Sunday, July 26, 2009

Don't Ever Confuse Popular Opinion and Truth

"Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect."

— Mark Twain

“A great city is not to be confused with a populous one.”

— Aristotle


Human nature is to take shortcuts. One that is particularly potent and widespread in society is to look to the actions of others to guide us in our own decisions. We look to others to figure out what to do, especially in unfamiliar or difficult situations. If you are in a security line at an airport and haven't been on a plane in years, you look at what everyone else is doing and copy it- hand your boarding pass to the man in the uniform, take your coat off and put it in the bin, empty out your pockets, etc. We subtly adjust, consciously or not, to fit in to each situation we find ourselves in. We speak with one group of people one way and with another group a different way. You adjust how formal and articulate you are to match the group around you. Unless you already have a really well-formed opinion that the performance sucked, you also stand up when enough people around you stand up for a standing ovation. Once a few people (not just one) are standing on the sidewalk looking up at something, the people passing stop and look up too, and a crowd grows. This is a primal instinct that is rooted in practicality and the drive for survival and goes back to the time when our ancestors were grunting and smashing rocks together in Africa.

Let's say you're a zebra grazing on some grass and all of a sudden everyone around you starts running- what do you do? Well, you'd better start running too. There's no room for considered thought in this situation. The zebra that doesn’t start running and stands there and observes what’s going on, thoughtfully considering the possibility that there could be a pride of lions threatening the herd gets eaten. When the rest of the herd starts sprinting, it’s plain and simple- haul ass. It's a shortcut, an easy way out that requires the least effort. After all, why not? The animal that puts out the least amount of effort has the most energy left over for other essential things. It’s a snap judgement that’s rooted in the unconscious mind, and this same instinct that has helped our ancestors and other social animals survive for millions of years is still made today by humans in all types of situations. The problem is, modern day life isn’t all about surviving and passing on our genes. We don’t solely live to survive anymore- it’s still pretty crucial, as I'm sure anyone who would rather be alive than dead will attest, but for many of us it isn't an overarching concern that consumes all our time. When you think about it, that's a very very beautiful thing (in my opinion as a human- I also haven't known anything else) when you consider the spectrum of the animal kingdom. We can think on a higher level about things that are much more complex than how to find our next meal. We have the opportunity to look for meaning in our lives, we can actively seek out happiness, we can consider metaphysical questions, we are self-aware, and we can direct rational and considered thought towards situations, problems and decisions.

Applying simple instincts to complex, important decisions can be very dangerous. Let’s say there’s a herd of buffalo calmly eating grass, when out of nowhere humans suddenly creep up on the herd from three sides, leaving the herd only one direction to run. A few buffalo spot the humans and do exactly what their unconcious mind tells them to do- get up and go. The rest of the buffalo see their herdmates start running and they take off too. The buffalo run as fast as they can, each one following the other, until they have run right off the cliff the humans were chasing them towards. The instincts that would normally lead them to survival ended up working against them in this situation. If only a buffalo had picked its head up, looked around and seen that the rest of the herd was running towards a cliff, it would have had a chance to survive. Of course it's pretty far-fetched to expect that of a buffalo in this kind of a situation. The danger for humans today is that we repeat this buffalo's mistake and follow our run-with-the-herd instincts right off the cliff. We do in fact have the time to take a look around and think critically in many situations today, yet there is still no shortage of people running with the herd with their heads down straight towards the cliff. We need to take a look around and see where the herd is actually running, or even better, not take off with the herd in the first place. We need to stop and think about what we're doing, not just run blindly based on a decision made by others. Have the confidence to evaluate something independently, think critically about the facts of the situation and follow through on your own convictions. There is a real danger to being guided by these instincts in situations that aren't key to our survival, where we aren't really being guided towards the best outcome. Don't defer proper judgement on how to live your life to the masses. Don't leave it up to the masses to decide for you on those really important life decisions like what you feel is going to be most fulfilling for you, where you are going to spend your time, what to engage in and be influenced by, what kind of environment you want to be in, what you should do about work or school, where to live, where to spend your money, among many other even bigger decisions.

I would think that this is a fairly familiar concept for most people reading this and I would think that most people know a few of these popular truths that are common in the masses but aren't really true at all. Some examples that come to mind are the idea that university is the ticket to success, that more money is always unconditionally better, that the music at the top of the charts is the best, that the people we elevate as stars are the model individuals in society, that your life path should consist of going to school, going to work, retiring and only then doing what you actually want to do, that the headlines on the news are the most important stories, that school is the best thing for every kid, that companies are these big scary entities that only care about themselves, that you should fit into the classic stereotype of what a "kid" should be or any other age-related generalization, among many many more. There are so many of them out there and many are very widespread. There are absolute truths, like that the earth is round and always has been, that are true for everyone and don't change from person to person, and there are also relative truths that change from person to person. A relative truth is true specifically for you. For example, there's no one set of things that will be most fulfilling for everyone, there's one set that is unique to you. Deciding how to live your life isn't just about deciding on one particular pre-made path, it's about finding and creating the complex combination closest to what will be best for you specifically. What's best for two different people can be completely different for either person, but it's no less true for either of them.

