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The wrong choice

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Isn’t it amazing how people frequently learn or choose the wrong things? Reasonable-seeming people are often totally irrational.

Take these two quotes. “You get worms from eating sugar!” And, “If you pick up a crying baby, you spoil it!” Both of these are false but always said with such assurance that sometimes I find myself wondering if there is any truth to them. Can so many people be wrong? It’s not easy living in a society which believes the most outrageous things. But then, someone will come along, usually a general practitioner or a school principal and say: “Chickenpox is most contagious when the rash is drying up!” and refuse to let the child back into school. That particular bit of stupidity allows me to catch myself. Ignorance is bliss and reason fallible even in the era of Dr Google because “it have the same dotish ideas on Google as it have here.”

Why do people so often turn away from facts and reason to make the wrong choice? Philosophers have noticed this for centuries. Schopenhauer claims that “Of a truth the first and foremost step in all knowledge of mankind is the conviction that a man’s conduct, taken as a whole, and in all its essential particulars, is not governed by his reason.”

He believed that most of our deeds are egotistic acts guided by self-interest, desire for pleasure or happiness, ie the emotions.

Popular culture, like the Meryl Streep character’s words in the movie, The Giver: “When people have the freedom to choose, they choose wrong,” also recognises this. Psychology talks about “confirmation bias” or the tendency people have to embrace information that supports their beliefs and reject information that contradicts them. Of the many forms of faulty thinking that have been identified, confirmation bias is among the best catalogued.

In T&T people follow tradition a lot. Mummy and tanty and granny always did it, so you do it too (without ever thinking about it consciously). That’s a strong cultural reason for behaviour.

But why do people so often make the wrong choice? Up to ten years ago we simply did not know. Now that we can study the brain by specialised scans, information is pouring out of neuropsychological labs. It’s all in the brain.

To simplify an incredibly complex subject, it turns out that choices, opinions, beliefs, decisions etc, are governed by two sections of the brain and you can see them functioning on the scans.

One, the rational part or Pre Frontal Cortex (PFC). The other, an older system, the limbic system, which governs emotions. The PFC is the part of the brain just behind our forehead. When it’s very prominent, it appears to push out the forehead and people say the person looks “brainy.” There’s no truth to that of course. It’s the most recently developed part of the brain and it is supposed to be the boss. It makes you do the harder thing when it’s the right thing to do and it’s not fully functional until people are in their mid twenties, a scary thought.

The limbic system is very complicated and is contained in various parts of the brain. To simplify, I’ll refer to it from perhaps its most important part, the amygdala (from the Greek amigdale) so named because it resembles an almond. It’s main role is mediating aggression, controlling fear and anxiety and the truly remarkable thing about it is that it gets bigger and more active when children or adults are exposed to long periods of stress eg post traumatic stress disorder and while it is thought that the default state in humans or primates is to trust, what the amygdala does is learn vigilance and distrust.

There’s a constant tug of war between these two sections of the brain and in people who have experienced toxic stress (strong and prolonged stress) in their life, it’s the emotional part that invariably wins.


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