Arrogance of the Present

24 Aug
People are arrogant. This isn’t just my personal opinion. This is observable and recorded by science as well. But I think that people are particularly arrogant about the present, about their current self. I think that this takes two particular forms, each a little bit different.

Ignorance of the future

First is the assumption that people make when we assume that our future self will have the same emotions and desires as out present self. Why on earth should we think this? Our past selves are different from our present selves, so why on earth shouldn’t our future selves be different from our present selves. A New York Times article reviewing some of the research on this subject contains nice illustration of this concept:
Dr. McAdams was reminded of a conversation with his 4-year-old daughter during the craze for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the 1980s. When he told her they might not be her favorite thing one day, she refused to acknowledge the possibility. But later, in her 20s, she confessed to him that some part of her 4-year-old mind had realized he might be right.
It is easy to dismiss this as the ignorant thoughts of a little child. However, most people don’t realize how similar we are in our thoughts to that ignorant 4-year-old girl. Believing that we are much better is itself a self-delusion. We hear and think things such as “I’ll never forget this as long as I live.” When we say “I’ll love you forever” are are doing exactly the same things at the 4-year-old girl: we are assuming that nothing will ever change how we feel, that our current opinion will remain valid forever; exactly the same thought process at the 4-year-old  girl.
In a study published in Science in January 2013, described how “Young people, middle-aged people, and older people all believed they had changed a lot in the past but would change relatively little in the future. ” This is called The End of History Illusion. The authors of this paper asked some subjects to predict how much they would change over the next ten years, and asked some subjects to report on how much they had changed over the previous ten years. To me it is stunning how people

“believe that who they are today is pretty much who they will be tomorrow, despite the fact that it isn’t who they were yesterday… people expect to change little in the future, despite knowing that they have changed a lot in the past.” This disconnect between the present and future self is a very strong aspect of the decisions that we make in life.

Daniel Kahneman described more of this conflict between future and present self in his excellent book Thinking, Fast and Slow. If you haven’t got the patience for that, however, as least check out his TED talk.

…and therefore I assume that nothing in the world will ever affect my current feelings.

Disregard for context

Anyone who has studied some psychology should be aware of the influence of a situation on a person’s behavior. This can apply to having different emotions at a different time, (often described as hot and cold states), or it could concern the effect that different social situations have on us. Let’s discuss the effect of emotions first.
I am often shocked and amazed at the arrogance displayed in many people by not recognizing how having different emotions, or how being in a hot state would change their judgement. People easily tell me “I would never rape someone,” “I would never pay money for sex,” “I wouldn’t do something like that.” The trouble is that they are saying this and thinking in a cold state, when they are not under any strong influences. According to the Washington Post, “When we are not hungry or thirsty or sexually aroused, we find it difficult to understand what effects those factors can have on our behavior. Similarly, when we are excited or angry, it is difficult to think about the consequences of our behavior — outcomes that are glaringly obvious when we are in a cold emotional state.”

But emotional state isn’t the only thing that alters our judgement and effects our decision-making abilities. Social pressures do the same.

I recall receiving a lot of ‘resist peer pressure’ propaganda when I was a child, but is that really something that you can just will yourself out of through sheer mental force? The Asch conformity experiments, now more than half a century old, are famous and influential. They serve as a simple example of how a social situation can effect our choices and judgements, even when we are not in a hot state. But the Asch experiments are quite tame in comparison to the famous Milgram experiment and the infamous Sanford Prison Experiment, both of which are standard textbook examples of a particular context altering a person’s behavior. The takeaway from these studies isn’t about willingness to misperceive line lengths, nor willingness to inflict harm on another human being, nor even about prisoners and guards. The major point of these experiments is that our behavior is easily changeable. If we are placed in different contexts, how we act and what we do (major aspects of who we are) are surprisingly fluid. So don’t tell anyone “I would never do X,” because if you haven’t been in a particular situation then you don’t really know how you would act. To say otherwise is to fall victim to the arrogance of the present.

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