The unbearable automaticity of being

This piece is inspired by Paul Frijters’ post titled The Benefits of Being Dumb in Politics.  I don’t actually think it is possible meaningfully/reliably to distinguish between politicians who are “really smart and great actors as well, who thus have no problems with telling outright lies and with backstabbing” and those autistic egomaniacs who “are sincere because they truly do not see the inconsistencies and selfishness in their own actions and those of others”.

((In fact political discourse (and indeed human discourse in general) is a complex, interwoven continuum of truth, lies and self-deception. I suspect that the most common mix in the political arena is that the politician calculatedly oversimplifies her own position and skates over its deficiencies, while equally deliberately demonising and exaggerating the shortcomings of her opponent. Nevertheless, she fundamentally and sincerely believes (rightly or wrongly) that her own position is markedly superior to that of her opponent. She accepts that effective communication with a mass audience of largely disengaged voters inhibits the conveying of nuance and complexity. ~ KP))Paul’s own attempted assignment of various particular politicians to each category appears to me to be at best arbitrary.  How could one possibly reliably distinguish between the two categories without being able to read the politician’s mind? After three hours of interviews with Kerry O’Brien I still can’t really tell where Paul Keating is engaging in calculated bullshit and where he is deluding himself.

Nevertheless, the musings of both Pauls give rise to some important points. Not even the most intelligent and well-educated of us is as reliably reflective, analytical and rational as we like to  imagine. All of us unavoidably make frequent use of heuristics in decision-making; all of us frequently exhibit cognitive phenomena like confirmation bias; and all of us mostly make moral judgements by a process that clinical psychologist Jonathan Haidt christened social intuitionism.

Moreover, there is cogent evidence that Paul Frijters’ somewhat uncharitable labelling of autistic egomaniac politicians actually identifies a widespread and perhaps even universal cognitive phenomenon, certainly one that is not confined to politicians. As far as I know, the phenomenon was first labelled as a politico-literary trope by George Orwell in Animal Farm 1984. He called it doublethink:

To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget, whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself — that was the ultimate subtlety; consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink …

The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them … To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies – all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth.

However, recent social science research suggests that doublethink is not just a dystopian literary construct but a real behavioural phenomenon that many if not most of us sometimes exhibit in social situations:

Operating in this way becomes occupational and organisational commonsense. Because any reflection and questioning would interfere with and obstruct the containment of the contradiction, the absence of reflexivity which Oakes (1990) observed becomes necessary and arguably intentional. Doublethink and reflexivity are arguably mutually inconsistent, at least across the brackets or boxes which contain the contradiction. This leads us to a further possible explanation for the act of doublethink (which Gilian’s “frontal lobotomy” Orwellian doublethink example points us to) associated with the construction of ignorance (Wynne, 1995). We turn again to Oakes (1990) here who draws on Nietzsche’s notion of the “will to ignorance” (Nehamas, 1985).

The will to ignorance is a decision not to know something: that in acquiring and practising skills essential to personal sales, the salesperson not only remains ignorant of other things, but also fails to know what these other things are. In the final analysis, this amounts to a decision to limit reflection to a certain sphere of occupational functions in a way that excludes recognition of the conflicts of the sales process. As a result, the experience of these conflicts remains below the salesperson’s cognitive horizon. Thus in learning the practice of the sales process, the salesperson also learned the means of rendering the antinomies of the process invisible.

(Oakes, 1990:87)

Doublethink is thus usefully employed to keep one utterance separate or bracketed off from its contradictory counterpart such that never the twain shall meet. It is not that there is no reflective activity, but that such reflection is confined to a particular box or bracket. There is no apparent tussle between our participants’ contradictory beliefs, no detectable sense of implacable struggle, and no need for one to win out over the other. This is not a case of either/or but a case of both/and. Both coexist and they are able to do so through the act of doublethink. In this way, organisational members are able to go about their organisational lives free from the sorts of crippling dilemmas which, in the absence of doublethink, they might have to confront day in day out. Doublethink creates and sustains a “protective cocoon” (Giddens, 1991). We argued here, however, that these tensions are not resolved, at least not in the way Giddens and others have suggested. Security does not derive from a stable and consistent single personal narrative. As we have seen, participants in our study have more than one personal narrative. Whilst each individual narrative may be internally consistent and coherent, it frequently conflicts with and contradicts other narratives which the individual articulates. We see security as deriving from keeping separate or bracketing these contradictory and conflicting dimensions. Both recent work (Ashforth, 2001) and not so recent work (Lieberman, 1956) has shown how people’s roles shape their attitudes and actions, but this refers to roles held sequentially. That is, people leave one before taking on the next. Our data suggest that multiple roles held simultaneously can have similar effects.

