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Approximate Thinking and National Identities : I am <almost> Great !

Incompleteness, biases, Identities and Culture

How does culture morph from a force for understanding and creativity, into a limiting force that serves to inspire laziness and embolden BIRGERS? Approximate Thinking and Identities have an interesting relationship. The below discussion is based on sections from “Fuzzy on the Dark Side”.

On sports and nations: I am (almost) great!*

A great example that can teach us a lot about biases, identities, and approximations is the tricky situation of belonging to a group. Nationalism and fanatically supporting a sports team are not the only cases, but they provide amazing insights.

The psychologist Henry Tajfel (in his 2004 research) finds that assigning people to groups, even if done on a completely arbitrary (and weird) basis, like dividing people based on how they interpret abstract art or count group of dots, might lead to certain types of bias for our own group (in-group) and against others (out-group). Cognitive scholars believe that cheering our favorite teams stems from the same subconscious motive that makes us patriotic: we have a clear tendency – maybe with evolutionary roots – to belong to a group!

Note that this is no simple or shallow matter. Some studies9 find that the level of some hormones (associated with achievement) might get elevated in fans whose teams win, and other hormones might have similar fluctuations between players and fans.

So why this bias?

There are many theories.

Groups are comforting. Cialdini talks about wanting to ‘Bask in reflected glory’ (BIRG), where we can attribute some group success or bigger values to ourselves. We like grand narratives, and we love heroes and the epic struggle of life and death. We don’t like to be small, and groups provide common stories and symbols that can unify us and give us a taste of grandeur and immortality. Interestingly, fans of sports teams (and group members more generally) report a higher sense of meaning in life, and they score high on a number of well-being measures (like self-worth, feeling connected, positive emotions, energy, etc..).

The need to belong to a group seems to grow when the self-image gets shaken. We love our groups (team, country, tribe…) for all these reasons, and for these same reasons we can sacrifice common sense and accept taking quite biased positions on many issues to protect our “ego” and to preserve for ourselves the possibility of getting glory without needing to personally put forth the required effort and sacrifices for it.

Typical results of these biases include – on the extreme – overlooking clear evidence and rejecting perfectly common arguments (sacrificing reason and using your brain less is a small price to pay for greatness).

The group’s glory is (approximately) my glory! The group is approximately me!

(Belonging is nice, but get your own glory, and belong to a group consciously and purposefully! Don’t be a full-time Birger.)

Funny Examples: “We” built the pyramids…

Persians are not Arabs… and we built that blue mosque.

Angry person on Twitter

Of course they are not, but I am always entertained by these excessive ethno-centric drives for bragging about things you had nothing to do with…

I’ve frequently encountered Persian (and Turkish, and Arab, and Uzbek, and Tajik, and Kurdish, …) defenders rising to defend the reputations of their tribes with such aggressive vigor, that it begs the question: “Why is this so personal?”

There is no room for understanding, when what you consider your core is being ‘attacked’ (really?) in front of you.

Some examples:

Approximate Thinking : Who built this mosque?

So the guy above couldn’t let ‘Islamic’ Architecture pass… because “it is Persian… Perso-Islamic at best” (that is not Islamic? was this thing happening before Islam? What does Persian mean, really??)

Look at the below funny incident… Who will claim Rumi ? an international brawl…

“Rumi is a Persian … I mean Tajik … I mean Turkish …”

Approximate Thinking : Who's Rumi's patriot?

‘We’ made Steve Jobs

Dreamy Arab on Twitter

Not to be outdone, some Arabs do funnier things. There is the conqueror, the anti-persian, but also the … “Steve Jobs is Arab” guy!

How is he an Arab??

His father, who abandoned him was of Syrian origin (?)..

Approximate Thinking : Steve Jobs is Syrian

Another funny example is this ‘journalist’.

