All in the mind

Photo attribution below
Before we get on with the actual task completely re-designing our system of government* there’s an important point which I’d like to touch on.

I’ve suggested that we should structure our re-design by first clarifying what we want the government system to do then identifying the best ‘hows’ for those ‘whats’ taking account of any unavoidable constraints. 

One unavoidable constraint is the fact that the the system of government with which we are concerned will be operated by human beings rather than, say, intelligent machines (there aren’t any) or Vulcans (ditto).

Thanks to our big brains we humans have astonishing abilities. So far as we know at present, these abilities can’t be found elsewhere in the Universe. But our big brains aren’t entirely perfect and some of their characteristics have profound consquences for our system of government.
Two I would like to focus on are firstly the various cognitive biases to which we’re subject (there’s a long but interesting list of them here), and the underlying cause of many of them – the phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance. Secondly, I’d like to consider the impact of group dynamics on the system of government.

Cognitive dissonance is about one of the ways we filter information. We find it very difficult to hold two contradictory beliefs about the world in our minds so if, for example, we find out something which contradicts an existing belief we tend to ‘massage’ the information so that it fits or simply ignore it altogether. If you haven’t heard about Leon Festinger, who originally coined the term cognitive dissonance and his encounter with ‘Mrs Keech’ it’s well worth reading this summary of the book that Festinger and his colleagues published on the study.

On my second point, it’s often said that British politics are tribal in nature and I think this is almost literally so. The ability to live and work together in groups, and apply our collective big brains to life, the universe and everything confers a huge survival advantage on humans. But it brings some costs as well, particuarly when combined with cognitive dissonance. For example, in the wrong circumstances group dymamics + cognitive dissonance = genocide. Or, to take another example, they are both a big factor in this.

Having flagged up these topics I’ll finish now and return to the later to consider how, through re-designing the government system, we can limit the damage they can cause. 

* I am not sufficently deluded that I think that can – or even should – actually change every aspect of our system of government, But more on that, and what we might actually be able to change, later. For now, it’s worth noting that we can re-design the system, even if we can’t actually change it, and the thought-experiment involved in doing so should lead to some actual changes and ideas about ways of implementing them.

Photo: Brain t by Dierk Schaefer 

 Used under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial Share-Alike 2.0 license.



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