The Bugs in Our Mindware

Many obstacles lie on the path to rational thought.

BY RICHARD E. NISBETT

Three baseball umpires are talking about how they play the game. The first says, “I call 'em as they are.” The second, “I call 'em as I see 'em.” And the third says, “They ain't nothin' till I call 'em.”

Most of the time all of us are like the first umpire, thinking that we're seeing the world the way it really is andcalling 'em as they are.” That umpire is what philosophers and social psychologists call a “naive realist.” 1 He believes that the senses provide us with a direct, unmediated understanding of the world. But in fact, our construal of the nature and meaning of events is massively dependent on stored schemas and the inferential processes they initiate and guide.

We do partially recognize this fact in everyday life and realize that, like the second umpire, we really justcall 'em as we see 'em.” At least we see that's true for other people. We tend to think, “I'm seeing the world as it is, and your different view is due to poor eyesight, muddled thinking, or self-interested motives!”

The third umpire thinks, “They ain't nothin' till I call 'em.” Allrealityis merely an arbitrary construal of the world. This view has a long history. Right now its advocates tend to call themselvespostmodernistsordeconstructionists.” Many people answering to these labels endorse the idea that the world is a “textand no reading of it can be held to be any more accurate than any other.

Among the three umpires, the second is closest to the truth.

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We aren't too distressed when we discover that lots of unconscious processes allow us to correctly interpret the physical world. We live in a three-dimensional world and we don't have to worry about the fact that the mind makes mistakes when it's forced to deal with an unnatural, two-dimensional world. It's more unsettling to learn that our understanding of the non-material world, including our beliefs about the characteristics of other people, is also utterly dependent on stored knowledge and hidden reasoning processes.

MeetDonald,” a fictitious person experimenters have presented to participants. One study describes him as follows:

Donald spent a great amount of his time in search of what he liked to call excitement. He had already climbed Mt. McKinley, shot the Colorado rapids in a kayak, driven in a demolition derby, and piloted a jet-powered boatwithout knowing very much about boats. He had risked injury, and even death, a number of times. Now he was in search of new excitement. He was thinking, perhaps, he would do some skydiving or maybe cross the Atlantic in a sailboat. By the way he acted one could readily guess that Donald was well aware of his ability to do many things well. Other than business engagements, Donald's contacts with people were rather limited. He felt he didn't really need to rely on anyone. Once Donald made up his mind to do something it was as good as done no matter how long it might take or how difficult the going might be. Only rarely did he change his mind even when it might well have been better if he had.2

Before reading the paragraph about Donald, participants first took part in a bogusperception experimentin which they were shown a number of trait words.