I’ll begin by stating that all of us possess a sort of internal ‘press secretary’ or ‘moral lawyer’ that justifies just about everything including our words and actions. This article will just scratch the surface on the topic of personal and social beliefs, yet try to gain some clarity of the ever increasing polarization of core beliefs at this time in history. I guess we can start by asking ourselves if there is really such a thing as absolute truth? Or, is everything a shade of gray and left to individual opinion? Is their political correctness that is actually ‘correct’ in the grand scheme of things? I often wonder what molds our beliefs and what we choose to embrace. I often wonder why folks are so dead set against changing their beliefs – even when the evidence supports a change.
If you want to see justification in action just watch and listen to a western culture press secretary take questions from media reporters. No matter how bad the policy is to a majority populace, the press secretary will always find some way to praise or defend the agenda at hand. Reporters will naturally challenge assertions and bring up contradictory quotes from politicians or even straight from the press secretary themselves on previous days. Sometimes you will hear and observe an awkward pause or moment as the secretary searches for the right words. But what you will never hear is obvious and intriguing – “Hey, that’s a great point, maybe we should rethink or re-vote this policy.” The truth is that press secretaries cannot say such things because they have no power to make or revise policy. They’re told what the policy is and their job is to find evidence and arguments that will justify the policy to a naive public. The truth is that we all have a full-time press secretary justifying our positions and beliefs on such topics as morality, spirituality, abortion, various prejudices, social politics, social behaviors, etc. The soulish ‘press secretary’ or internal ‘lawyer’ operates at the personal and cultural levels and ultimately manifests as a national conscious when it gains majority rule or speaks with the loudest voice!
Let’s take the well known 2 – 4 – 6 (Two-Four-Six) problem often discussed in moral psychology circles as an example to lay a foundation of what I hope to expound upon in regard to our belief systems and most often unwillingness to embrace absolute truth. After all, if there is no such thing as absolute truth – does ‘truth’ even have a genuine meaning…Even when it smacks us in the face? Let’s say that I show a group of people a series of 3 numbers and explained to them that a sequence of a ‘triplet’ conformed to a specific rule. In other words, they have to guess the rule by generating other triplets and then asking me whether the new triplet conformed to the specific rule. When subjects were confident that they had guessed the rule, they are supposed to tell me their answer or conclusion. Let’s suppose that one of these people first sees the numbers 2, 4, 6. And let’s say that that person then generates a triplet in response: “4, 6, 8?” I would answer “yes.” How about “120, 122, 124?” I would again answer: “Yes.” It would seem obvious to most people that the rule was – consecutive even numbers. But let’s say that I told the subjects that this was a wrong answer in regard to the rule. So they tested other rules such as “3, 5, 7?” Likewise, I will respond: “yes!” What about “35, 37, 39?” I would once again respond “Yes!” Okay, so the rule must be any series of numbers that rises by 2? I would again say “no” in regard to what the correct rule is.
The people in this experiment had little trouble generating new hypotheses about the rule. Sometimes quite complex ones. But what they hardly ever did was to test their hypotheses by offering triplets that did not conform to their natural hypothesis or reasoning. For example, proposing 2, 4, 5 (yes) and 2, 4, 3 (no) would have helped people zero in on the actual rule which is any series of ascending numbers. What we see in this mind-game experiment and outworking of human nature is known as the Confirmation Bias. This type of bias is the human tendency to seek out and interpret new evidence in ways that confirm what you already think and believe. People are quite good at challenging statements made by other people. However, if it’s your personal belief we’re confronting, then it’s your possession – kind of like your inner child and you want protect it rather than having it challenged or heaven forbid – even losing it!
Let’s paint a picture in our mind and take a set of 8 cards each of which shows a cartoon image of a child eating a cake. The cards will reflect whether it’s good for the child or bad for the child. Let’s create in our minds an example of eating a chocolate cake verses eating a sugar free carrot cake and then the effects of what happened to the child afterward. The children pictured in the card are either smiling (feeling good) or frowning (looking sick). I show the cards one at a time to children and adults and ask them to answer whether the evidence (the 8 cards) suggested which cake made the kids sick? The kids as well as the adults usually started off with a hunch due to prior conditioning. In this case, the chocolate cake is the more likely culprit. The subjects usually concluded that the evidence (the 8 cards) proved them right. The point is that even when the cards showed a stronger association of carrot cake correlating to sickness – people still pointed to the one or two cards with sick chocolate cake eaters as evidence for their theory or belief and they ignored the larger number of cards that incriminated carrot cake. My conclusion and opinion is that people seem to say or convince themselves: “Here is some evidence that I point to in supporting my theory and therefore my theory is right.” Even when the hard facts state otherwise.
