Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Anosognosia, or, unknown unknowns

Errol Morris, the documentarian ("Fog of War"), is writing a five-part series on "The Anosognosic's Dilemma." I'm not sure where he's going with it, but in riffing on Donald Rumsfeld's famous "there are known unknowns and unknown unknowns," I think I see some interesting connotations for our current political dilemma -- basically, for a lot of voters (and Congress people), they are often too stupid to know they're stupid. He quotes David Dunning, a Cornell professor of social psychology,

Well, my specialty is decision-making. How well do people make the decisions they have to make in life? And I became very interested in judgments about the self, simply because, well, people tend to say things, whether it be in everyday life or in the lab, that just couldn’t possibly be true. And I became fascinated with that. Not just that people said these positive things about themselves, but they really, really believed them. Which led to my observation: if you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent.


An anosognosic patient who is paralyzed simply does not know that he is paralyzed. If you put a pencil in front of them and ask them to pick up the pencil in front of their left hand they won’t do it. And you ask them why, and they’ll say, “Well, I’m tired,” or “I don’t need a pencil.” They literally aren’t alerted to their own paralysis. There is some monitoring system on the right side of the brain that has been damaged, as well as the damage that’s related to the paralysis on the left side. There is also something similar called “hemispatial neglect.” It has to do with a kind of brain damage where people literally cannot see or they can’t pay attention to one side of their environment. If they’re men, they literally only shave one half of their face. And they’re not aware about the other half. If you put food in front of them, they’ll eat half of what’s on the plate and then complain that there’s too little food. You could think of the Dunning-Kruger Effect as a psychological version of this physiological problem. If you have, for lack of a better term, damage to your expertise or imperfection in your knowledge or skill, you’re left literally not knowing that you have that damage. It was an analogy for us.

The first and second installments of the five part series are really fascinating.

Anyway, I was thinking about this -- and the dilemma it poses for progressive legislation -- after reading Somerby's post today when he reacts to a David Brooks column in which the fauxiologist cites a poll showing that only 6% of respondents thought the stimulus package had saved any jobs and helped the overall economy. Somerby writes,

That “absurdly low,” counterfactual belief is the just tip of the iceberg. In the wake of the oil disaster, what do actual voters think about our energy issues? In that New York Times/CBS poll, only 29 percent of respondents thought “protecting the environment” should be a higher priority than “developing new sources of energy.” (Forty-nine percent preferred the latter priority.) Among Gulf Coast respondents, 54 percent favored “increased drilling for oil and natural gas off the U.S. coast.” Only 36 percent thought “the costs and risks are too great.”

Somerby also links to Digby who laments that "zombie ideas" -- namely, that Social Security is insolvent and didn't anticipate baby boomers' retirement, and that it would be a mistake to put jobs creation ahead of deficit reduction when the unemployment rate is above 10% -- constantly drive our politics.

That last is why those of us who are of that age group are feeling burned at the idea that after paying in extra for most of our working lives to forestall cuts when we hit retirement, we're now being told that we're a bunch of scofflaws who have to live on catfood in our old age for the good of the children. It's not exactly a persuasive case for planning ahead, being responsible and paying your way. We were, after all, paying for our own parents and grandparents while creating a surplus for ourselves so our own kids wouldn't be overburdened. It's not a great argument for trusting the government. But then, that's the whole point is it not?

Update: Krugman's NYT column on the deficit is also a must read. Why he should have to argue something as elementary as the idea that high unemployment is exploding the deficit and failing to deal with that through stimulus rather than magical thinking will only make matters worse is beyond me. But he does. Once again, we're down the rabbit hole.

We just seem incapable of recognizing that one full side of our body (politic) is paralyzed, or even if we recognize it, we behave as if that does not matter.

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