The Human Mind Is Not So Simple

I just recently finished watching a really interesting set of documentaries called The Trap, made by the BBC.  The series explores the concept and definition of freedom, but from a very interesting perspective, specifically, “how a simplistic model of human beings as self-seeking, almost robotic creatures led to today’s idea of freedom.”

They begin by going back to the Cold War and examining the origins of Game Theory, which attempts to model human behavior into these strategy “games” where players try to outwit each other using probability theory.  Back then, the United States and the Soviet Union had nuclear missiles aimed at each other at all times.  There were planes and submarines moving all over the place, ready to fire off warheads if either side tried anything at all.  You read about this in history books and think to yourself, “My gosh, how did we even survive?  I can’t believe we’re still here.  The slightest provocation could have sent the world spiraling into a nuclear holocaust.”  What were our leaders thinking?

Well, they were using Game Theory!  The mathematical models they applied were literally created by a paranoid schizophrenic named John Nash who was admitted to a mental institution a few years later.  Nash was hearing voices in his head, feeling as if he could hear other people’s thoughts.  He was firmly convinced that all his colleagues were trying to steal his work and the very basis his mathematical models was that nobody can be trusted, and that the rational choice in every situation is to betray your opponent without even considering cooperation.  That absolutely insane line of thinking became the very basis of U.S. and Soviet nuclear weapons policy throughout the Cold War!

As you watch the series, you sit in your chair thinking, “Man!  This is nuts!”  and these terrible ideas embedded in Game Theory just propagate their way through academia and government.   For example, we’re introduced to a famous psychologist named R.D. Laing who was really big in the 1960s.  He applied these same mathematical Game Theory models to the family and came to absolutely absurd conclusions.  For example, true love was an illusion and really there was always a constant power struggle going on within the home.  Husbands and wives were in a constant battle, vying for command of the home’s resources, lying to children, trying to get the better of one another, and so on.  Then he applied the ideas to society at large, and mental illness was pronounced a tool of the state to silence dissent and all of psychiatry was a fraud.

A brilliant young psychologist named Rosenhan attended one of his lectures and devised a rather ingenious experiment to confirm whether or not psychiatry really was a sham.  He asked normal everyday folks to approach mental hospitals and tell the staff there, “I hear a faint, unclear voice uttering ‘thud’.”  Other than that, they were to act perfectly normal and never mention the voices again.  All of them were pronounced schizophrenic and mentally ill, and many of them were unable to leave the mental hospital without taking powerful psychotropic medications and pretending to get better.  Once the results of these studies were released, the psychology profession was thrown into disarray.  They needed a new way to diagnose mental illness which was objective and scientific.

This led a psychologist (I can’t remember his name now) to create a series of tests which could diagnose mental illness without the need for a psychiatrist.  The problem was these new tests had no way of taking into account a person’s individual life and circumstances, because all of that would be too complicated.  So we instead end up with a very superficial, shallow model of mental illness and the human mind.  Countless mental “disorders” are created, and normal human suffering is treated as a disorder.  Drug companies have a heyday with this and create pills for everything.  Normal people trying to cope with the issues of everyday life feel there’s something wrong with them and start visiting psychologists to “fix” them.

All of this is rooted in shallow, superficial models of human beings and our minds.  We’re very complicated creatures and we don’t fit into a math equation very easily.  You have to remember, none of Nash’s models work if people decide to cooperate and love each other.  His models always assume people are all out for themselves because if people love one another, and help one another without reason, and work together out of spirit of brotherly love, the models get way too complicated and he can’t put it all into equations.  So, in order to get things to work out, he had to simplify the human mind to something it’s not.  And strangely, the only solution he was able to work out, the so called Nash equilibrium, had to assume people were all out for themselves, and therefore the rational decision each and every time was to betray everyone else around you.  He proved that there was a stable system which would emerge if everyone pursued their own interests at all times.

Free market economists took this as proof that if everyone just pursued their own self-interest without regard for anyone else, a stable society would emerge.  Because these ideas were cloaked in mathematical equations and models, everything seemed scientific, so over time they were applied to the economic sphere and became embedded in our financial institutions and even our government.

All that I just mentioned was just the first episode.  The second episode goes into how attempts to put these ideas into our governmental institutions were a disaster and led to a very strange form of freedom.  A pseudo “market” was imposed on our social institutions, filled with quotas, targets, and plans.  People then cheated the system and the numbers themselves became unreliable.  To counteract this, new oversight agencies had to be established to verify that the numbers were being reported reliably and the whole system became very authoritarian.  A noble attempt to give social workers freedom to achieve goals any way they want ultimately led to a huge system of control.

For example, politicians tried to impose crime targets on police officers.  Every year the police had to find a way to lower such and such a crime rate, but what actually ended up happening is police officers reported severe crimes as if something of much less gravity happened in order to get their numbers down.  Rapes were reported as minor domestic disputes, and so on.  After all, if they didn’t bring that rate down, they didn’t get their raise, and in some cases lost their job entirely.  So, we then needed federal agencies to always watch the police officers, and you can see how this would soon spiral out of control.

The third episode deals with the Bush administration and how it was overrun by neoconservatives who wanted to bring democracy and freedom to the world by force.  That’s such a bizarre idea.  And strangely, as we’ve tried to free the world, we’ve ended up enslaving ourselves.  As we invaded all these countries which have done nothing to us, we’ve incited all kinds of hatred.  Now we have terrorists seeking revenge, their numbers all over the world are on the rise, and in order to protect ourselves from them we need to beef up our surveillance.  This brought us the Patriot Act and all the stories you’ve been hearing about lately, such as the recent NSA scandal.  Civil liberties are being taken away from us left and right, and our right to privacy is a thing of the past.  See the contradiction?

I would highly recommend watching the series.  It’s all on Youtube.  I’ll post the first episode.

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