“Maalouf is French… Bless the Arabs”

Amine Maalouf was elected to be a member of the French Academie… Maalouf is of Lebanese origin. She works for an Arab (not Lebanese) media company, so she couldn’t just pull the Lebanon card – that wouldn’t be optimal for the audience… So this becomes an opportunity to brag about the ‘first Arab writing in Moliere’s language to be elected… Congratulations Arabs!’ …

Approximate Thinking : Amine Maalouf Bless the Arabs

“We’re All Dancers”

There was a similar euphoria in Lebanon a couple of years back (I talked about this before) when a group of performers from Lebanon ‘Mayyas’ were performing and reached some stage in “America’s Got Talent” (yes). It was a national phenomenon where every Lebanese (at home and abroad) was patriotically exhibiting proud behavior, and proving their patriotism to their neighbor… Some people tried to belittle the achievement, but they were quickly attacked and shut-down in a timely manner.

All these cases are great examples of how culture-bound identities (national/ethnic) become a tool of approximate thinking. A tool to reap rewards (emotional, symbolic, …) for work you didn’t do. A tool of approximating between the self and the group, and between personal achievements and other fuzzy (on the dark side) achievements of others.

Special case: Angry Racist Idiots (ARIs)*

The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

W.B. Yeats

I want to take the previous points a bit further and talk about the special class of the “Angry Racist Idiots,” or – more endearingly – ARIs. This is a group that really takes biased reasoning and heuristics to its frightening limits.

First, racism is one specific kind of bigotry or fanatic belonging to a specific group as described in the previous pages, where the in-group and the out-group happen to be racially determined (as we saw any arbitrary division might work similarly).In a very simplified and simple form, racism starts with the need to make sense of the world’s (the social world in this case) complexity. It is very hard to understand the granularity involved with people’s individual personalities, and their rich personal, social, and cultural experiences – it is just too much effort.

If only we can put a bunch of them (people) into one box, label it, and just simplify our work.

Let’s approximate THIS group of people into a clear racial “them.” That’s convenient and easy!

The lazy, evil, unscrupulous, and treacherous “them” are against the hard-working, pure, and intelligent “us” (one of “us,” after all, invented some widget (maybe) 732 years ago, and it is very sane and logical to conclude that I must be great too, just like that guy, since we have similar shades of skin color).

I can “BIRG” (Bask In Reflected Glory) and reduce the need to think in one sweeping move.

Bias, discrimination, and prejudice are wagons in the same train.

This is what the “Angry Racist Idiot” thinks (or more precisely, doesn’t think).

I can approximate this bunch of people into this group (one problem is easier than many).

I can approximate this group into (only) the carrier of these negative traits that fit nicely together and are easier to remember (lazy, evil, dumb…).

I can approximate myself into a member of this other (better) group.


Easy and convenient feel-good for the mentally lazy.

“Projection” from the early chapters fits well here too. ARIs are always projecting things into spaces with less and less dimensions so as to fit into the limited mental bandwidth of their understanding.

Note: The Halo effect, which is a bias defined by Thorndike (1920), helps illustrate this point from the flip side. We assume that good-looking, well-groomed, and polite people are good, or that any new product made by Apple® is well designed, because we extend the positive evaluation from one dimension to the next.

But why are they “Angry” then?

You’d think that convenience was supposed to make people calm and content (even blissful)?Well, this is not the whole story.

My “good” group has lofty values and ideals. We stand for what is right and good and beautiful.

We stand for what is “godly” (God likes “us” the most, obviously). It is very unfair what these evil others are doing.

If I can’t get angry to defend the most supreme of values, and to stand up to the grave injustice, then life has no meaning.

That being said, and because of the way our societies are structured, and because of trends, many ARIs are now HARIs (“Hidden Angry Racist Idiots”). HARIs veil their anger and their prejudices and hate, but you can always “approximately feel it” through their language and attitudes overall by comparing to the above reasoning methods, including the superior in-group, the righteous and godly and often-repressed “us,” even though “we” were obviously greater once.

Unseen approximations are everywhere, and they’re behind some of the most dangerous stupidities imaginable.

* This article has excerpts from “Fuzzy on the Dark Side

Further Reading

If you’re interested in reading more about how incomplete understanding and ambiguity can lead to illusions and the conflation of personal/group identities with achievement, check out “Fuzzy on the Dark Side: Approximate Thinking and How the Mists of Creativity and Progress Can Become a Prison of Illusion “

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