Researcher David Perkins brought people of various age and education levels into his lab and asked them to think about social issues such as whether giving schools more money would improve the quality of teaching and learning. He first asked the subjects to write down their initial judgment concerning the stated question (would more money improve quality of teaching and learning). Then he asked them to think about the issue for time and write down all the reasons they could think of on either side that were relevant to reaching a final answer or conclusion. After they were done, Perkins scored each individual’s reasons they wrote as either a ‘my side’ argument or an ‘other side’ argument. Not surprisingly, people came up with many more my side arguments than other side arguments. Also not surprisingly, the more education that the subjects had, the more reasons they came up with. But when Perkins compared 4th year students in high school, college or graduate school to 1st year students in those same schools – he found barely any improvement within each school in regard to the overwhelming my side reasoning. The high school students that generate a lot of arguments are the ones who are likely to go on to college. And the college students who generate a lot of arguments are the ones who are more likely to go on to graduate school etc.
The bottom line is that schools don’t teach people to reason thoroughly – they select the students or applicants with higher IQ’s and people with higher IQ’s are able to generate more ‘reasons’. Research has also indicated by a large degree that IQ was the biggest predictor of how well people argued or formulated an argument or reason. However, these findings only predicted the number of my side arguments. Smart people (per IQ standards) make really good lawyers and press secretaries but they are no better than others of finding reasons on or for the other side. I believe and conclude that people invest their IQ in buttressing their own case or my side rather than exploring the entire range of issues, events and purposes for life more fully and evenhandedly.
When you ask people about triplets of digits, cakes and illnesses and even school funding – people have rapid, automatic and intuitive reactions. In other words, one side of the reasoning looks more attractive than the other through prior conditioning. We grow evermore talented and able to find supporting evidence and go to great lengths to ensure that we succeed in regard to our reasoning. This is how the press secretary we see on television works on trivial issues where there is no motivation to support one side or the other. If thinking is confirmatory rather than exploratory in these few dry, generic and easy cases that I just presented – then what chance is there that people will think in an open-minded or exploratory way when self-interest, social identity and strong emotions make or even need to reach a life saving or eternal conclusion? Eternal significance is wrapped in the gift of exploration. Bondage is attractively wrapped in the skin of self and a insignificant life. Why would life have significance if this is all that there is and we simply check out? It is within this conditioned mind that lying to self and others spreads like a social virus killing the hope of eternal life (life after death) as taught by Christ.
The truth is that we lie, cheat and justify so well that we honestly believe that we are honest. For instance, in the U.K. members of parliament have long been allowed to bill taxpayers for their ‘reasonable expense’ of maintaining a second home given that they are required to spend time in both London and in their home districts. But because the office responsible for deciding what was reasonable approved nearly every request – members of Parliament treated it like a big ole fat blank check. And because their expenses were hidden from the public, members essentially acted like they were wearing the Ring of Gyges until a newspaper printed a leaked copy of those expense claims in 2009. (The Ring of Gyges is a mythical magical artifact mentioned by the philosopher Plato in book 2 of his Republic that made one invisible)
Predictably, these members behaved terribly selfish and self-serving. Many members claimed their second home to be which ever one was due for major and lavish renovations – including even dredging the moats. When the renovations were completed, they simply re-designated their primary home as their secondary and renovated that one too! Oftentimes selling the renovated home for a huge profit.
Late night comedians must be resoundingly grateful for the never ending stream of scandals coming out of Washington, London and as a matter of fact – just about every other center of social and political government on the planet. However, are We the People any better than our elected leaders? Or should we first look for the logs that are in our own eyes? Does a societal populace truly deserve its leaders (You’ve got what you allowed, asked or voted for and now you ultimately deserve it)? Does an elected leader merely reflect the soul of the population? These questions are not all inclusive nor black and white – but they must be considered as the current global and cultural age unfolds with its technology to reach out and touch. Many researchers have studied the aspects and affects of what is termed ‘plausible deny-ability’. In one such study, subjects performed a task and were then given a slip of paper designating payment and a verbal confirmation of how much they were to be paid. But when they took the slip to another room to get their money, the cashier purposely misread one digit and handed them too much money. Only 20% spoke up and corrected the mistake. But the whole story and dynamic changed when the cashier simply asked them if the payment was correct. In that case, 70% said no and returned the extra money. Simply being asked directly removed a large element of plausible deny-ability. It would have taken a direct lie to keep the money upon being asked if the amount was correct. As a result of being asked, people are over three times more likely to be honest. The catch is that we can’t predict who will return the money based on how people rate their own honesty nor how well they’re able to respond within a moral dilemma.
