.
"So at the point of decision, emotions are very important for choosing. In fact even with what we believe are logical decisions, the very point of choice is arguably always based on emotion." *
"Their ultimate decision is based on self-interest. That’s emotional. I want this. This is good for me and my side." * 
"The brain's wiring emphatically relies on emotion over intellect in decision-making" **

There's a lot more I could go into with this stuff, such as how almost all people accept the first piece of information they receive on a subject as true whether it's true or not [There was a fascinating study done where people were intentionally given false "facts" and, later, when the researchers came back and gave them the real facts, most of them (yeah, around 80%) would not look at the new information. They steadfastly held to the falsehoods even when told "we lied to you." They had already formed an "emotional attachment" to the information and no amount of counter evidence would persuade them. They believed they were being lied to in the second case rather than believe they had originally bought into a lie.], but, then, this piece would go on forever.

To give this some personal flavor, I ran into this kind of behavior for the first time around the third grade. I had learned some new fact at school, and, for some reason, it came up later with my family. My (step)father disagreed with my fact and told me I was wrong. I fell back on "my teacher said," and he told me she was wrong. I wouldn't let it go, so, later, we looked it up, and it turned out that I was correct, but my father said the resource material was also wrong. When I tried to argue with that, he told me he was right because "he said so." Then I got punished. It was a very eye opening situation.

Unfortunately, later, I would find out that most people are actually like this, refusing to accept facts in favor of what they already believe. They may not be quite as volatile about it as my dad was, but they are just the same.

The point is that very few people can break out of their emotional center when making decisions and most people (around 80%) make decisions solely based upon how they feel about whatever it is that's being decided. I like this; therefore, it is right.

The second group of people are the ones that make decisions intellectually. This is a more rational process in which the person needs information in order to make decisions. These are the list makers, those people that you know that list out all of the pros and cons of something before they can figure out what to do. Unfortunately, emotions are frequently behind the need to make the decision in this manner, such as the fear of making the wrong choice or, even, the driving desire to make the correct choice. Frequently, people also use this technique to bolster the decision they have already come to from an emotional standpoint, but they want or need for it to appear to be a rational decision. Still, all of this is slightly better than reacting from a purely emotional standpoint. These people make up most of the remaining 20%.

The last percent or two of decision makers are what's called intuitive thinkers. Science isn't really sure about these guys. Intuitive thinkers gather information, but it's not in the same way as the intellectuals. The intuitives are more likely to evoke empathy in their decision making by looking at the argument from multiple points of view. This goes beyond a mere list of pros and cons but involves taking into account how the differing sides feel about the situation. It takes the varying emotional viewpoints into consideration. After gathering all of the information, the intuitive decision-maker attempts to make the "right" decision, not necessarily the most objectively correct decision.

One thing we do know is that empathy, actual empathy, is fairly rare. Mostly, what people do is sympathy and mistake that for empathy. Sympathy is "I feel bad for you," but sympathy is also imagining how you would feel if you were in the same situation as the other person, "I'd feel really bad if I was going through that, so I feel bad for you." People often get that second one mixed up with empathy and, while it is a step toward empathy, it is not empathy. Empathy says, "You feel bed, so I feel bad with you." Or whatever the applicable emotion is. One keeps your own emotions intact; the other suppresses your own emotions in favor of the other person's.

Yeah, not even science has a good grip on empathy, what it is, how it works, or why so few people are capable of it. What we know for sure is that animals, especially dogs, are much better at it than people. Sure, many people may experience a flash of empathy once or twice in their lives, but actual empathetic people (on a sustained basis) are few and far between. What studies have shown, though, is that empathy is required in order to make decisions that go against your own emotional needs. It  takes the ability to be able to say "that other person's emotional requirements are more important than mine are, right now, so I'm going to put my own decision aside in favor of the other person's."

What all of this says is that reasoning with someone with an opposing view is rather pointless, because less than 20% of people have even a chance of being swayed by rational discourse. It doesn't matter what kind of logic is used or how much evidence you have; you can't change someone's mind that way. The only way to change someone's mind is by manipulating their emotions, and, guess what, that's exactly what commercials strive to do, get you to make an emotional connection with the product, whether that product is a thing, a person, or a position.

The other thing we know (scientifically) is that ideologies are strong emotional positions, and it's very (very) difficult to sway someone to an opposing viewpoint. In fact, unless the person only has a very shallow belief, psychology suggests that it's impossible without some sort of emotional crisis. For instance, a person that believes we have the right to own guns and own any kind of gun we want to own and that the government has no business knowing anything about it is likely to change his position if a loved one is killed in an episode of gun violence. He will suddenly "see the light" and realize how wrong he has always been and switch sides in the gun debate. As an example.