Several elements of our tentative explanations for doublethink discussed above imply that although doublethink is not conscious, it is in some way intentional or at least performed to fulfil a goal. Clearly, the language of psychoanalytic psychology is consistent with unconscious intention, and indeed the notion has been applied to Freud himself (Halpern, 1999). Findings of some experimental studies have been said to support the idea that volitional action is triggered before it reaches conscious awareness, although this has been challenged on the grounds that the person can articulate a general intention well before they perform a specific action consistent with it (Zhu, 2003). Perhaps most relevant to this article, however is Bargh and Chartrand’s (1999) analysis of what they call “the unbearable automaticity of being”. They conclude that unconscious monitoring of stimuli helps us maintain focus on specific tasks, so that effectively the conscious and the unconscious are working together. It may be that doublethink is one product of unconscious processes allowing conscious attention to focus on whatever enables the person to function at that moment.

It may well be that George Orwell conceived doublethink merely as an exaggerated dystopian vision of a nightmarish future, rather than an accurate description of how many of us actually behave when confronted with conflicting social expectations, because he was writing at a time when electronic mass media were still in their infancy. The mass media age highlights the extent to which politicians exhibit and (sometimes) sincerely hold contradictory positions for different audiences. Nevertheless, the highlighting effect of mass media does not stop them from doing it nor does it stop the rest of us from believing them when it suits us to do so (confirmation bias). Fortunately, the utterances of non-politicians are not usually electronically recorded, otherwise the extent to which we are continually surrounded by (and creating our own) bullshit would be depressingly apparent. Indeed the delusionary aspects of doublethink may well be necessary to our psychic survival. Psychiatrist R.D. Laing argued that schizophrenia was not so much a mental illness as a reasonable response to being put in impossible situations, where sufferers are unable to conform to the conflicting expectations of their peers.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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10 years ago

Great post – I had similar thoughts after reading Paul’s post. Rather than confirmation bias, though, I think a different psychological tendency is at work: cognitive dissonance. Since politicians feel obliged to act in ways that, in reality, violate their self-image (as being honest, morally-upright, ‘friend of the people’, or whatever), their mind acts to address this situation by convincing them that their actions are consistent with these beliefs. Easier to bend the the truth in my head than to adjust my self-perception!

Also, I think Orwell’s concept of ‘doublethink’ actually originated in “Nineteen Eighty-Four”…

10 years ago

That’s not “Animal Farm”, it’s “1984”.

john r walker
10 years ago

Agree great post.

Mind you , Rashomon moments do happen .
For example,
William Cronons”A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative,” Journal of American History 78:4 (March, 1992) is a meditation on two equally thoroughly researched historical narratives of the US 1930s “Dust Bowl”, that tell diametrically opposite narratives, but neither narrativde can be simply dismissed as BS/untrue:

In 1979, two books were published about the long drought that struck the GreatPlains during the 1930s. The two had nearly identical titles: one, by Paul Bonnifield, was called The Dust Bowl, the other, by Donald Worster, Dust Bowl. The two authors dealt with virtually the same subject, had researched many of the same documents, and agreed on most of their facts, and yet their conclusions could hardly have been more different.
Bonnifield’s closing argument runs like this:
In the final analysis, the story of the dust bowl was the story of people, people with ability and talent, people with resourcefulness, fortitude, and courage….The people of the dust bowl were not defeated, poverty-ridden people without hope. They were builders for tomorrow. During those hard years they continued to build their churches, their businesses, their schools, their colleges, their communities.
They grew closer to God and fonder of the land. Hard years were common in their past, but the future belonged to those who were ready to seize the moment.. . . Because they stayed during those hard years and worked the land and tapped her natural resources, millions of people have eaten better, worked in healthier places, and enjoyed warmer homes. Because those determined people did not flee the stricken area during a crisis, the nation today enjoys a better standard
of living.

Worster, on the other hand, paints a bleaker picture:

The Dust Bowl was the darkest moment in the twentieth-century life of the southern plains. The name suggests a place – a region whose borders are as inexact and shifting as a sand dune. But it was also an event of national, even planetary significance. A widely respected authority on world food problems, George Borgstrom, has ranked the creation ofthe Dust Bowl as one of the three worst ecological blunders in history. . . . It cannot be blamed on illiteracy or overpopulation or social disorder. It came about because the culture was operating in precisely the way it was supposed to…. The Dust Bowl … was the inevitable outcome of a culture that deliberately,self-consciously, set itself [the] task of dominating and exploiting the land for all it was worth.

john r walker
10 years ago
Reply to  john r walker

Cronons essay is worth reading in full.
This is his summing of the subject of his essay:

“Whichever of these interpretations we are inclined to follow, they pose a dilemma for scholars who study past environmental change – indeed, a dilemma for all historians. As often happens in history, they make us wonder how two competent authors looking at identical materials drawn from the same past can reach such divergent conclusions. But it is not merely their conclusions that differ. Although both narrate the same broad series of events with an essentially similar cast of characters, they tell two entirely different stories. In both texts, the story is inextricably bound to its conclusion, and the historical analysis derives much of its force from the upward or downward sweep of the plot. So we must eventually ask a more basic question: where did these stories come from?”

10 years ago

I think part of the effect occurs because people like to discuss things as a dichotomy when they are not, and it is clearly often easier to discuss things like that in many cases. Hence I think the extent of doublethink is over-exaggerated for many things and simply a byproduct of over simplification and the fact that most things are complex.

