Psychological Distortion

Written on June 29, 2008. Written by .

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There are many ways that psychology can distort our perception of reality.
Photo courtesy of ©athrine

A while ago I decided that I was sick of wasting my life doing homework that really wasn’t teaching me anything. I am experienced enough to know that most homework feels useless, but I was sure that this homework actually was useless, at least for me. When I tried explaining this to my professor, I witnessed a fascinating case of what I call psychological distortion.* When I told him that all we were doing was blind algebra and computers would be able to do the same thing in the near future, his abrupt response was “Not in a billion years”, and after seeing my surprised look, “… at least not in our lifetime.”

I think holding either of those views strongly is unjustifiable given the exponential growth of technology. In fact, I have found that the topic of artificial intelligence is a particularly sensitive one in academia. My theory is that this sensitivity is the result of a form of psychological distortion. It has to do with avoidance of regret. Imagine that you invested your whole life to learn the skills of a very specific field of study. If a computer is designed that possess those same skills, but works millions of times faster, then the fruits of your life of labor would be largely devalued.** This would probably be enough to make anyone regret the sacrifices they made. The mind’s regret avoidance defense mechanism would then trigger psychological distortion to mask the issue.

Psychologists have a term called “bias” that is related to psychological distortion. While psychological distortion only applies to cases that induce a distorted view of reality, biases more generally apply to any illogical behavior. For example, you might act according to the Herd Instinct bias, but not consciously realize that you are doing so, which means it is not psychological distortion. Or you might realize it and decide to continue acting according to the bias because it feels better, which is again not psychological distortion. But if the bias serves to convince you of something evidently false, then it becomes a case of psychological distortion.

Wikipedia has an interesting article listing many cognitive biases. I think it is a valuable excercise to go through this list and try to identify some biases you’ve experienced recently. Understanding these biases will enable you to make more effective decisions with respect to life quality maximization.

For most of my life I took it as an axiom that any kind of psychological distortion was bad. Recently I was forced to question that assumption by a friend who thought it was inhuman to remove all psychological distortion. After thinking about it, I realized that this assumption may not be value system independent. I think it applies well to me because I have a high natural aversion to cognitive dissonance, or disagreeing ideas in the mind. Some people might not have any natural aversion to cognitive dissonance, which would enable them to play with the idea of picking and choosing those beliefs that make them feel the best. I still think they run a huge risk of making mistakes if they do that, and this is a risk that I would never take in a modern society.

* I use this term to refer to any psychological phenomenon that results in a distorted view of reality. To be more specific, I define ”distorted” to apply to any view of reality that is not justifiably consistent with experience. Therefore it is possible for a distorted view of reality to be in fact correct if all evidence happened to point toward the incorrect view.
** Of course there is the chance that you actually enjoyed the whole process of learning, but I have yet to see a case like that.

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