What Do We Do in Absence of Specific Data?


Powell Plateau, Utah, Escalante/Grand Staircase

In the last blog post, we talked about externally defined relationships, and how, because of their belief-based empathetic characteristics, they shape the belief-based mind.  But how does it work, anyway?  Why do we have beliefs?  At some level, beliefs protect us and serve in many ways.  And the other fact is that they don’t burn up nearly as much valuable brain time or brain energy in their processing.

Let’s say you’re in a situation in a crowd, where someone has just had a heart attack.  He’s lying on the ground, and you’re trying to remember how to do CPR.  What’s the first thing you’re likely to do?  Get out an interview sheet, with 100 questions about individual backgrounds and experiences?  Gonna create that independently generated, data-driven, trust-based relationship?  By that time, the poor dude with the heart attack would likely be expired.

Or are you going to yell ‘Is there a Doctor in the house?’   In the words of Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking Fast and Slow — a Nobel Prizewinner in Economics — this would be considered fast thinking.  Not much data processing — just a survival level call for help, for an authority that would hopefully know what they’re doing.  And it’s coming out of the limbic system.  You might look at the person stepping forward quickly and evaluate, especially if the potential patient is your friend.  Do they appear competent?  What’s their affect?  Are they lying to gain attention?  But beyond that, you’re probably pretty happy (think limbic system/ emotional empathy) and relieved (think emotional empathy again!) that someone stepped forward.

Do you have a thing for brunettes?  Love at first sight?  Another emotional empathetic, belief-based relationship, if not completely externally defined.  Or maybe it is?  Mom a brunette?  And hey, you know those engineers — always thinking this way or that.  Sometimes, we call these things stereotypes, if they’re negative.  Yet the vast majority of us use these constantly in navigating our society.  We don’t have time to do otherwise.

With many externally defined relationships, we cede authority or status based on institutions — and those institutions are either authority-based, or legally grounded.  More group, process-based decision-making.  Police have specific authority, granted by law, to detain you if they think a crime has been committed.  Physicians are granted a license to practice based on receiving a degree from a university, serving a residency, and taking a test.  All these mechanisms, once again, serve to maximize the reliability of your instant assessment — your belief — that this person knows what they’re talking about.

People with such titles also are often bound by executing certain algorithmic processes — step by step, agreed modes of doing things that have received scrutiny from experts/authorities.  Such institutions and processes are a necessary part of the scaffolding of modern society.  One of the more interesting examples of authorities generating an algorithm occurred at an oil refinery I was associated with.  A committee of engineers from across the industry had developed a code for welding on a pipe for gasoline while the pipe was still flowing gas.  Well-defined certification and algorithmic thinking allows a total stranger to cut open your chest if you have a heart attack and save your life.

At the same time that these institutions maximize reliability, we also find that they can be notoriously hard to change their ways when what they do doesn’t work any more.  And changing culture?  Not so simple.  Why that is so will be explored in the future — and believe it or not, it has to do with a fundamental hypothesis of this author on how empathetic development shapes the brain.

Takeaways:  Our lives are filled with relationship labels, based on beliefs, that function with a low level, or non-existent level of empathy.  These relationships are scaffolded by institutions, cultural perceptions, and faith in them rests primarily in the limbic part of the brain.  They utilize fast thinking, and enable us to navigate complex, modern society.  Their dominant social order is either an authoritarian power structure or a legalistic hierarchy, and they are heavily status-based.

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