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FEBRUARY 14, 2010 10:40AM

Faulty Thinking: Three Common Bad Habits

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I see these all the time, and they usually travel together in packs, like wild dogs.


One: Assumed Consensus.


How many times have you been trapped in a conversation with some loathsome redneck while he points a stubby finger at your chest and says stuff like “So this nigger starts mouthing off at me, as if he could do my job, or sumpthin, and I’m telling ya, I’ve had with these people, ya know what I mean? Fuck them. Man, these minorities! That’ the term now, right? Minorities? They’re fucking takin’ over, man. So this guy’s shuffling around and grabbin some thunderbird out of a paper bag, and mouthin off in some jig ghetto slang and he’s got this fuckin rap blastin outta his boom box  and I’m like, what’s next fried chicken and watermelon for lunch? And goddamn if that aint exactly  what he’s got in his goddamn lunch bag! I’m like– don’t live up to every fuckin stereotype, asshole.”

The worst part of this harangue is the assumption behind it: that you agree with him. He assumes everyone agrees with him. But they don’t. This why annoying people get into “unexplained” fistfights with normally calm co-workers. Why does this happen? I guess people just create the world in their own image. Liars think everyone is lying; thieves think everyone is trying to rip them off. Bigots assume a happy utopia of bigotry. I remember sitting in The Summer House, a luxurious restaurant in ‘Sconset, on the East end of Nantucket, with a woman I had just started dating. We were dining with her two daughters, and their Ivy League boyfriends. It was all very old money and Nordic. One of the daughters remarked casually “It’s so nice being in ‘Sconset. There are no Jews out here.” My name is Axelrod. What was she thinking? I said “I’m Jewish. But I’m leaving,” and I did. It wasn’t strictly true, though my great-great grandfather was a Hasidic rabbi in Northern Germany. “You’re Jewish enough for Hitler,” my step mother used to remind me. And that made me Jewish enough for these girls, too.

I think this particular habit is a function of stunted intelligence, lack of education, vestigial imagination and empathy. These people can’t imagine someone disagreeing with their beliefs, however grotesque and hateful. Often I say nothing, I admit it. You can only pick so many pointless fights in a given week.


Two: Objective Opinions


We all fall into this trap. We’re hardwired that way: our opinions feel objective. People who disagree with us just feel wrong. That’s why liberals don’t watch FOX news and conservatives rarely tuned in Air America. It’s unsettling to hear people saying stuff you know is wrong as if it was some kind of fundamental truth. And it’s not just politics. I’ve seen normally rational people get into heated arguments (and occasional friendship ending feuds) over movies like The English Patient and Titanic. People who hated Titanic couldn’t imagine anyone liking it; the same with The English Patient(I know, I was one of them).It’s one of those counter-intuitive facts of life we have to deal with – like the fact that our voices sound so odd on tape. That’s how we actually sound, when the words aren’t filtered through the echo-box of out own heads.

Or this: people actually like the vegetables that give you a gag response (Beets? Acorn squash? Brussells Sprouts?). My mother forbade certain phrases in my house growing up. One of them was “:How can you eat that?” The objective opinion syndrome is something we all have to deal with, every day. No one wants to be disagreed with.


Three: The Self-Exemption


          This one may be the toughest to avoid. Most of us do it, most of the time. A friend of mine railed against marital infidelity for years, vilifying the adulterers. But now she’s having an affair with a married man. Is she a villain now? Not to herself. He’s about to break up with his wife, it’s a loveless marriage, he’s been miserable for years, they’re living separately (except for that trip they’re taking together)  … and anyway these feelings are so deep and so true, etc, etc. You want to say, “Hello, all adulterers say that stuff. That’s the standard script, and you’ve been reviling it for thirty years.”

But it was never happening to her before., and that makes all the difference.

My girlfriend sneers at every face-lift (“She looks like a cat in a wind tunnel!”) and yet feels a serene conviction that a nip here and a tuck there will make her gorgeous. Protesting that she’s already gorgeous has little effect; but that’s her primary self-exemption: a perverse illogical modesty that she would pity in anyone else.

As for me, I sneered at fat people all my life (“Skip a few meals, chubby!”) while remaining blithely certain that I could eat whatever I wanted and still remain pencil slim. I had the magic metabolism. Well, I may have had something like a ‘magic metabolism’ when I was twenty, but it’s thirty-seven years down the line and that superbly efficient calorie-burning machine is ready for the junk yard now, kind of like the Honda Civic I was driving in those days.

