(continued) Chapter 1: Mindset: Meaning and Implications
One way or another, the very concept of a mindset always involves what we think and – with or without good reason – why we think it. The phenomenon can take some curious turns. The psychologist Robert Zajonc identified what he calls the “mere exposure” effect, according to which we are more likely to become favorably disposed toward a particular type of stimulus as a result of nothing more than repeated exposures to that stimulus. This seems to apply in any context. Tom Vanderbilt, writing in Smithsonian, provides some examples:
impressionist paintings (I didn’t count my exposures, but I came to very much like this artform to which I was initally indifferent);
unfamiliar languages (why do I find the sound of Gaelic pleasing even though I can’t understand a word of it?);
and Pakistani music (it will never meet my American 1950s-based standard for what constitutes “music” much less “good” music).
Mindsets often seem inexplicable. For many people, as folk wisdom holds, though we don’t always know what we like, we’re pretty sure we don’t like what we don’t know. Taking a culinary example, the combination of our taste buds, and the brain/mind to which they connect, decides whether we “like” or “don’t like” certain foods. We have all seen children and not a few adults whose default position is to “not like” any food that is not very! familiar!, and hell may freeze over before they are persuaded to try a bite of something (raw oysters!) that we, in our vast experience, “know” is yummy delicious.
Here’s a good question for neo-Darwinists (i.e., firm evolutionists who aren’t at all as open minded as was Charles) to argue over: Can a mindset be delivered by the very genes we’re born with, or are such proclivities acquired by acculturation in the early years? Culinary researchers have found that as many as nine exposures must happen before a breakthrough into “liking” begins to take effect in some children. I don’t believe twenty nine tries would touch my lifelong aversion to the taste of licorice. I will happily experiment with anything humans are known to eat – except licorice.
Such disliking is quite subjective, and the disliker’s aversion often has little or nothing to do with taste but is founded upon, say, a food’s “look,” or its “texture” (or the black smear licorice leaves around the eater’s mouth), which is perceived to be disgusting. My wife, for instance, has some sort of irrational mindset against perfectly edible things like squid; and clams; and raw oysters on the half shell; and very hot sauces. In consequence of her aberrations (which to my mind seem unbelievable), on the rare pleasant occasion when such delicacies present, I always receive and happily put down what would have been her share. Preferably dipped in hot melted real butter. With dashes of tobasco.
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Mindsets occur in many contexts
What is your attitude toward global warming? Are you affected by it? Is it real? If real, is it a threat to civilization as we know it? To human survival? Thousand of scientists – virtually the entire scientific establishment in fact – answer Yes to these questions, and they readily present data proving weather and climate are getting steadily worse already, right now. Or do you think it’s all an overblown myth invented by greedy scientists trying to get more research grant dollars, as maintained by some Congressmen and corporate lords with deep financial interests in fossil fuel industries?
When a corporation or politician makes this charge against the integrity of scientists, as they often do, do you think the corporation – ever desirous of cutting costs but now pressured to take on new costs to abate its pollution – or the politician, receiving big reelection money from the corporation – would deliberately try to garble the facts about global warming for the sake of mere money? Do you believe an honorable well known corporation or politician would do such a thing? Who are you inclined to believe – the scientists, or the corporations and politicians? What is your personal “environmental” mindset about all this? Your “political” mindset? How did you arrive at the opinions associated with your mindset? Did you carefully gather all the facts first? Yes?
In your opinion, did giant corporate megabanks and market speculators “cause” the subprime mortgage bubble that – bursting, as all bubbles do – caused millions of people to lose their homes to foreclosure? Did banks and speculators cause the ongoing global recession, massive unemployment, and weakened national economy that is taking long years to (and seemingly may never fully) recover? Or do you think it was caused by the home buyers themselves, many now bankrupt and foreclosed, who were gullible enough to sign adjustable-rate (balloon) mortgages for houses the mortgage broker assured them they could afford and who walked away with his commission after they signed? Who should be blamed? The duplicitous or the used?
Should the Fed (under Alan Greenspan) have lowered interest rates to nearly zero as incentive that encouraged corporate lenders to behave as greedy predators who “lured” high-risk buyers, yearning to own a house, into signing such mortgages? Who really caused this worst economic downturn since the Great Depression? What is your “economic” mindset about all this? Your “social justice” mindset? Have you reexamined these mindsets lately?
How do you respond to the term “evolution”? Do you think it means humans descended from monkeys? Or do you think that a kindergarten level of misunderstanding? Do you care a whit about biology one way or the other? Is science a good thing, a threat, or a mixed bag? Do you “believe in” science? Or God? Or both science and God? Do you believe God created the universe, the earth, and all living creatures plus Adam and Eve in six 24-hour days? Is your religion right and all other religions wrong? Are you skeptical about any of these things? What is your mindset toward science? Toward religion? Will some aspect of you live on after your body dies? Which religion does God belong to? Is He a Christian? If so, Catholic or protestant? If protestant, which denomination? Does It call Itself Allah on certain days? Or is She a Jew? Answer quickly now, no hedging.