So, great, we have all of this information, but what good does it do us? Well, most of science will tell you that you are one of these ways because you were born that way and tough luck; however, there is some research that suggests that empathetic behavior models can be taught to children. The research is ongoing in that. I do know that people can learn, through (very) concerted effort, to make better decisions. To remove themselves from the emotion and approach the situation from the outside. Most people just aren't willing to do that. I also know that through (very) concerted effort people can learn to not accept every bit of information at face value.

I got kind of lucky with that. I had a great teacher at just the right time that taught me never to just accept what anyone was telling me, no matter who it was or how much I trusted that person. Even when it's people we trust, we can be mislead, not necessarily because that person may be trying to be misleading us but because that person might believe the wrong thing. Like my dad. That really became the operating basis for my life. Always confirm. Not that I always do that, because the piece of information may not be important enough to spend the time on, but I also won't give it any weight until I've seen evidence to back it up.

Let me just say that I've been in the room with preacher teaching an internet hoax as fact and leave it at that. You just don't want to be that person.


  1. My kids will one day tell how their mother refused to accept that Pluto was no longer a planet. That's an emotional argument. ;-p

    Shannon at The Warrior Muse

  2. Shannon, you stick to your guns!
    Arguments and facts won't change someone's mind if they've dug in with their beliefs? No kidding! See that every day.

  3. This is why I refuse to get into an argument about politics or religion or football. I'm not going to change anyone's mind, and they aren't going to change mine. They're just wrong and I'm right. :P

    But interesting thoughts there about empathetic thinkers...

  4. I can be swayed by evidence quite easily. If someone doesn't have evidence though and continues to press a point, I can swiftly become onery. Bring me evidence, and I am a reasonable human being willing to change my mind and admit when I'm wrong. No evidence and there's the door, pal.

  5. This was a great post. It really got me thinking, and I enjoy that.

    I do take issue with your idea that someone who suffers gun violence might change their stance on gun control. A bit. There's an old saying that goes something like "A liberal is a conservative that got arrested. A conservative is a liberal that bought a house."

    The point being that you change your mind when your incentives and interests change. Most gun owners I know would argue that if they'd been around, or been more careful, or been more something or other, the gun death wouldn't have occurred -- so they wouldn't agree to outlaw guns, they'd just blame people who weren't them.

    I've actually changed my viewpoints on some significant issues over the years. I used to be pro-death penalty, and now I'm against it, in part because I came to realize that our system cannot perfectly identify the guilty (a fact) and came to believe that killing was wrong if it was done in retribution (a belief.) I used to be quite conservative, in fact, but my empathy (sympathy? I'm not sure I've understood the distinction) has caused me to rethink certain propositions. Like health care.

    Great essay, though.

  6. Shannon: I understand the reasoning behind the downgrade, but I will never stop thinking of it as an actual planet.

    Alex: You know, it's kind of distressing how completely non-rational people are.

    L.G.: The empathy stuff is very interesting. Especially so since no one is really exactly sure how it works/why it is.

    Michael: You, then, would be one of the few. One of the few...

    Briane: The gun thing was just an example. An example because it's one I know of that has happened in many cases in real life, just as there are examples of people that had been anti-death penalty until they lost someone to violence and suddenly wanted the death penalty.

    Like you, I used to be pro-death penalty, too, but that was back when I had a more idealized view of the system and was unaware of the number of people that have been put to death that have later been exonerated.

    If I can think of a more suitable way to describe empathy, I'll do a post on it. It's one of those distinctions that's hard to put into words that make sense. Sympathy is "I will feel for you," and empathy is "I will feel with you," but that's really hard to grasp.

  7. Actually I find this blog pretty frightening to know people can be told incorrect information which they will believe in the teeth of genuine facts. I have come across this a lot of times, especially as I know I'm always right! The example with your step dad is very worrying and it certainly explains why you can give people proven facts until you are blue in the face and they will not accept them above previous beliefs.

    Empathy and sympathy, hmmmm. Difficult one that, I always believed I was empathic now I am not so sure any more.

    Great blog and certainly thought provoking.


  8. Wow, I think those last two sentences say it all :)

  9. Good stuff there... I can actually type now because I have my computer up and not my phone, but I'm supposed to be writing right now, not hanging out on your blog, so I'll be brief.

    I think you may have switched terms at least once in your paragraph regarding sympathy/empathy. I may have read to fast, but I'd go back over real quick to be certain. It might be part of Briane's confusion there.

    And I mentioned in an earlier post about how I think people can be taught to think critically, and eliminating most of the crazy assed stuff that people tend to come up with.

    I'd guess that deliberate, careful thinkers didn't do so well when a tiger would pop up in their den and start ripping things apart. So I'd guess doing something fast has often been more important of a survival trait through pre-history than it is in modern times. That same impulse action that saved you from getting eaten by that tiger doesn't translate so well into picking out the best investment portfolio, or determining which brand of toothpaste is most effective at preventing gum disease.