Everyone does the self-exemption. We all know the blabbermouth who complains constantly about how everyone else talks too much; we’ve all seen the Senators and congressmen making bombastic pro-family statements before taking their families and their careers down into a sink hole of scandal. My friend was berating people using their cell-phones while driving … but he was talking into his cellphone, doing 80 on the Mass Pike,  at the time.

It should be simple to avoid these traps. All we have to do is remember other people disagree with us, our opinions are personal and we don’t a special free pass from the universe just be being ourselves. If we could just figure this stuff out, really internalize it, there would be many fewer arguments, wars and divorces. But the fact is, that’s never going to happen.

At least, not in my opinion.

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Very true -- every single word. I love your two examples -- one a working class guy and one an upper crust young person. It's pervasive. Thanks for writing about it -- this should be in the editorial page of every newspaper left in America.
Much wisdom here, Steven. Problem is, most people seek common assumptions as they try to get to know each other, and sometimes the only way to break the ice is to punch thru with that toe. More urbane folks can do much the same as your "redneck" with a wink, a sigh or a tone that implies, "Surely you are too intelligent or sophisticated or genteel to..." Bullying with a raised pinky? (r)
nope, never have bad habits. mope.
I see number one frequently in political discussions. The ideologue/fanatic first speaks as if you would, naturally, share their beliefs. If you don't, you are then their mirror image fanatic, and enemy. In the example you use, disagreeing with that bigot would mean you have the same hateful attitude towards white people.
That's how fanatics justify their beliefs - their radicalism is "caused" by your "radicalism."

I can't personally relate to two and three, as I am perfectly objective, unlike everyone else.
I forgot "tinny titter."
I'm collecting research for a book about what we know versus what we think we know. It takes lots of deliberate work to counter an assumption and most of us either don't know that or can't imagine why it would be imnportant.
A good set of talking points and a fine set of things for people to ponder. I often say of ethics, and this isn't quite that but is closely related, is that ethics is about asking questions. There's no certainty to something being ethical, but it's pretty certain you're veering away from ethical once you're sure you're ethical and no longer have to question yourself. I think the same is true about these human nature things—right or wrong, the virtue comes from making sure to keep asking yourself the questions and reanalyzing whether you still believe what you used to. Experience teaches a lot (as your fat example points out). Some specific comments not meant to so much contradict anything you've said as to add counterpoint:

The first one, assumed consensus, has a friend: assumed confirmation. Where people say a zillion things which might be commentworthy and hearing no objection, assume consent to the entire bundle and all of its implications.

For the second, I think it's easy to slip into the trap of thinking there is no such thing as objectivity. While there are issues where objective is not a canonical concept (does one cover deaths in a war more objectively by being stoic or shocked? which of these is more neutral? probably neither or both), there are certainly other matters that relate to truth that are objective. "It rained yesterday." or even "The weather this year was warmer than other years in a statistically significant way." I think the truth for this one is that some things are amenable to objective truth, some are definitely not, and some are in a middle area, and while one can debate the perimeter of the middle area, it's important to have a good meta-understanding of the terrain, including others' assumptions (even sometimes misassumptions).

On the third, I'm largely in agreement with your analysis. There is some programming language jargon (related to statically known and dynamically created knowledge) that's often useful for some of this, and I added to my pending topics for blogging queue. :)
The world is not a stage but the rue is electric.
I biases that you describe are pretty understandable and unfortunately too common.

I have seen remarkable cognitive bias in quantitative areas which is evidence, in my opinion, of just how deeply these things go. Essentially very intelligent people arguing that 2+2=3 or 2+2=5. You couldn't make this stuff up.
Excellent post with much food for thought. On the first Sconset story I wish you would have simply said, "I'm Jewish" and stayed at the table. That would be interesting, to see how they handled it. But walking out was good too, in its own way. We do project unto others what we are. Very hard to break that habit. I think everyone is fair and generous. Talk about a crock. Rated
Good post. My favourite - or should I say, least favourite - form of bad thinking is 'binarism'. So, if you say something critical about A, you are assumed to be all in favour of B. Acknowledge problems with medications and you must be into alternative therapies. Mention you were against the war in Iraq, and therefore you're a pacifist, against all wars. Dislike politician A? Then Politician B must have you in the bag.
I agree. Of course, it could just be I agree with your world view. ;)

And I really hated the English Patient. My god, what a loathsome irritating LONNNNNG movie. heh heh No really. I really hated it.
"Jewish enough for Hitler."