The human nature of the unregenerate soul is unpredictable in honesty and very predictable in lying to others and oneself. The flesh is so ingrained to lie that we will even lie without words. We lie unconsciously by body language when we nod yes or no simply to avoid confrontation. This points to our conscious soul which correlates to our moral reasoning and our ethical behavior. Deep down within us is a fallen man that will serve self on all fronts and behind many masks…Even the mask of silence which is just as terrifyingly powerful. Even the people whom we recognize as nice and giving possess the varying degrees of the bondage of self preservation and greed.
Sub-layered within these questions and dynamics, humanity presents itself as predictably irrational. A group of participants given the opportunity to earn more money by claiming to have solved more math problems than they really did summarizes this statement: The summary of these real life results concluded that when given the opportunity, many honest people will cheat. In fact, rather than finding that a few bad apples weighted or tilted the averages; the discovery is that the far majority of people cheated and that they cheated just a “little bit”. People didn’t try to get away with as much as they could. Rather, when the participants were given the invisibility of the “Ring of Gyges”- they cheated only up to point where they themselves could no longer find a justification that could preserve their own belief within their own terms of honesty. The bottom line is that in studies where people are given invisibility combined with plausible deny-ability – most people will cheat which is essentially what we call lying or being a liar.
Our individual press secretaries also known as our inner-lawyers as previously stated, are so good at finding justifications that most of these subject cheaters leave the social experiments as convinced of their virtue as they were when they walked in. My personal conclusion is that carnal based reasoning and Google can take you wherever you want to go! We can take for example my daughter Arielle who is 8 years old and recognize that she is somewhat allergic to the word “must.” As a matter of fact, all of us are to some degree. When I tell her that she ‘must’ get her pajamas on so we can ramp down for the evening, she oftentimes cracks a scowl with crossed arms as to object my direction. The word “must” is a little verbal and psychological handcuff that triggers in her the desire to squirm free. On the other hand, the word “can” is so much nicer such as “can you put your pajamas on so we relax and slow down before bed?”
To be certain that these two words are really night and day to our carnal man, I conducted my own little experiment. I said to my daughter after supper tonight, “You must eat a mint patty.” (which Arielle loves). The reply was quickly, “No, I don’t want one.” Just a few minutes later I stated – “Arielle, you can have mint patty…” Just as quickly, “Yeah, I want one.” The difference between ‘can’ and ‘must’ is the key to understanding the profound effects of self-interest on reasoning and why people reject the words that Christ taught and likewise embrace dreadful and self-destroying behaviors. It’s also the key to understanding many of the strangest and fringe beliefs such as UFO abduction, quack medical treatments, conspiracy theories, odd religious traditions, abortion as ‘normal’ while we stumble a few years within the eternal gift and power of life itself, and the list goes on and on.
The embracing of strange and ungodly beliefs reflect a simple formulation in that when we want to believe something, we ask ourselves, “Can I believe it?” We then search for supporting evidence and if we find even a single piece of pseudo evidence, we can stop thinking and reasoning. At this point we now have permission to believe and we have a justification in case anyone asks. In contrast, when we don’t want to believe something, we ask ourselves, “Must I believe it?” Then we search for contrary evidence and if we find a single reason or smallest shred to doubt to the claim – we can easily dismiss it. We only need one single key to unlock the handcuffs of “Must.” This is the prime indicator of why the beautiful logic of the 10 Commandments have become such a rock of offense to the unbeliever…Or. should I say, those fail to believe in the power of Life and its ability to transcend the death of mere flesh.
Now that we all have access to search engines on our smart phones, we can simply call up a team of supporting backers for almost any conclusion 24 hours a day. Whatever you want to believe concerning the causes of anything in life including faith, atheism, creation, evolution, and whether a baby in the womb can feel pain – just Google your belief and I promise that you’ll find partisan websites summarizing and validating “my side” or should I say “your side” along with distorting and damning the “other side.” Faith has now become a interfaith smorgasbord and Google will find a belief that is just right for you! After all, there’s just too much must in following the words and wisdom of that man named Jesus…