Deconstructing our sense of self

A lot of what we do here at Amerika is to re-mix news articles. By changing context, we show you where the ideas discussed are applied. An idea by itself, in abstract, seems both universal and applied nowhere — an echo of our own self-perception, by which we are perceivers and only secondarily realize we also have bodies and are participants.

The first point we have for you today is the nature of language. We tend to think of it as a tool; however, it’s a tool that also shapes how we look at the world. When you have a hammer, everything’s a nail:

One researcher who has pioneered this theory is Professor Friedemann Pulvermuller, a language specialist at the University of Cambridge. He is particularly interested in the relationship between language and action, and supports the philosopher Wittgenstein’s view that language “is woven into action”.

It is well established that listening to action words such as lick, pick and kick activates the brain areas that control the tongue, hand and foot. Pulvermuller’s research goes a step farther, suggesting that the brain’s action system does more than respond to meaning — he believes that it contributes to it.

To test this theory, Pulvermuller ran a study in which he stimulated different parts of the action system using TMS while volunteers listened to tongue, hand and foot-related words. The level of TMS was enough to increase the neuronal activity, but not enough to knock out the region. He found that stimulating the hand region made people quicker to comprehend hand-related words, such as stitch and pick.

The Times

And how this tool effects us can be quite fascinating. For example, we pick ideas that are easier and consider them true. While this is the path of least resistance in psychological action, it’s also dangerous in that a half-truth is simpler and easier than a whole truth, and truths often include difficult things for us to accept personally and thus to wrap our minds around. So we discard them in favor of a simpler explanation, and claim it’s more truthful:

One of the hottest topics in psychology today is something called “cognitive fluency.” Cognitive fluency is simply a measure of how easy it is to think about something, and it turns out that people prefer things that are easy to think about to those that are hard. On the face of it, it’s a rather intuitive idea. But psychologists are only beginning to uncover the surprising extent to which fluency guides our thinking, and in situations where we have no idea it is at work.

Psychologists have determined, for example, that shares in companies with easy-to-pronounce names do indeed significantly outperform those with hard-to-pronounce names. Other studies have shown that when presenting people with a factual statement, manipulations that make the statement easier to mentally process – even totally nonsubstantive changes like writing it in a cleaner font or making it rhyme or simply repeating it – can alter people’s judgment of the truth of the statement, along with their evaluation of the intelligence of the statement’s author and their confidence in their own judgments and abilities. Similar manipulations can get subjects to be more forgiving, more adventurous, and more open about their personal shortcomings.

Because it shapes our thinking in so many ways, fluency is implicated in decisions about everything from the products we buy to the people we find attractive to the candidates we vote for – in short, in any situation where we weigh information. It’s a key part of the puzzle of how feelings like attraction and belief and suspicion work, and what researchers are learning about fluency has ramifications for anyone interested in eliciting those emotions.

Boston Globe

As you look out at that big world around you, remember this is how most people make decisions:

  • What they see first stimulates how they think about the decision. The tail can easily wag the dog.
  • What is easier for them and more pleasant is more likely to be what they pick as true. We filter the world before we figure it out

The result is decisions based on the convenience of the individual’s psychology. We first find what our brains like; from that set, we pick what might be the most likely answer, or at least the easiest. It would make more sense to filter less and consider our options more systematically.

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