Intellectual Self Defence

Brains are delicate things…

The Totalitarian Ego

The authors of “Mistakes were made (but not by me)” approvingly cited Anthony Greenwald‘s 1980 journal article “The Totalitarian Ego: Fabrication and Revision of Personal History” (American Psychologist, July 1980, Vol 35, no 7). I went and found it. Haven’t read it all yet, but the initial analogy – that we run our brains/self-images the way people like Pinochet and Stalin ran their dictatorships – is just such an arresting (and one-way-helicopter-tripping) image that I thought had to share straight away. More later.

This article argues that (a) ego, or self, is an organisation of knowledge, (b) ego is characterised by cognitive biases strikingly analogous to totalitarian informational control strategies, and (c) these totalitarian-ego biases function to reserve organisation in cognitive structures. Ego’s cognitive biases are ego-egocentricity (self as the focus of knowledge), “beneffectance” (perception of responsibility for desired, but not undesired, outcomes) and cognitive conservatism (resistance to cognitive change). In addition to being pervasively evident in recent studies of normal human cognition, these three biases are found in actively functioning, higher level organisations of knowledge, perhaps best exemplified by theoretical paradigms in science. The thesis that egocentricity, beneffectance, and conservatism act to preserve knowledge organisations leads to the proposal of an intrapsychic analog of genetic evolution, which in turn provides an alternative to prevalent motivational and informational interpretations of cognitive biases.

Beneffectance never took off, sadly. The closest we have got – I think – is “Fundamental Attribution Error,” which is a little techy.


2 comments on “The Totalitarian Ego

  1. Antonio Dias
    March 3, 2011

    Densely worded, but fine stuff!

    I’ve been beating about this bush for a while. There is definitely a set of evolutionary processes at work within modern culture that rewards destructive behavior and supports the frames of mind that make such behaviors not only acceptable but privileged.

    Below this is the concern whether this is an unavoidable human trait, or just a minor aberration that has taken off under conducive circumstances. – Can it be put back in the bottle by us? or does the world have to do it for us by removing the source of the infection….

    • dwighttowers
      March 3, 2011

      Glad you like. Greenwald seems v. smart, and he was writing before lots of the fine detail of how we do these stupid things was filled in. There is a short-term(ist) selection pressure at work here. We have forgotten/suppressed all the religious invocations to warn about hubris, pride, mammon etc. These used to be like those rods you put in a nuclear reactor to stop it going into meltdown…. gone now…

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This entry was posted on March 3, 2011 by in Cognitive Humility, Error Correction, Ideological Blinkers and tagged , .
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