Op/Ed I Desperate state of Affairs

What I see is people desperate for influence. The most dangerous thing in the world is desperation. The desperate will try anything. Desperation drives one to side with hate or fear; to ignore science, to ignore reason. The desperate will work together and make up their own narrative to justify a world view. The desperate will decide: immigrants are stealing our jobs, there is no consensus about climate change in the scientific community, and crime and gangs are epidemic. Unfortunately, for the desperate, the truth is not democratic. Current statistics strongly suggest immigrants are not taking the majority of jobs, climate change is accepted and occurring, and gangs and violent crimes are on a low trend—the state of the world is improving. The desperate, like the rest of us, are products of how our nervous system takes in, and processes information. The desperate, like the rest of us, are susceptible to errors in thinking which occur automatically, and almost beyond consciousness. Human cognition is adaptive, and well suited for what it does—finding patterns in the chaos. We take in large amounts of information, and search for narratives and structure amongst the otherwise meaningless universe. Despite the efficiency of human thought, the mind can be misled by how information is presented. Current cognitive-behavioral neuroscience is providing insight into cognitive mechanisms, conceptual limitations, how cognitive errors occur, and how cognitive errors can be overcome. The most obvious cognitive errors in our current political environment are: memory, serial order effect, and availability heuristics, among many other cognitive errors. Memory can be transient or changeable; memory has the ability to evolve. Reality as one may recall can be reconstructed along cognitive anchor points called ‘retrieval cues’. If asked “what did you do last week” you are retrieving information and constructing it alongside basic known information. It is important to note that new, conflicting, misleading information, and emotional salience can alter or influence memory. Serial order effect is the cognitive tendency to recall the first and last items in a series correctly, but being unable to recall information in the middle of the same series. Oftentimes, news networks will start and finish the a news cycle with extreme stories, but background and context is often presented in the middle, therefore, it is difficult to recall. This leads into availability heuristics. Availability heuristics are simple cognitive, or mental shortcut rules, which people use to form judgments and decisions. Although effective for simple information, or situations that only focus on one aspect of a complex problem, this results in displacement or omittance of other pertinent information. Availability heuristics are reinforced by our digital world.  For example, computer programs track online behavior, and by using statistical probability based on past content viewed, we are only shown consumer content that we are likely to approve of. Statistical models of probability increase the frequency of information we consume that will be tailored to us; a computer cherry-picking information for us. Therefore, by only seeing information that we agree with, we can develop a strong sense that our world view is correct, or obviously shared by others. If you follow news from ‘the alt-right’ or ‘fox and friends’ you will only be shown news and ads that relate to this.  Although almost all information processing occurs beyond consciousness, there is a way to defend ourselves from all the misinformation out there, and that is by simply being informed, and staying informed. By understanding the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of cognition, we are given more psychological tools that protect us from being taken advantage of. By being aware of cognitive processing we are protecting the only real freedom we have—how we choose to think and organize our internal thoughts and points of view. Sadly, the desperate, some of which who blindly support those such Donald Trump, have fallen prey with the loss of their cognitive freedom, fueled by desperation and perhaps learned helplessness. All is not lost however, we can study and learn from our current political situation. We are capable of moving towards a better way to govern ourselves, and becoming more informed consumers of information. We need to be open-up our minds, but remain vigilant, and critical of all information. Thus, this will allow us to meaningfully participate in the political process as informed citizens.

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