Thursday, October 5, 2017

Particular Focus, Con and Pro

We have heard much in recent times about the cognitive quirks of our mind. Reflective types have always noted these, but only in the last decades has science caught up to document them in exquisite and exhaustive detail. Witness the classic tome by the Nobel-Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow. And whereas Kahneman himself professes some optimism, I am more temperamentally aligned with the kind of conclusion drawn by psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book, The Righteous Mind, namely, that human beings are hopelessly irrational.
            One of these features of our thinking, which, like the rest, presumably arose from evolutionary pressures under very different conditions of living from modern society, is our focus on the particular. This explains why we are far more likely to have our heart strings strummed and our purse strings opened by appeals on behalf of a single young orphan than by news reports of a mass catastrophe. We spent most of our evolutionary history living in small groups, where we needed to respond to the plights of individuals in our midst, rather than to the starvation of thousands in a different part of the globe that we didn’t even know existed and which certainly had no bearing on our own immediate survival. As Stalin may (or may not) have said, “If you kill one man it’s murder; if you kill a million, it’s a statistic.” This is how all of our minds work, not just Stalin’s.
Stalin was smart enough to realize that and so be able to exploit it. But even aside from malign intent, this tendency of our mind has a bad odor, since it appears to make us ill-equipped to deal with the kinds of global threats that today genuinely threaten us all or at least are something we could help ameliorate if our motivation could be enlisted to do so.
That all sounds right to me. However, I have just had a thought about a silver lining. The sad fact is that human beings are not going to change their basic nature any time soon if ever. (And maybe even if or when we do someday engineer our minds to be more responsive to big numbers, the ability to save ourselves or others on massive scales might be inadequate.)
But the very same cognitive tendency that contributes to this woeful state of affairs might also give us the capacity to carry on. This was first brought to my awareness by Wayne Pacelle, the President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, when I was interviewing him on radio station WNHU (88.7 FM, West Haven, CT) many years ago. I asked him how he could maintain his motivation and spirit in the face of the uncountable number of horrors his work brings him into continual encounter with. His answer was that he focuses on the day-to-day accomplishments, the individual victories.
What prompted me to put this together with the general cognitive issue was a communication from a friend who is just about to venture off to do volunteer work in some God-forsaken part of the world. He posed a similar question to some returnees who had related the awful conditions that await him:

“Did the volunteers think their service worthwhile? On the one hand, a nurse described her work as ‘spitting in the ocean to change the tide’. But the same nurse told of receiving an email from a student who had gone to a remote village to practice, and wrote excitedly because she recognized, and only because the volunteer had taught her to recognize it, that a village baby was suffering from a particular disease. That recognition may well lead to a different life course for that child. Many returned volunteers describe their service as both the most difficult and most gratifying year of their lives. I surmise that this program may do nothing for [Country X], but might do something for individual [X-ans].”

And, I would add, for the individual volunteers.