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Society Is Better When Assumptions Match Reality

It is amazing to me to contemplate that there are seven and a half billion people in the world, and yet none of them are identical. Even identical twins, though they may share genetic material, cannot live in same body, experience with the same eyes, ears, and other senses, or have the same relationships with other people. Each individual now is also different from every other person who ever lived throughout history, and everyone’s personality and preferences change with time, as new experiences stretch the limits of old preferences and assumptions.

Of course we can recognize general categories of people by behavioral traits. Some people are aggressive, others are timid. Some are outgoing and bubbly personalities, while others are more reserved and introspective. Some people are here-and-now doers, and others are intuitive thinkers, making connections between seemingly unrelated facts. Various methods of classification of personality types have been developed, and the evidence indicates that those types generally are fairly stable across time, but that personality type is not cast in stone. It is, rather, an arc through one’s life, as new experiences shape new views of the world.

From the time we are babies, we start building a framework for understanding the world. That framework, or worldview, if you will, is how we know what to expect from the outside reality. But just as important, that same framework serves as a filter for the billions of bits of information that bombard us all the time. We are not aware of most of what goes on around us, either in our own immediate circumstance or in the world outside our view. If we were consciously aware of every detail of everything every second of the day, we would be totally overwhelmed. The brain is not capable of processing it all. So the framework determines what is important to us at the moment and allows us to focus on that to the exclusion of, say, the color of the sky at the moment.

That framework, our set of assumptions about the way the world works, can be a springboard from which we can learn more about the world, or it can be a prison that excludes everything that doesn’t fit into the present model. One of the real problems for people as they grow and mature and experience is to recognize when their framework doesn’t fit with reality. Cognitive dissonance is a name for the resistance to new information, even if it is objectively true, because it would cause emotional pain to have to reconstruct the framework to make it fit, especially if it involved a deeply entrenched assumption upon which other assumptions and related decisions depend.

Realty, objective truth, doesn’t depend on your framework of reference, nor on opinion or wishes. A car crash at 100 miles per hour will almost certainly kill you, even if you were trying to rush someone you loved to the hospital. It is up to us, each of us, to try to adjust our understanding of the world to the way it actually works. This means being open to new information and testing it to make sure that our map of the world fits the actual terrain. The best way to do this is to deliberately experience new things, to get out of your comfort zone, as they say. We are comfortable when nothing disturbs our framework. When we seek out new challenges, we can be more open to challenging our own assumptions.

Since our framework for understanding the world determines what choices we will make, the better it reflects reality, the better the choices will be. Everyone is different and has different preferences, but the more people whose assumptions match reality, the better off society will be.

Dan McLaughlin is the author of “Compassion and Truth-Why Good Intentions Don’t Equal Good Results.” Follow him at daniel-mclaughlin.com.

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