Mindsets thrive in all of us. They can and do have enormous influence over every topic with which people concern themselves. They often lead us down paths of biased thinking and ill-considered actions which we pursue fervently, failing to recognize that our own actions can be detrimental to our own best interests. Many hard-working, financially stressed Americans, for instance, cast their votes according to mindsets they have acquired unthinkingly, continuing perversely to elect politicians whose well known beliefs assure that they will pass laws which transfer more wealth from those voters to the super rich. This typically happens in the name of untrammeled free market capitalism which has been bundled with a few hot-ticket religio-social issues which serve as decoys to distract voter attention from the real ploy – big money. Thus with their own votes do millions of middle- and lower-income voters unknowingly make their own lives harder.
We all have mindsets, and they are laden with value judgments. Certain mindsets are generally considered positive (think “kind volunteer” or “helps people in need”), though not by everyone. Other mindsets are regarded negatively by most people (think “Nazi” or “selfish”), though, again, not by everyone. One person’s mindset favoring the idea of government by Islamic Sharia law – or by Christian theocracy – may be seen through another person’s mindset as anathema, unspeakable evil to be banished from the earth. Mindsets appear in opposite extremes, and every shade and context in between.
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Mindsets matter, to individuals and to whole societies. As a cause of civil unrest and strife, they matter especially as they move from the moderate center toward the political extremes of right and left. Think of a bell curve that’s not so very high, but is unusually wide. And getting wider, with more people out on the extreme s.
Consider the “nicest” people you know – people in your personal orbit who seem to be always cheerful, always evidencing a positive attitude, always considerate, always trying to do what they feel is helpful for others in their daily lives. Demonstration of positive regard for oneself, combined with supportive and helpful behavior toward others, reveals something of the mindset behind the actions.
Similarly consider people you don’t know personally, but whom you know to have done great and good things for a larger, less personal, group of “others” in their community, state or nation. Such people, for example, brought into being our national park system, that nature might be conserved, that their fellow citizens – people they didn’t even know personally, and generations to follow – might know and share the natural beauty they so valued. Such people are many. What motivates them? Whence their positive mindsets?
Consider the long crusade of all the women, and men, whose mindsets led to making real the principle that women are equally entitled to vote; of Rosa Parks, whose mindset confronted a nation with the principle that the civil rights of a civil society are an equal entitlement for every person in that society; of the people whose compassion for unknown others drove them to lobby and win legislation regulating the use of child labor, of laws mandating the safety of workers who labor in dark mines and factories; and of efforts long pursued, for no personal reward, to free innocent people wrongly imprisoned.
These situations reflect mindsets that value people, that care about people – that unselfishly seek a common good for the benefit of a larger community, even though such common good may bring no direct benefit to the individual who labors to achieve it. Such caring thinking and generous behavior is called “altruism.” It baffles neo-Darwinists because it conflicts with their beliefs about evolutionary survival, and is beyond the ken of some xenophobes who believe themselves very religious. Positive actions such as these begin, like all actions, in the thoughts of people who care enough to inconvenience themselves for the benefit of other people – for the common good. And such thoughts, like all thoughts, are greatly influenced by the mindsets of the people who think them.
Their mindsets predispose them, we may say, to Help Others.
Now turn the coin. Consider all the needless, petty silliness and avoidable burdens on society which originate in the set of peoples’ minds who harbor, for example:
- irrational certainty that “I am right” – even when they’re obviously wrong;
- selfish certainty that “That is mine” – when in fact it is not;
- intolerance for different views legitimately held by others;
- uncaring competitive urges that harm people – let the buyer beware.
We all can call up unlimited examples of behaviors which are at best self serving and at worst predatory toward others. Why do some people behave as predators and parasites? The mindsets behind such behaviors make trouble where there was no trouble. They impose needless anger, angst, disharmony and even violence upon our civil society. They usually are accompanied by inattention to things of common value, to things that really matter for the good of the greater society, all at the expense of peace and harmony, of mutual help and cooperation, of inner growth toward our unlimited human potential – all of which the trouble maker apparently doesn’t give a damn about. Why not?
Narrow uninformed mindsets inhibit minds – their own and others – from growing. The hardened mindset filter won’t permit entry of any new information which might update and modify the opinions held, un-reexamined, for so long now. Such minds harbor many and often hateful opinions based on little real fact. Imagine how much wrongness, petty and gross, could be laid aside, ended, if the narrow, uncomprehending mindsets which produce it were expanded, not only to fuller understanding of reality, of the way things really are, but to grander vision of how much better things could be. Imagine how civil our civil society might become if more people perceived unity, overarching interdependence, in matters they now unthinkingly see as but isolated slices of local existence on a remote world stage poorly understood – narrow little slices without mutual relevance, unconnected.
Their mindsets reveal in them a desperate need to Attain Knowledge.
1. Help Others; and 2. Attain Knowledge.
Avoid the converse: use others, and be uninformed.
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…to be continued in one week…
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