    My point being that the things that have shaped us a s a species don't necessarily translate to being a modern, civilized person.

    Anyway, great advice, I don't want to be that guy... If I have one more argument with my mother about how many spiders a person eats in their sleep I'm going to pull my hair out.

  10. Actually, I think it was me that read too fast the first time. As always, good job explaining.

  11. Jo: I have another story about people believing the wrong stuff, but there wasn't room for it. I'll tell y'all about it one day.

    Jess: They do. (Despite the missing word :/ )

    Rusty: How many spiders do people eat in their sleep? Actually, I once saw a cockroach fly into a friend's open mouth while he was asleep. So gross. We woke him up because we were laughing so hard.

    I do think people can (possibly) be taught to think... if that teaching happens early enough. We just don't do that in school, though, because it's hard.

  12. I'd like to believe I don't make choices based on emotion but if those studies are accurate, then it looks like I have. Oh well. Like your teacher said, don't just accept what people tell you and you'll be all right.

    It's interesting that empathy is so rare in humans. Perhaps we get too caught up in our own feelings.

  13. Andrew - I should really be writing. But it's one of those 'made up' facts that the internet is full of. She's received it via email several times, like the one that says that Mars is about to appear in our sky and be larger than the moon for the first time in 1000 years or something.

    But since it's in her head - and I don't really mean to pick on my mom, I'm just sayin - it's really hard to get it out.

    And things like TLC, Discovery, and The HIstory Channel don't help anymore, since so much of what they put out is faux-documentaries about mermaids, ancient aliens, faked moon landings, whatever. I'm constantly having to argue about stupid things all the time.

  14. Terrific post, but now I'm very concerned. After reading about your father, now I have some concern than my father may have been living a secret double life.

    Let's see. Empathy. To me, that's being able to relate and respond appropriately to another person's feelings. You hurt, I cry with you. That sort of thing. Most autistic people and sociopaths are incapable of feeling empathy for other people.

    In light of reading this post, I kinda think you might like the post I did yesterday about racism.

  15. Jeanne: I'm quite certain that humans are overly concerned with their own individual feelings.
    Some of the most fascinating of the research showed that people that had emotional difficulties due to brain injuries were actually incapable of making even simple decisions.

    Rusty: Or like the one that says that NASA has proved we're missing a day from the universe proving that God exists because he stopped time for a day? Yeah, I get it.

    Susan: That still sound more like sympathy. Empathy is where the other person's feelings actually become your own, not just the recognition of the other person's feelings and reacting to them.

  16. You can have two drastically opposing sides where each contains very logical arguments depending on sources of information, goals each wants to attain, and many other factors regarding the background of the believers. An undecided person in the middle may have a difficult time deciding which argument is correct and will probably resort to emotion or favoritism regarding who else supports on side or another. I won't say that one side is more or less logical or rational that the other, but that they are so only from where they are standing.

    Like the cited gun issue one side may be arguing with experiences and certain statistics and the logical aspects of these arguments are legitimate to some extent but not taking into account a historical and constitutional perspective an opposing side might be taking. They are really arguing different issues about one thing and it can be difficult to come any resolution in a case like that.

    Or in your 3rd grade example, of which I don't the specifics, the "facts" may once again be coming from different perspectives or generations. From what I hear, current history books are teaching some things differently from the way I learned them. My facts may be different from the facts that my grandchildren might get taught. For example, the way we look at Columbus, incursion of Europeans on the indigenous people, the Civil War, Pearl Harbor--there may be certain seemingly conflicting facts that if one analyzed them impassionately they'd see they are both true in some sense.

    It's like the Pluto example, but less scientific and based more on cultural changes or similarly human thought movements. The victors may write some of the history, but there are also other stories coming from many perspectives.

    Problem is we get too much information too quickly that is presented as authoritive and a lot of us don't have the time or don't care to take the time to carefully look at every detail to come to an absolute truth. Probably because in many cases there is no absolute truth in worldly things.

    Wrote By Rote
    An A to Z Co-host blog
    Twitter: @AprilA2Z

  17. Lee: Well, as for the thing with my father, it was a much more concrete thing than that as it was a geography question. We looked at the map, a current map, and he told me it was wrong. There was no issue of interpretation involved. He refused to acknowledge the hard evidence that was in front of him. It's somewhat like refusing to believe that the Earth is a spheroid or that it's not the center of the universe. Sometimes things we used to believe were true just turn out to be wrong, and some people refuse to acknowledge that they could ever be wrong about anything.

    As for the gun thing, I know there are many different factors involved, and most of them are valid to some extent or another. However, some issues have a greater weight to them...