I need to say this more to some of my friends who argue with my Jewish heritage because I don't spend time at a temple and call the Unitarian Universalist Church my home. I consider myself a "Jew-nitarian."

My favorite quote of all time comes courtesy of Anais Nin, "We don't see others are THEY are. We see them as WE are." So very true!
Thought provoking, I see myself in the examples, sometimes.
"Jewish enough for Hitler." I thought I was the only one who heard that phrase growing up. Good points on all counts, sir.
Well written piece. I can relate to the plastic surgery discussion since this is the year that my skin started looking my age. . . .
My favorite one financially speaking is:

This time it's different.
Two thumbs up for The Squid and the Whale.
Your right sometimes it is not worth the fight to argue the right from the wrong. Way to many people see life this way. Very well stated!
Very well presented. I have several people I will send this to.
Steven, it's like you were reading my mind. Examples:

1) 30 years ago, on a second date, I had dinner with the girl's family, and was appalled when the n-word went flying around with frequency. The mom told me a story about a black man asking her to dance, like it was the most awful thing that happened in her life. I cringed but kept silent during the whole thing, though needless to say, I never went out with that girl again. But what would make you think that's OK dinner conversation with a stranger?

2) I avoid arguments with people about the arts or food, where tastes can be pretty subjective - I retch at the thought of pickles but acknowledge that some people love them. But I will argue about politics when confronted by what I think is utter stupidity. Like when people believe Fox News when they acted like a snowstorm in the middle of winter disproved global warming. But it is a problem that liberals will seek out websites that support their views (like Salon) and conservatives do the same. I think it's a big factor in our increasing polarization.

3) In the NY Times art blog this weekend, Ben Brantley says he's more tolerant now of cell phones going off in the theater - because it just happened to his date. Give me a break!

Excellent writing!
I think the answer to the paradox of the self-exemption is that most people have no self-awareness.
Yep. Assumed consensus folks are knuckleheads who watch Fox or Air America, frankly. (I can't watch either.) Self exemptions are humbling experiences. Very humbling experiences.

Good stuff, as always.
Cranky -- thanks for commenting. I love your examples.
Peter Winkler -- Perfectly phrased.
I'll 100% second Bonnie Russel's comment.
A Think read. I love folk in baseball CAPPS.
If I see politician with hats backward YIKES.
I hate going through Valentine candy HEAVE.
If O. S. gave out EP CAPS Ya shall get NONE.
I'll send a black top hat. I hope Ya pull a bunny.
You sit type with long coat tails, but no undies.
too silly.
On Ash Wen. Day thou shall Not eat doughnuts.
Eat bankers dozen filled 'Krisy Kreme' Tuesday.
Happy Valentine Day. Eat a old empty shoo box.
You wrote: “Hello, all adulterers say that stuff. That’s the standard script, and you’ve been reviling it for thirty years.”

Two words come immediately to mind: Clinton -- Sanford

I could have chosen Newt, Vitter, Edwards- Ensign -- all posing as paragons of virtue while dipping their pen in the company ink as they say -- Vitter chose to "communicate" only with professionals were told, but it true, I'm betting that was only because he feared getting Clintoned.

Hypocrisy knows no race, color, creed, party or season, and I'm mindful of my own, though I'm prone to self-exception, too, and I say none of us could last a day without rationalization.
One other thing -- I'm always amused -- bemused? -- when people say to me -- which they too often seem to do (I wonder why?) some version of "you think your opinions are always right". Duh. Doesn't everybody? If you didn't think they were right, you wouldn't likely hold them.

But that's not the same as saying "everyone who doesn't share my opinion is an ignoramus" -- though in a world of infinite possibilities, I suppose that one exists, too.

But that's just my opinion -- I could be wrong.
Very well said, Steven.
people just create the world in their own image
Don't get me started on Titanic. My ex-wife and daughters harangued me into going. I only wanted to see the movie if the ending was different than reality.

No if Titanic had docked in New York, that would have been an interesting movie.
Don't get me started on Titanic. My ex-wife and daughters harangued me into going. I only wanted to see the movie if the ending was different than reality.

