Self-concept, Experiential Conditioning, and Ascientific/Alogical Construction

It can be a struggle to communicate with others and get them to see things a certain way. How do you get someone to hear what you are saying and see eye to eye with you?

First, let’s think of the brain as an information store. The brain represents some stored informational state, this state is composed of views, and these views are arranged in a particular way with their own specific shapes and intensities at a given time. They become this way by building upon data, in the form of information, education, media, and experiences that shape the development of a body of interpreted knowledge. If I get a degree in chemistry, my brain state will likely contain more knowledge about chemistry. If I watch a lot of my local basketball team with friends and family, I may grow to become a lifelong fan. In machine learning terms, we can abstractly conceptualize the brain as a neural network that has been trained with data.

In psychology, the commonly known forms of guided experience training are operant (B. F. Skinner – think slot machines, video games, dopamine dispensers) and classical conditioning (Ivan Pavlov and his dogs), along with environmental stimuli, experiences, and information that is not deliberately associated. In order to change a view – to change the brain’s internal state – you have to feed the brain different information and experiences that supplement or transform the existing stored data. However, as the brain evolves and builds its state over time, through unconditioned exposure as well as conditioned associations, it can develop acquired tastes not just for culinary delicacies and comfort foods, but for informational and experiential delicacies and comforting information.

The brain has filters for incoming data and one of these filters is the ego. The ego, or self-concept, represents a part of the brain that strives to maintain internal identity and consistency against perceived threats. If an incoming message threatens the sense of self-concept that has built over time, the ego will resist. If someone disses my hometown sports team, that has been associated with my sense of family and friendship for many years, I may react reflexively and negatively. At sporting events or bars, opposing die-hard soccer fans may even react to each other with physical violence. The more ingrained a particular view/state is within the brain’s overall self-concept, the more likely it is built on a hefty mountain of experiences, potentially with strong operant or classical conditioning (intentional or not), and the more difficult it is to change without more time, effort, and counteracting data or experience. Any new data has to work hard to unravel ingrained operant or classically conditioned mountains of anecdotes.

On /r/changemyview, many participants attempt a variety of strategies in attempting to change others’ views. At their core, the strategies that tend to be more successful take into account the cognitive model described above. In feeding another participant’s brain with data intended to shift their views, one has to understand what data that view was originally built upon. What experiences shaped their self-concept? What conditioned associations are tied to their state? What may be surprising is that a person’s cognitive model may or may not align with scientific and logical thinking, with falsifiable hypotheses tested against empirical evidence.

Not everyone is exposed to and trained upon a process of logical rigor, and all of us fall victim to irrational heuristics built into our wetware. In other words, we might be sitting on a hoard of anecdotal experiences, events we have witnessed, education we’ve received, advice we’ve been given, but they aren’t arranged in an organized manner – they gleam seductively, and we (or more precisely, our self-concept/ego) guard them as jealously as a dragon atop its golden treasure. Any views that are built on these anecdotes would be alogical; we’ve collected them, but they are not organized logically or rationally.

Alternatively, a view can strictly follow the rules of logic, and thus have solid internal logical consistency, but may not be based on sound axioms, or may not be based on axioms that reflect and have been empirically tested against actual/observable reality. The process of empirical verification and falsification is scientific. My bookshelf might be well organized, but could be filled with old or flawed and outdated books. These views may be ascientific; they’ve been meticulously constructed, but not tested against a large enough body of sample empirical tests, or any at all.

In these ways, views can be ascientific and/or alogical; they can be constructed and manifest independent of the how scientific or logical their content is. Of course, views can also be built both logically and scientifically. Whether a view fails verifiability internally or externally is only loosely relevant to the strategy for changing that view for a specific individual. Because we are human, our cognitive processes are profoundly irrational, even for scholars who study logic, psychology, law, mathematics, or behavioral economics as a vocation. Or they may have logical consistency within the vocation where they have sunk thousands of hours of study and practice, but that rigor may not fully transfer to other opinions, behaviors, or decisions. To change a view, one will have better success by crafting a message or information into a vehicle that does not threaten the ego/self-concept. Its content must either counter or unravel any historically constructed operant or classical conditioning, and must also provide evidence and impetus for change.

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