The Funny Thing About Preconceptions

So, about a week ago I met this guy, a friend of a guy I play soccer with, who came out to have a couple of beers with us after our game.  He smelled strongly of gasoline, because he had ridden his motorcycle to the bar, and the bike had a gas leak, or maybe just a really rich mixture, and the unburnt gas had soaked into his blue jeans.  The reason he had ridden the bike with the gas leak to the bar was because he’d had an accident in his van not long ago, and couldn’t drive it.  After drinking about half of his giant mug of beer, he started telling the story.

The story itself wasn’t all that interesting: he’d rear-ended somebody who’d come to a (according to him) sudden stop one night.  What was interesting was how utterly flabbergasted he was about the nature of the damage to his van.

He was sure the car he’d hit must have had a trailer hitch or something, because the front of his van, instead of crumpling uniformly along the axis of impact, had instead crumpled only in the middle, as if there had been a single point of impact, which made a triangular indentation in the middle.  He kept saying, over and over, how he didn’t understand what had happened, and he kept clapping his hands together to demonstrate the nature of the collision.

I explained to him that vans are essentially built on a pair of parallel I-beams, to which the body and all the parts are attached, and explained further that those I-beams were the least likely structural component of the van to crumple, especially given the angle of collision, which was such that the impact came where the I-beams were strongest, and that the force of the impact would thus be directed inward, along the line of least resistance, causing the triangular crumpling in the center that he found so mysterious.  Pretty basic physics, one would think, or at least not so mysterious once you think about it in light of the new information I had given him.

But he was still mystified, and kept demonstrating by way of the clapping thing, and saying “You would think that if the collision happened like this that the damage would be like this.”  We went back and forth four or five times until I finally said something like “Yes, you might think that, but that isn’t what happened, is it?”

And that’s the thing about human beings and the way that our brains seem to work.  We see the world through the prism of our worldview, a set of precepts or a story or even just a mishmash of preconceptions that help our brains explain the things they perceive to themselves and that I think a lot of people mistake for actuality instead of the filter through which we perceive it.  When the world fails to match up with our model of it, it causes the sort of cognitive dissonance that this guy was experiencing, which can be very upsetting and is a perfectly natural way to feel.

Where it becomes a problem is when we refuse to adjust our worldview accordingly.

One of the classic definitions of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result.  But people do it all the time.  We tend to cherish our preconceptions, I think because we identify ourselves with and by them, and when they turn out to be wrong it can be confusing and even enraging.  It’s very easy to decide that they aren’t wrong, for whatever (or no) reason, simply because we don’t want to have to realign our thinking.  But when we refuse to realign our worldview when if fails to match up with and accurately model actuality, then we live in a delusory state, which can have serious negative consequences for ourselves and the people we love.

Many things in this world are open to interpretation.  Many others are simply unknowable, or at least are not amenable to the kind of certainty that goes along with being able to say we ‘know’ something.  Ambiguity abounds, and we have to make sense of it somehow.  But it’s important to see the world for what it is, as best as we can, because only in that way can we deal with it authentically and effectively.  If we spend our lives trapped in delusions we can’t let go of, we’ll never be able to be happy, or to accomplish things, because delusion will move us to inappropriate actions and the cognitive dissonance that results will eat away at our well-being.

Like the saying goes, minds are like parachutes: they function best when open.

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