Now if Titanic had docked in New York, that would have been an interesting movie.
I work in store in a red state and it's just naturally assumed everyone is a republican. I watched with amusement one morning when a customer at the Starbucks counter casually referred to the president as a "porch monkey." The old barista literally came over the counter and chased the guy out of the store. Turns out his grandchildren are half black...
Great post! I think a healthy dose of empathy, the ability to see yourself in another's shoes, would go a long way to aleviating some of these faulty thinking habits and generally make the world a better place. Empathy is SUCH an important lesson to learn and to teach.
I agree with your generalizations but disagree about one example - where you say "That’s why liberals don’t watch FOX news and conservatives rarely tuned in Air America." Far too many liberals watch FOX News - some because they don't want to be surprised by a conservative political victory and others because they want their daily dose of horror to keep their adrenaline levels up. Unfortunately, the liberals who watch but disagree are counted as "audience" which ensures that FOX News will be #1 in the ratings.

The same cannot be said for conservatives watching liberal shows (MSNBC, not Air America). They at least are smart enough to know that ratings are a numbers game they win by not playing.
Did someone annoy the crap out of you this weekend, Steve-o?
The first and the third are similar in the sense that both suffer from a lack of empathy, as one other poster mention, or putting yourself in the others' place. I once had little sympathy for folks in bad relationships (why don't you realize it and walk away?) until I wound up in one. Now I'm less willing to condemn seemingly poor choices.

The second one is tough. I can barely abide much time with newscasts and articles that I find offensively, cynically and dangerously wrong. So I mostly rely on second-hand accounts of them, which is a cop-out.

This polarization was also covered in The Big Sort by Bill Bishop which was heavily excerpted in Slate last year. Simply put, Americans have been steadily moving into like-minded communities over the last generation or so.

Great post.
Well....I am going to add you as a favorite because I like your writing and I generally agree with your post here. But I have to tell you, I found your comments about "rednecks" pretty offensive. There are just as many racist idiots on Wall Street as there are in the hollars of the Appalachians where I have worked as a newspaper reporter and, before that, a community volunteer and organizer. Peace be with you and -- please be a little bit nicer to the back woods people.
on one: there's a variant worth noting: the gleam-in-his-eye guy who PRETENDS he thinks you agree, who is just looking for an excuse to run his Rant Thang. There are some on both sides here on OS (cough BBE, cough rwnutjub) who do the same wit their posts

on two: indubitably. I recently got into it with a relatively new poster, "365 days" -- and embarrassed myself by breaking my own rule of o1-2 engagement then withdraw. she irked me with psuedos-cience, and we descended.

It was easy for me to see each step that i was the reasonable one, she was the one with the fixed beliefs -- but I am left with a sour taste in my mouth about my own dogged self-righteousness. We are ALL prone to this. good one.

on three: "Everyone does the self-exemption." I have the gift of three daughters, one is 33, the other two finishing high school, thus even the smallest self-exemption i try is a cable-TV-level reality show challenge for them to pile on why I am full of it and how many times and what a hypocrite. Their glee at this is un-nerving.

It has helped me as a human being. made me humble. And also turned me into a mope, afraid to assert anything.

This was one of my favorite pieces so far this year. It's like a great conversation out on the veranda with the only interesting person at the party.
I wonder if part if not most of the problem is the need for validation, which possibly carries back to our tribal ancestors. Those who aren't easily assimilated into a particular group are the ones who seek or find themselves in niches they hope will at the least win them recognition, if not acceptance then respect. Outlaws and artists come to mind.

But that's rarely enough, as the validation need persists. Then come the comparisons of perceived strength vis a vis others in the group - even the niche groups. We seem to be a species that defaults to hierarchical sorting, giving us new insecurities as we see the threat from beneath and prize above.

I imagine the passion and the shouting is greatest on the mid-levels. I imagine that at the pinnacles of, say, a hierarchy that seeks universal enlightenment and one that strives for individual supremacy, a conversation between the two top dogs, as it were, might be rather benign and filled with sage amusement. I would guess that each dog at this level knows full well he or she has sealed his or her fate, that the choices are irreversible and that both are now merely enjoying the view.

"I get laid well, anytime I wish, with anyone I choose," says Stalin.

"I can, too, should it occur to me," says the Buddha.

They chuckle and gaze at the horizon.
Greg: Best. Comment. Ever.

"This was one of my favorite pieces so far this year. It's like a great conversation out on the veranda with the only interesting person at the party."