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.