Monday, June 28, 2010

the anosognosic's dilemma

NYTimes | In one of his first e-mails, David Dunning wrote to me about the mediocre detective who is unaware of significant clues littered all around him. A thousand unnoticed purloined letters easily within reach. Cluelessness could be just another way of expressing our relationship to the unknown unknowns. We don’t know what questions to ask, let alone how to answer them. I sent an e-mail to Dunning: “If you were to make a Venn diagram of cluelessness, self-deception and denial, what would it look like?”

Shortly afterwards, Dunning responded.
I’ve attached a PDF with how I see it. Cluelessness is clearly the biggest circle, in that there is so much knowledge and expertise that lies outside everybody’s personal cognitive event horizon. People can be clueless in a million different ways, even though they are largely trying to get things right in an honest way. Deficits in knowledge, or in information the world is giving them, just leads people toward false beliefs and holes in their expertise.

That is not to dismiss or belittle self-deception. A caveat to begin: The traditional academic definition of “self-deception” is technical and a little stodgy. It requires that, to self-deceive, a person both know “X” and deceive himself or herself into believing “not-X.” But how can a person both believe and disbelieve “X” at the same time? This is for philosophers to argue about (and they have, for centuries) and for experimental nerds like me to try to figure out how to demonstrate decisively in the lab (so far, we haven’t).

But if we imbue self-deception with a looser definition, we have a lot to talk about. Psychologists over the past 50 years have demonstrated the sheer genius people have at convincing themselves of congenial conclusions while denying the truth of inconvenient ones. You can call it self-deception, but it also goes by the names rationalization, wishful thinking, defensive processing, self-delusion, and motivated reasoning. There is a robust catalogue of strategies people follow to believe what they want to, and we research psychologists are hardly done describing the shape or the size of that catalogue. All this rationalization can lead people toward false beliefs, or perhaps more commonly, to tenaciously hang on to false beliefs they should really reconsider.

Denial, to a psychologist, is a somewhat knuckle-headed technique in self-deception, and it is to merely deny the truth of something someone does not want to confront.
Clearly, Dunning believes that we are incarcerated in a prison of cluelessness. But is there any possibility of escape? I had some additional questions for Dunning, and so we arranged to speak again. Fist tap Dale.