Wednesday, 16 January 2008

George Orwell and cognitive biases

I think Notes On Nationalism is one of the most interesting things that Orwell ever wrote. Although his use of the term 'nationalist' is a bit unhelpful, the article itself is great and is, in my view, an early example of someone trying to grapple with cognitive biases as they affect politics.

Not only that, but he also makes the case that we should try and challenge our biases. I think this is spot on, and that we should always be alert to the fact that some beliefs might simply be more convenient or more enjoyable to hold than others, and that might be the reason why we hold them, rather than because we have any particular understanding of a given issue.

Whether it is possible to get rid of them I do not know, but I do believe that it is possible to struggle against them, and that this is essentially a MORAL effort. It is a question first of all of discovering what one really is, what one's own feelings really are, and then of making allowance for the inevitable bias. If you hate and fear Russia, if you are jealous of the wealth and power of America, if you despise Jews, if you have a sentiment of inferiority towards the British ruling class, you cannot get rid of those feelings simply by taking thought. But you can at least recognise that you have them, and prevent them from contaminating your mental processes.

The emotional urges which are inescapable, and are perhaps even necessary to political action, should be able to exist side by side with an acceptance of reality. But this, I repeat, needs a MORAL effort, and contemporary English literature, so far as it is alive at all to the major issues of our time, shows how few of us are prepared to make it.


John Gray said...


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