For example, scientific/social debates almost always get dichotomised for the general public (e.g., global warming, educational and economic strategies..) when the reality is that they arn’t all or nothing — and the amount of fuzziness differs with different issues. Part of this might be political, but part of it is just because we can’t know everything about everything, and having some sort of simplification makes life easy. It’s why we use categories for everything and not piles of lower level descriptors — losing some information often helps our understanding.

For example, I can be pretty sure the Earth is heating up but I’m not really sure that surpluses are good and deficits bad. But the easiest way to communicate this with many people will be to tell them the Earth is heating up, just like surpluses are good.

This even more complex for moral issues where one can’t even pick through evidence easily, since you go from something often fairly nuanced and based in part on people’s feelings and then try and apply it to some particular issue. So it’s no surprise that if the same moral foundation is applied to two separate issues, it isn’t hard to fall on the opposite side of the fence with both.

A good example of this would be abortion vs. punishment for people who cause the death of a foetus. In this case, in a dichotomous view, if I happen to think abortion should be allowed under any circumstance, then presumably that means I don’t think life starts until birth. It therefore follows that if some guy kicks his pregnant wife in the stomach and kills the foetus, this shouldn’t be seen as too serious, since it wasn’t a life anyway. You see this sort of thing pop up all the time, and people seem happy to have abortion but to punish the second case more strongly. Is this because of doublethink? I don’t think so. The alternative is that it is because the underlying moral issue is more nuanced even if people don’t want it to be (e.g., when life starts and ends and how much a life is worth) and thus situational factors which are hard to identify or explicate are really important in many cases. This is even harder because if some of these factors are just how people feel, then presumably just waking up on the wrong side of the bed could legitimately change your perspective on some things at any given time.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
10 years ago

Hi Ken,

nice post. I agree with you that what you call doublethink, where an individual is really a multitude of conflicting opinions, is essentially a normal trait, probably a healthy one from an evolutionary perspective. My own post took this general trait as given and asked the next question: in what sense is there difference between people on this front and does politics select for particular people? I agree my dichotomy was crude and off-the-hip, but, as conrad pointed out, that is what dichotomies are for. Always happy to exchange for better dichotomies!

I do think there is an element of inner conflict within people about their inconsistencies. Many of us want to be consistent, even as a utopian ideal. Many are not comfortable with the idea they are just making it up as they go along, most of the time. Our self-esteem demands our view of the world makes sense, at least to ourselves. I think people adopt different strategies for dealing with that conflict.

john r walker
10 years ago
Reply to  Paul Frijters

A possibly important difference for your classification system to incorporate, is that sane actors usually know that they are not what they represent.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
10 years ago
Reply to  Ken Parish

I disagree. The whole point of classifications/archetypes is to illuminate a hopelessly complex situation for people who don’t have the time or inclination to delve much deeper into it. We do this regularly in discourse when it comes to politicians: left/right, policy buff/ populist, idealist/pragmatist, etc. I am just looking for something to typify the degree of self-reflection amongst politicians.

For the more committed followers of politics, having stories about varying underlying elements that arise in various combinations would of course also be useful, but such broader stories would require more effort to generate and more effort to understand so would seem apt for specialists only. For the general public a quick dichotomy that captures a lot of the variation is better. And even specialists cant help thinking in terms of categories; they simply have more categories and heuristics as to creating new ones.

Nicholas Gruen
10 years ago

Usually the domains over which doublethink operate are somewhat different. But sometimes they’re the same, as when a person will honestly believe that reducing tariffs will flood the country with cheap imports, and throw Australians out of jobs but that the merchants – wholesalers and retailers won’t pass the price cuts on, so we won’t actually face lower prices in the stores. These two views are often proposed in the same interview or conversation, though often people will acknowledge there’s a bit of a problem when it’s pointed out (unless they’re on TV representing a lobby group in which case they know that they’re not being paid to argue in good faith).

Mr Denmore
Mr Denmore
10 years ago

Perhaps the nature of politics as theatre, combined with the complexity of the contested issues, requires a certain limited set of personality types – the self-deluding egomaniac, the driven idealists suffering from narrative fallacy and the amoral, whatever-it-takes power junkies.

Having just read Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow book, I was struck that certain occupations probably are more suited to Type 1 thinking (the impulsive, free-associating one). And politics is certainly one of those.

10 years ago

One wonders about the nature of the blogging community, where a quick collection of hotlinks links can amount, in the blogger’s own mind, to a credible overview of a deeply complex field of study. Does the blogger believe their own post or do they resolve the contradictions between the universe of reality and the universe of discourse by a deliberate, or at least not consciously rejected, protocol of cognitive bias or confirmation dissonance? Should one therefore question the lunacy or merely the lucidity of the blogger? Moreover where should one discern the locus of distinction that separates the blogger-as-subject from the blogger-as-signifier? And what heuristic of discernment should one employ to assure that while all others fall lamentable victim to the labyrinth false consciousness, One alone remains pure and free of the hermeneutics of self-indulgence? Or any hint of solipsism?