One of the most interesting phenomena I see each week is our ability to hear one thing and think someone said something else.
I see this in response to my columns. I consider myself a pretty middle-of-the-road person who tries to synthesize positions from all sides into something logically consistent. It helps me make sense of what is happening around us and explain it to others in a convincing way.
Instead, I notice that some compartmentalize what they hear. I see that happening in responses to my columns. Some notice that I work for the college. They then place me in the "state employee" box and view what I write as coming from that perspective.
Others see that I teach, so I must be liberal, or see I was once a business-school dean, so I must be conservative.
These labels allow one to filter and view what I say from a different perspective than what I intended. My discussions then become affronts to their positions, on one or another side, rather than invitations for a thoughtful dialogue.
This cognitive dissonance is human nature. Simply put, when reality seems uncomfortable, we revise our view of reality. Such selection of facts is easy these days. We have the luxury of turning on a particular television channel and hearing only views from others who share our perspectives.
There is little true discussion, debate or exchange of ideas, only "entermation," my new term for entertainment that pretends to inform. And, with the larger and more diverse towns and cities within which we live, we can each find a group just like us so none of us has to really deal with any uncomfortable truths or differences.
Behavioral economists see cognitive dissonance as a way for us to create order in our world and in our thoughts. As society gets increasingly complex, we seek order not by thinking harder, but rather by selecting facts that are more consistent with our beliefs, or by surrounding ourselves with people who will filter information for us.
When I explain how our response to reality can bring down the economy upon which we depend, I often say to my students, "Don't underestimate the capacity for humans to rationalize precisely what they want to do rather than what they ought to do."
Our reaction to cognitive dissonance makes our rationalization process easier.
Consider how we respond to an increasingly complex, diverse and globally challenging world by seeking simplistic solutions.
We recognize that our country has fallen off a sustainable path, so one group returned more than a half trillion dollars to states that are equally dysfunctional, and another proposed we stop spending entirely on the infrastructure that will secure our future — except, of course, for their pet projects. While they argue, nothing is done and things get worse.
Experts tell us our pension plans are growing broke, and those still working in 30 years will be crushed under the weight of obligations to those who came before them. But we won't compromise on the promises made by politicians that curry our favor but have others pay the price long after they have retired.
An inept wannabe terrorist tries to light his shoe on a flight, and we begin to strip-search grandmothers at airports.
And we are failing our students in a global race in education and innovation, yet we can't come up with a way to ensure that only the very best among us are teaching our children.
Meanwhile, Greece and the Eurozone leaders are arguing about who should sit in first class while their Airbus has stalled and is in a spin.
Just a few months earlier, Europe had been laughing at us as we were shooting ourselves in the foot when we couldn't agree amongst ourselves to stave off our own bankruptcy.
In these examples, cognitive dissonance resulted in solutions that had no foothold in reality.
We live in a process-over-progress society and little seems to get done.
I long for sophisticated and thoughtful solutions to complex problems that move us all forward — without simplistic appeals to ideas of simpler times, dogma designed to raise a few boats but not the sea, or condescending promises nobody could or should keep.
Colin Read is the chair of the Department of Economics and Finance at Plattsburgh State. His eighth book, Great Minds in Finance — the Rise of the Quants, is coming out this May. Continue the discussion at www.pressrepublican.com/0216_read.