Are You An Auto-Brainwasher?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, April 22, 2017

There is an extreme condition known as the Anton-Babinski syndrome where blind people believe they can see. It’s a visual variation of Anosognosia, where a person with a disability is unaware of their disability. Anosognosia covers a range of delusions dealing with the body, senses, memory, and language. There is a cognitive related syndrome called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, where low-ability individuals suffer from superiority illusions. (I can’t help think of Donald Trump when reading that article.) Quoting Wikipedia, here are the essential qualities of the D-K effect:

  • fail to recognize their own lack of skill
  • fail to recognize the extent of their inadequacy
  • fail to accurately gauge skill in others
  • recognize and acknowledge their own lack of skill only after they are exposed to training for that skill

I believe we all fool ourselves. But how far do we go? Are some people auto-brainwashers? Anyone who has read books by Oliver Sacks knows how powerful a brain is at fooling its own mind. I highly recommend you read the articles linked to above, and then ask yourself: Am I fooling myself?


This has very powerful implications. What if you think another person is in love with you and they are not? What if you think you are great at your job and you are not? What if you believe you’re writing the world’s greatest novel and you’re not? What if you think you are brilliant, sexy, funny, and compassionate and you are not? Many people are crushed by self-doubts, but maybe just as many people are brainwashed by over-confidence and delusions.

Take climate change deniers. They believe they know the truth, even though they oppose armies of scientists with PhDs, using trillions of dollars worth of supercomputers, space satellites, rockets, airplanes, drones, ships, submarines, monitoring stations, balloons, and other scientific resources. Are they any less deluded than blind people claiming they can see?

Any individual who thinks they can solve any of the world’s major problems is absolutely deluded. Our reality is intensely complicated. To assume we understand anything clearly is delusional. A reasonable amount of self-doubt is healthy. Too much can be crippling, yet we need enough for humility.

The trouble with being human is we make up stories to explain a limited set of facts. This is called the narrative fallacy. I can’t find a single article that explains it, but the book, The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb is where I first heard the concept. If a noise wakes you in the middle of a night you can’t stop yourself from imagining scenarios for what caused that noise. From burglars, falling tree limbs, to raccoons, you have to think of something to explain the noise, even if the explanation is wrong. And generally, it is.

This is how we brainwash ourselves. Narrative fallacies lead to the Dunning-Kruger effect if you don’t do a lot of fact-checking. The reason why fake news is so successful is it often fits into people’s narrative fallacy storylines.

Science is our cognitive tool where we statistically study reality to look for consistency. We can only trust evidence when it’s overwhelming. We can only trust evidence when a majority of other people collaborate that evidence with further scientific research. But we are easily fooled by masses who have fooled themselves with auto-brainwashing. Their claims appear to be consistent evidence – but consistent opinions do not equal consistent evidence.

One of the purposes of Zen Buddhism is to deprogram our auto-brainwashing. If you can get your inner observer to back away from its attachments to thoughts it is possible to see how we auto-brainwash ourselves.

My old friend Connell and I have been talking about auto-brainwashing lately. Terms like Dunning-Kruger aren’t very effective, or memorable, so I’ve started using the phrase auto-brainwashing. Once we accept that a concept exists and have a good label for it, it’s possible to see it in action. With the idea of auto-brainwashing in mind, study yourself and your friends.

What do we see that’s not there. What’s there that we don’t see?


5 thoughts on “Are You An Auto-Brainwasher?”

  1. Oh my brother; I’m nearly verklempt in trying to respond to this. I will admit that I only did the wiki of ABS and of DKE before deciding to comment. I will say that I have been subject to and occasionally wondered if I was not a part of – all the symptoms described therein. IF there is an organizational version of DKE – I’d like to read about it or even report about it. OH, wait; that might just cover all of the major corporations, large businesses and especially our countrymen’s best chance at entry level “opportunism” – franchising.

    I’ll be frank, even if my name is Jim. I’m smart (and so are you Jim), and I know how to work hard, both physically and mentally. I’ve done both and been successful at both, even though that physical thing is getting beyond me these days.
    I’m also a smart-ass (based on my friends opinions – although since they are still my friends, that says something about them, doesn’t it?) And I’ve learned to moderate that over 40+ years of employment and 60+ years of life.

    I am not denying that what those studies show is relevant. I just wonder if the bigger issue is the fact that a lack of competency is not considered a sign of failure. Few truly failing people (as in not able to get along with other people) seem to feel the cost of their “incompatibility” in a business setting. If they are effectively competent at doing a job, then the usual reward is there – payment and continued employment. Their failures in a purely social setting seem to end up in pain for others, and at worst a social reset for them. How do they cope when they are so obviously at odds with the work/family/social norms around them?

    Simple. They seek a like-minded social group and culture that allows them to bloviate and subjugate based on their one-sided and focused bias on things that pertain to them.

    Or, they end up being disgruntled and socially inept and take it out on their family and friends. However, in a corporate setting they can become the kings and queens of procedure, memorizing every single little rule – and then using that knowledge to build power. And annoy the f**k out of people that actually get the jobs done and make a profit.

    Oops. Did I let out a little steam on that last remark?

    It’s a small mind that isn’t open to a new idea now and then. Crowding should not be a criteria for closure. If someone is incapable of making room for a new idea, well then they are either old (like me) – or unsuitable for any kind of responsibility.

    Any kind.

    Which raises the question – should we keep electing people to government office who are obviously at the end of their competency as a worker, much less leader?

  2. Crap. I just re-read your post and I left the entire second half un-examined. Must be my youth making me shoot before aiming.
    Brainwashing used to be an honest and semi-perfect trade. Now that it is in the hands of the large governments and corporations (and not just Madison Avenue), it should in fact be perfect. However, the problem is people – they are not perfect.

    Facer and Twitbook are now using AI to make sure that we are receiving the appropriate input to ensure that we have the proper beliefs. Goggle is helping us make the right choices of what to view and what to ignore/downvote. The major news outlets and their nasty brethren are feeding us maximum data (purely driven as the snow) to help us know what to believe – and trust.

    Fact checking is hard work, unless you are working a single meme. Just accumulating data/opinion/dreck (in descending order) is lots of work. Us old folks who have a fetish for truth are willing to spend the time – because we have the time. As for my kids and friends’ kids (aka 30-ish-ers), not so much. They really don’t have the time unless they sacrifice part of their family time. And for most of them, searching for truth runs a distant second to keeping the family alive and healthy on a daily basis.

    I’m not worried about “auto-brainwashing” in our current and next generations. They don’t have the friggin’ time for that. Maybe the Ritz Kids do, but not any that I know. They are too busy doing the same damn things I did – making money, buying a house, paying for school (unlike when I was a kid) and trying to keep the effing wolf at bay. If they are less picky about where they get their news/info then they are in good stead with their peers.

    And so I guess that leaves it to us super-attenuated folks to do it for them.

    Like they would listen…

    1. Great reply(s) as usual Jim. I hadn’t thought about corporations having this problem until you mentioned it. And since SCOTUS has deemed them equal to people, I guess that’s possible.

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