loader image
 

The Lies We Tell Ourselves

If you look at the world through a lens of risk, it's a grim place.

But that doesn't mean carrying a book of stats around with you to make decisions about whether to take a train or a flight based on the actual occupancy at the time of boarding versus the number of bookings made. (There's a suggested link to people cancelling or not taking journeys and increased likelihood of that flight or train crashing which has fascinated fiction writer's for some years.) Nor does it mean you won't leave your house during the pandemic without a CBRN suit on.

" Optimism bias, positive illusion, illusory superiority, and normalcy bias are trashing economies, costing lives, and leaving us societally exposed to ongoing psychological warfare operations"

Looking at the world through the eyes of risk awareness is grim because people are and life is, and it boils down to nothing more complicated than situational awareness - and your field of vision defines the situation you are aware of.

At the lower end that view is the street you are about to cross so you don't get hit by a car, and most people limit their view of risk to their immediate surroundings in a jigsaw of small risk-based decisions each day. At the upper end of that scale are risk analysts, looking at complex global events to identify trade, terrorism, and even earth-bound asteroids. In the middle of the scale sits the acceptance of eventual death because you aren't immortal and addressing the health risks which might bring that date forwards.

The bottom line is, the more information you have, the more risk you should be able to perceive. Not so you can dwell in a pit of misery or wander the streets with an "End is Nigh" placard, but simply so that you can take positive action to mitigate these risks.

But some people will brand anyone risk-aware as having pessimism bias and this opens a whole field of speculation and misapplied 'othering' based around the concept of what has been termed "depressive realism."

In reality, risk awareness isn't the problem at all. Which leads us to the point: optimism bias, positive illusion, illusory superiority, and normalcy bias are trashing economies, costing lives, and leaving us societally exposed to ongoing psychological warfare operations. These are the lies we tell ourselves which result in risk blindness.

"The cognitive bias which permits these things to happen hasn't gone anywhere - in fact, during a crisis, the problem grows leading, to higher levels of risk creation and aggression against rational dissenting voices."

From Trump's "the virus will just go away," to Britain's "Brexit will make things better," the world is littered with current and easily recognisable examples of risk blindness and consequence. And yet the cognitive bias which permits these things to happen hasn't gone anywhere - in fact, during a crisis, the problem grows, leading to higher levels of risk creation and aggression against rational dissenting voices. (Take for example the reaction to the "Oxford Vaccine" being restricted by some countries to under 65s due to an absence of data supporting its use arising from poor study design, or the dismissal of and rage at concerns by some scientists that partial vaccine dose approaches could lead to mutant strains emerging while community spread was out of control).

Whether you look at the Vietnam war or Putin's successful hybrid assault on Western democracies in 2016, or any point in between for that matter, our mainstreamed, risk-blind positivity - that any war can be won if you clutch a flag hard enough, or that democracy is unassailable because it's defended by dreams - has failed repeatedly.

Before we get to the weaponisation of optimism, clear definition is needed:

Optimism Bias:

"The belief a person or group of people is less likely to experience a negative event or outcome."

Positive Illusion:

"Unrealistically favourable assessments of and attitudes towards the situation faced or the people around you."

Illusory Superiority:

"The overestimation of personal or group qualities and abilities."

Normalcy Bias:

"The disbelief or minimisation of risk, threat, and warning leading to an inability to perceive or foresee adverse impacts and a rejection of even obvious probabilities of negative outcomes."

The driving factors are tightly-linked, for example:

  • If you are wealthy or otherwise shielded from the daily realities of life, your perception of many risks will default to low or non-existent.
  • If you are privileged or otherwise reliant on connections in order to advance your interests, your default perception of your ability and the ability of those around will be distorted.
  • If you have engaged in risky or risk-driven behaviour - from drugtaking to trading stocks and shares - and have experienced no negative effect - you weren't arrested or made millions of dollars - your mechanism for calculating risk is skewed by experience.
  • If you have arrested a hundred criminals and not been attacked by one, you may place the one who intends to kill you in a compliant restraint or fail to search them properly.

Inherited and learned experience, self-perception, and even goal fixation leads to positive cognitive bias and the more negative an event or likely outcome, the stronger the optimism bias will be (this is referred to as the valence effect).

Studies have found the problem gets even worse when efforts are made to reduce the effects of these sets of cognitive bias and, in fact, interventions increase the optimism response.

The only cure anyone can find really is having the adverse outcome happen, which alters the experience of the individual and tempers their optimism towards similar events in future. Years of study effectively confirm the old knowledge that some lessons can only be learned the hard way.

On its own, the resultant risk blindness relates to an individual and their own actions. However, when a group of individuals share the same bias - whether by stupidity or ideology - this can impact policy, planning, and management. At the lower scale, which is basic stuff like pursuing costly infrastructure projects, this results in overspending and inflation of the importance of projects (HS2 being a current example.) At the upper scale, you get flawed pandemic strategy, economy crippling trade deals, and even protracted wars.

Any government with optimism bias at its core is, subsequently, dangerous and this leads us neatly to the weaponisation of optimism.

"To make a population, or segment of a population, act against its own interests, you just need to present it with a situation it hasn't faced before - has no experience of - and tell it everything will be okay if everyone just believes."

It's relatively easy to profile a population. You can get demographics from public sources, behaviour from published reports, and sentiment from social media. And you don't even need to delve into gathering huge dossiers of private data on individuals as once might have been the case.

Subsequently, if you know the profile of a population and you understand the function of positivity risk-blindness, what you can do to that population is unlimited.

Over the last few years researchers and pundits have focused on negative psychological efforts, such as voter suppression, but what has been largely ignored is the most dangerous thing of all: hope.

Capitol Hill wasn't driven by negative emotion really. It was driven by the hope that a president those voters had chosen could remain in power if they carried out that course of action. Qanon itself was a radicalisation mechanism which relied entirely on the concepts of trust, faith, and hope. And, because of all the cognitive bias factors, participants minimised the risk of that course of action and could not see the negative outcomes.

Brexit wasn't driven by negative emotion at its core, it was a snake oil sale of hope for a different future which played to bias. Even the People's Vote campaign which followed and is now morphing into a proportional representation effort was driven by the false hope it would succeed because those leading it believed they had the power and influence to achieve that goal.

Hope is poisoning pandemic response too with one notable exclusion being New Zealand - which expanded its view, maximised its situational awareness, and successfully attacked the pandemic through the lens of risk and risk mitigation.

To make a population, or segment of a population, act against its own interests, you just need to present it with a situation it hasn't faced before - has no experience of - and tell it everything will be okay if everyone just believes. After that, you've won because it will pursue even the most obviously bone-headed course of action and not stop until it has learned the lesson the hardest possible way.

Who needs nuclear weapons when a cheery disposition will do the job just as effectively?

Related Articles

Losing Narratives

Narrative isn’t a toy, you see. Yet it’s played with all too often by people who don’t understand it. Narrative is a weapon in the hybrid warfare arsenal and has tendency of backfiring if not handled with care.

Disinfonomics

This psychology not only continues to redefine our shared values, incorporating disinformation into our talking points and group behaviours, but profits the whole sector which both feeds upon and drives it. This is Disinfonomics.