Too many people think of psychology as a quaint side point to their daily lives; an abstract science that has little bearing on how they live. In reality, it’s what guides life itself. As Carl Jung once pointed out, more people have died because of imagined beliefs and flaws in thinking than by all the plagues and natural disasters combined. If my flawed thinking leads me to imagine that you’re my enemy, and then I kill you because of this belief (or heaven forbid, launch nuclear weapons at you and your brethren), then you would be dead on account of mere imagination.
One area where flaws in thinking create disastrous consequences that we all must live with is in the area of politics. Decisions are made that have the power to either enrich or destroy people, and they are often made on the basis of classic flaws in human cognition. In a March 2015 Readers Digest article titled 13 Things Mayors Won’t Tell You, by Michelle Crouch, one mayor states that “It’s easier to pass a $20 million water-treatment project than it is to spend a few thousand dollars on new laptop computers for the police squad cars. People’s eyes tend to glaze over when you review the details of a big project. But small costs are a lot easier to grasp, so people jump all over them and the money.”
Another laments the stubbornness of his constituents in clinging to the status quo: “When it comes down to it, most people fear change. Many projects that people hate at first – the ones they complain loudest about-end up being much loved after they’re built. Some of the most controversial projects are now icons that everyone in the city is proud of.” The resistance to anything different mires society in molasses, keeping us stuck and preventing the type of change that might make everyone’s life better.
It’s an example of two classic thought flaws in action: the tendency to personalize the small while failing to grasp the large (as the famous saying goes: a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic), and the tendency to stubbornly cling to what’s familiar, even when it works against our own benefit. These two principles have been demonstrated in study time and time again. Yet when it comes time for people to make decisions and cast their votes, most have no clue that the calculations in their head are deeply flawed, and might even be leading them against what’s best.
When decisions are based on flawed thinking like this — as is happening every day all around you – what results is typically more problems. This is why we all live in such a messed up world. Sometimes a failure to understand ourselves can literally be a matter of life and death. So before putting your mind and its vote behind knee-jerk reactions, try challenging your assumptions and looking at things in a new way. Whether it’s the abolition of slavery, better human rights, or simply a better local government, progress always comes by changing (or going directly against) what’s familiar.