Brain hate

Here’s a mental exercise: try to ignore everything that has happened in the news this week and answer this hypothetical.

List your top 20 situations that might justify a police officer yanking a teenage girl out of her desk, slamming her to the floor and dragging her across her classroom.

I’m sure you could easily think of 20. Maybe she’s pointing a weapon at the officer. Maybe she’s physically threatening a classmate. Maybe the officer noticed she is trying to destroy evidence and has to be stopped. Maybe she’s punching another student.

But I can GUARANTEE that “being disrespectful and disruptive” wouldn’t be in your Top Twenty. In fact, I’ll go further: prior to this week, if someone had suggested this as a potential situation, your response would have been “no, absolutely not, no fucking way does that action warrant that kind of treatment”.

Let’s up the hypothetical ante: the principal at your school is calling you at work to tell you that a police officer just yanked your teenage daughter out of her desk, slammed her to the floor and dragged her across her classroom, and she might have a broken arm. Because she was being disrespectful and disruptive, and wouldn’t put her phone away.

Would your first thought be “Boy, that sounds perfectly reasonable and appropriate”?

Of course not.

But this week we have seen people falling over themselves to justify exactly those actions AFTER they happened.

In my opinion, it’s because we have a cognitive bias towards justifying actions that have already happened, EVEN IF we would not be able to justify them before they happened. So we go from “there’s no situation in which that would be the right thing to do” to “well, it happened, so there HAS to be a justification for why it did”, purely because we need to create a narrative in which that makes sense. We don’t like living in an irrational world where violence is unjustified: our brains are extremely uncomfortable with that reality, so our brains struggle to find the bits of the story that could allow that worldview to survive. Our brains love to tell stories that make sense, and are REALLY uncomfortable when they don’t.

In this case, the brain immediately tries to put together a coherent narrative of cause and effect: Y happened, therefore the X actions that justify Y MUST have occurred immediately before, and our brains will go into overdrive to fit the facts into that narrative, no matter how much it has to distort the facts to do so.

What happened before? The student was disrespectful and uncooperative.

A ha! the brain says, slotting that fact into the “cause” box in the cause and effect flowchart. There is now something in the box, and your brain is taken out of its discomfort zone. The story now makes sense as a flowchart. Even though the fact you found doesn’t fit neatly and seems to be rather much smaller than the box you put it in, there is at least something in the box.

That is, if you don’t analyze it too much and ignore the poor fit. Because if you did, you’d realize it’s not a good cause for the resulting observed effect, and then your brain would be thrown into discomfort again as its worldview is challenged. And our brains HATE that. Our brains like stories, and like cause and effect, and like coherence.  The brain has its story, move on, nothing more to see.

This bias is so strong that if a person who has crafted this narrative is challenged on whether it makes sense and is justifiable, they go on the defensive quickly and strongly, because it feels like their entire worldview of cause and effect is being challenged. “I have a story!” says the brain, “and I have things in the boxes! Leave them be!”

And the way this works out in the conversation is that Person A questions whether Y is an appropriate outcome for action X. Person B perceives this as an attack on their worldview, and feels that criticism about placing the “disruptive, uncooperative teenager” fact in the “cause” box is a defense of the teen being disruptive and uncooperative.  It’s not, but the alternative is to take the fact back out of the box.

Oh, so you think the teen wasn’t being disruptive?  Even the teachers and the other students agreed she was!”

“Oh, so you think that we shouldn’t take any action against teenagers being disruptive and disrespectful?”

“Oh, so you think that the teenager was within her rights to do what she did before the officer showed up?”

Notice that none of those are really responses to the criticism that Y (being physically attacked and thrown to the floor) is not an appropriate response to X (being disrespectful and disruptive).  They are responses to a perceived defense of X, as if the other side were defending the students actions as appropriate and above reproach or response.  They are not, and no one has said they were.  But it’s easier to counter that perceived attack than respond to the real criticism, which means shaking up the boxes and putting the brain back in its discomfort zone.

And our brains hate that.  Hate it so much that they will reroute attacks away from the uncomfortable facts and towards unrelated targets that are easier to defend.



I had a tough life, therefore there’s no such thing as #whiteprivilege

Notice a pattern?)

For X = “a teenage student was being disruptive and disrespectful”, and Y=”a teenage student is body-slammed to the floor by a 250lb+ body-building police officer, possibly breaking her arm and then dragging her across the classroom floor”, my position is that both of those things are TRUE.  She was, by all accounts, being disruptive and disrespectful.  He did slam her to the floor.  Students being disruptive and disrespectful is something that should be addressed, appropriately.  But for me to say that X does not justify Y is not a defense of X: it’s a statement that Y is an appropriate response to a limited amount of actions, and X is most definitely NOT one of them.

But boy, do our brains not like the story we’re left with if we have to face that reality.  And that discomfort is at the root of our current conflicts on race, on gender, on privilege, on sexism, on religious freedom, on social and economic inequality.  It’s our cognitive bias towards stories that don’t disrupt our worldview, that make sense (as long as we don’t think about them too much), that don’t challenge the many other biases we hold.

AND WE ALL DO IT.  In fact, if you’ve reached this far down in this particular story, it’s probably because (a) it helps you put things into the boxes in your brain that make you feel comfortable or (b) you are looking for the nitpicks to tear the argument apart so that you don’t have to shake up your brainboxes.   But if you are in (b), hopefully at least this helps frame the discussion away from the “you’re defending X” position that no one is taking, and towards the “X does not justify Y” discussion we should be having.


Our design game is STRONG

[ Interior, office, 2010. BIG BOSS MAN scowls, sitting at the head of the table, chomping on a cigar and staring at his employees. ]

BIG BOSS MAN: OK, we’ve made all the mechanisms work in the exact opposite way of how they do in the rest of the world, and that’s a good start. But it doesn’t feel *perverse* enough. What else have you got?

[ JOHNSON timidly raises his hand ]

JOHNSON: How about if we… if we… <cough>


JOHNSON: …if we remove all the descriptive labels?

[ Silence. ]

BBM: Johnson?

JOHNSON: ….y-y-yes sir?

BBM: Congratulations, you are our new VP of Design!

[ Cut back to JOHNSON, who suddenly also has a cigar in his mouth. Confetti starts falling from the ceiling as other employees burst into cheers. Champagne, celebration, patting on the back. ]

[ CAMERA PULLS BACK. Company sign on wall becomes visible: it reads “ASSOCIATION OF HILTON HOTEL SHOWER CONTROL DESIGNERS” ]

[ JUMP CUT TO ME, 5 years later, IN SHOWER. After 15 minutes of staring in confusion at a label-free unrecognizably-designed shower control, I tentatively turn it a quarter inch to the left.]

[ Suddenly, BOILING HOT WATER pours out of the shower nozzle for 3 seconds, followed immediately by FREEZING COLD WATER, followed by MILLIONS OF SPIDERS ]