Great Minds Think Unalike Dept.


In his columns on finance, Paul Krugman touches on a number of other topics, but one thing that's come up consistently in recent months is the way other experts in his field who have consistently made predictions that have not come true for years on end (verging on decades) are still being considered authoritative and have their word taken seriously. And yet other people — apart from him, mind you — who quickly realized they were on the wrong track and changed their theories to fit the evidence, are attacked for their views.

Why are people valued more for their consistency than for their ability to learn and adapt, to say "I was wrong" and get something out of it that benefits both us and them?

Few people want to admit that deep and often turbulent rivers of emotion run under and through everything we do and are. We are not rational creatures, but we have the capacity to temper ourselves with rationality through practice. (Dostoevsky understood the first part intimately, which is why his work only dated in the most topical way.) We start with what we already believe, and then focus on the things that agree with that, which is why so many of us fall prey to cherry-picking our own evidence about things.

The power of the irrational side means we value most, often without knowing it, the things that flatter and seduce us, the things that tell us we are right. We self-select to spend time in the company of like-minded people because it's less jarring for us to be amongst such folks, to not have to spend every waking moment fighting off feelings of being embattled.

Likewise, we appreciate someone who seems to have their mind made up about something. It reassures us to know such people exist, even when they are dead wrong, because we can partake of their certitude and feel that much less threatened ourselves. The less anything changes — the weather, the opinion of a trusted authority on a given topic — the less we ourselves have to think about, which gives the reptilian core of our mammalian brains a nice warm feeling, since it's not being held at bay by that nasty ol' neocortex.

On an individual level, this stuff isn't so bad, but again: what happens when everyone does that? 


Tags: Fyodor Dostoevsky Paul Krugman psychology sociology




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