03 August, 2015

Special people

After a rant on G+ I thought it'd be nice (for me, at least) to share a thought: we have an urge to put certain people on a pedestal because it helps our own identity and self esteem.

We need to feel superior

Self Esteem is very important for us - Maslov put individuality on top of the piramid for a reason. We need it to function, be happy in life.

So our brain lies to us

But how do you feel special and unique when you're not? Our brain lies to us, causing our illusion of superiority. I say 'our' because this is a near universal issue: 90% of people in pretty much any profession feels they are better than average, despite skills pretty much always following a bell curve (statistics speak for "half the people is worse and half is better than average").

Our brain is in charge of maintaining that positive sense of identity and has a series of tricks to keep that.

For example, identity depends on contrast. So we tend to exaggerate differences with others who are close to us. See for example countries who make fun of each other - it is inevitably between peoples very similar. Some interesting experiments were done with group behavior at a young boys' summer camp in the US in the 50's. Read a bit about this here if you're interested. You'll realize some of the problems we have in society are ingrained in our brains - a point I've made in an earlier blog.

Then there is the Self-Serving Bias which:
is the belief that individuals tend to ascribe success to their own abilities and efforts, but ascribe failure to external factors.

We do that? Yes, we do. Examples are everywhere, and some honest introspection will show you. Why do we do it? Because it makes us feel better about ourselves! If something goes wrong, it's the fault of the world. If things go well, I DID AWESOME! (towards other people we show the related Fundamental Attribution Error). Just to get an idea of the impact of environment, watch this TED talk by James Flynn about the increase in IQ over the last 100 years (the Flynn effect, indeed).

Another important strategy is self justification: it is how we deal with a perceived discrepancy between what we believe about the world and what we see (also called 'cognitive dissonance'). Wikipedia again:
Internal self-justification refers to a change in the way people perceive their actions. It may be an attitude change, trivialization of the negative consequences or denial of the negative consequences. Internal self-justification helps make the negative outcomes more tolerable and is usually elicited by hedonistic dissonance. For example, the smoker may tell himself that smoking is not really that bad for his health.

External self-justification refers to the use of external excuses to justify one's actions. The excuses can be a displacement of personal responsibility, lack of self-control or social pressures. External self-justification aims to diminish one's responsibility for a behavior and is usually elicited by moral dissonance. For example, the smoker might say that he only smokes socially and because other people expect him to.

And there are many more of these biases which maintain our belief in ourselves.

Note that these persistent errors in judgment are part of a normal and healthy personality! But it is good to be aware of them and their effects on relationships, both private and in society at large.

Special or not

So, the rich have their brain lies to them, maintaining their illusory superiority. Now we can understand why somebody on top of the world feels that it is justified that he/she is paid more per hour than much of the world population earns in a year.

But why do we support this illusion by buying auto-biograpies and looking up to the Steve Jobs and Fords and Warren Buffets like they are such special people?

Because they support the narrative that we all need: the self made (wo)man.

There are always people who have a worse life than us - significantly so, often. As Sam Harris points out in a painful description of an iPad user, things are going very wrong in the world. So we have the need to justify ourselves, feel superior over the poor. We have many strategies for that - Sam mentions religion as one. Another one is the idea that we make our own life, supported by the biases I described.

I think that the stories of these great, wonderful people we've partially made up help us justify the thought that people who are worse off than us have only themselves to blame. We have a need to deny the harsh reality that the world isn't fair and we would be in their situation if the marbles would've fallen slightly different.