Ignorance is Bliss

You have been waiting for me to tell you something insightful from psychology about the use of stereotypes and the perpetuation of clichés.  You think that there are two motivations, though you might not have the data or the vocabulary for them, and your intuition is mostly right. Psychologists who study social cognition (mental processes that support thinking about the social world) for years characterized humans as “cognitive misers.”  This means, of course, that people want to think as simply as possible so that they have time to do other stuff with their minds, like play computer games and figure out how to work their iPad.  It’s true.  There is so much to think about that reducing the need to think per se is a mental state desired by many.

The phenomenon is illustrated in those pictures of the United States from the perspective of a New Yorker:  Not much exists of the country. 

I know someone who left a university in Wisconsin to teach at a university in California. That is a perfectly fine choice all by itself, especially since the person grew up in California, but his explanation was not sound.  He said that he made the move because he was unhappy with the number of Wisconsinites who – he assumed -- owned firearms, compared to the number of people harboring guns in California.  I am not sure which statistics he was looking at, but I suppose he was most concerned with how the arms were used, and all statistics I have found show that there are far fewer handgun-related crimes per capita in the state of Wisconsin. The number of deaths by firearms in the two states is the same.

When I was living in Baltimore in the 1990s, people knowing absolutely nothing about the Great Lakes States assumed that “up there” people were backwards, when in fact shop owners in Baltimore were still stocking Love’s Fresh Lemon body mist (a girl’s perfume from the early 1970s) in the drugstores.  My friend Donald came down from New York City and wandered around my neighborhood near the Chesapeake Bay crooning, “So, Pauli, whut’s it lyke to live in the 50s?”  I was neutral about the body mist, but I felt that people should be more careful before tossing the first stone: Laws against discrimination according to sexual orientation had passed about 15 years previous in some states that they were calling backwards at the very moment that the electorate in Baltimore was struggling with these issues for the first time. 

I am vaguely understanding of uneducated people thinking simply, but am less tolerant of educated people doing so.  In this case, the use of clichés must occur more for the second reason, namely, self-esteem enhancement.  What if San Francisco was not the very best place to live in the world?  That might be upsetting because it would imply that it would also not be necessary to spend ones entire paycheck on an apartment or else live in a tiny one on the 4th floor of a building with no elevator and a view over a clothes line. There are lots of similar discussions about Paris and London, with some people thinking that it is unnecessary to pay to live where there are hundreds of films running in theaters around the city on any afternoon when only one or two can be seen, and other people requiring knowledge of the very existence of these options.

Of course, there are both top-down and bottom-up sources of pleasure.  Top-down in this case means that the pleasure derives from the matching of the environment with your prior attitudes, needs, and expectations.  It might provide you with real existential pleasure to know that The Bridge on the River Kwai is playing somewhere right now, even if you have no intention whatsoever of seeing it.  Bottom-up experiences of pleasure have to do with the immediate environment.  Some people are not willing to take on the hassle of riding the metro for hours on end or a compute of two hours on 12-lane freeways just to live with the knowledge that they could go out and take in M*A*S*H at any given moment. It isn’t so simple of course. You could just attend to what is pleasurable or what you now call pleasurable and avoid the negative. Until you can’t.

And people may indeed place difference emphasis on top-down and bottom-up sources of pleasure.  Without plowing right through their strategies and psychological defenses, we should just respect those differences.  Of course, regardless of their pleasure-seeking strategies, insightful people might also acknowledge them and be sure not to lean too hard on clichés.  They can live wherever they want, if it suits them. 

Posted by Paula Niedenthal at 1:49 AM JUL 23, 2011