I should qualify here that I'm certainly not saying that everything that a large number of people believe in is necessarily wrong. Blindly believing that everything a large number of people believe in is wrong is just as flawed as blindly believing in what everyone else appears to be thinking. It's okay to wear your underwear on the inside and walk forwards instead of backwards unless you have a really compelling reason not to. Anyone with an interest in functioning at least in part in society still needs those instincts - it probably is right not to cross that busy road because everyone else is standing on the corner. Evaluating everything all the time, down to the smallest of decisions, is paralyzing. I believe in thoughtfully evaluating for yourself the decisions and conclusions that others have come to. We need to stop and think thoughtfully as much as we can, especially on big and complex decisions where these instincts shouldn't be applied to find the best outcome.

Popular truths are often defended (and end up being perpetuated) by the common flawed thinking that since a large number of people believe in something, "this must be right, that many people can’t be wrong.” The common justification for believing in what everyone else believes and doing what everyone else does is that many people must have evaluated this and all come to the same conclusion. In reality, each person doesn’t evaluate the idea based on the logic and objective facts of the idea itself- they too also make the same mistake in thinking that all these other people have evaluated it and that many people can't be wrong. An idea doesn’t necessarily spread to a large number of people because it is really that good and that right, it can spread to that many people because it has spread to many people and the next person says “it must be right, that many people can’t be wrong…” and the momentum grows and grows until it is a household "truth" in society. This is how an idea that is based on a totally flawed assumption can spread to a large number of people. Those people standing up for the standing ovation didn't actually all think it is great, they are standing up for the same reason that you are, because enough people around them have also stood up, and it continues throughout the audience until everyone is standing. Another example is the housing boom and subsequent crash which happened in large part because seemingly everyone was caught up in the assumption that house prices would only continue to rise. Real truth isn’t based on how many people believe in something, but perceived truth can be very much based on the number of people that believe in something. A miniscule proportion of people can believe in something and it can be true. No one can believe in something and it can still be true. The number of people believing in something does not affect the quality of the idea- it seems extremely simple and obvious put this way, but it is something that is often overlooked in society.

Many times I've looked at a situation and thought you've got to be kidding me. Turn on the TV and look at what is on and the millions of people that actually watch and believe that. Looking at all the huge new houses being built and the people buying them and continuing to spend like crazy, I thought this just can't be right. In these kinds of situations you need to have the confidence to follow through on what you know is right even if what's around you is telling you something different. If after a lot of considered thought on an issue you conclude that what is right that is totally different from what the masses say, you have to follow through on your own conviction. It can be very hard to go against what everyone around you thinks, but I believe it is necessary to live the most fulfilling life that you can. It is inevitably more satisfying to act on what you truly believe even if you do happen to eventually be proved wrong instead of grudgingly resigning to do something that you don't really believe in. People are also very affected by the things that are immediately around them, which often seem so concrete- for example if you live in rural Texas and you have been raised as a god-fearing kid that goes to church every Sunday, but you've also been reading blog posts about religion and have the feeling that maybe this isn't exactly true, even if it does seem like the facts and logic in the post are irrefutable, you are still unsure. Everything immediately around you is telling you that this is the right thing to do- not because of any added rational justification, but by being right there in front of you- the blogger seems so right but is far away and not right there in front of you and so seems less concrete. The context surrounding an idea also affects the perception of the idea itself. If you took away the crowds of followers, the ornate houses of worship and the "headquarters" of any religion, would it still seem as true as the devout believers attest it is? The grandiosity of the associations can spill over into the idea itself and an idea that can be obviously flawed takes on the grandiose characteristics of the establishment that has built up around this flawed foundation. It is hard but I believe that you need to look past both the associations attached to the idea and the seeming concreteness of what others immediately around you are telling you. It can definitely be very frustrating to see so many other people believing in something that you feel is just wrong. Ask any non-believer how they feel when the candidate running for president is questioned on religion, and the candidate inevitably defends their devout christianity. Kids continue to pour into university because everyone else seems to be doing it without really thinking about what will be best for them and because they "have to" to be "successful" and they come out four years later finding out that they aren't really keen on that "safe" choice that they spent four years and thousands of dollars on. The kinds of decisions that are most important and that we need to think most about are often very hard. It's tempting to take the easy way out and just go with the status quo, but you have to thoughtfully consider the facts yourself. Someone giving you advice could be a perceived expert, but instead of just blindly putting faith in what they are telling you to do, ask yourself how well what they are advocating really meshes with what you value and how you want to live your life.

Popular truths evolve over time. There are things that were indisputable in the past that are unthinkable now. Some major examples that everybody knows about are the changes in attitudes toward smoking, slavery, and gay rights. There's no doubt that generations from now will look back and see the same thing. Nobody can ever be 100% sure of what they know. Act on what you believe is right. Thoughtfully consider and find what you feel is closest to the truth with the information you have and go with that- and always continue to reevaluate your conclusions. Don't defer judgement to the masses. Think for yourself and always consider thoughtfully the decisions and situations that you face. Don't ever be afraid to think different and have the confidence to follow through on what you know is right.

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