In the Hidden Brain episode “Did That Really Happen?“, Shankar Vidantan and his guest, psychologist Dr. Ayanna Thomas, talk about how unreliable our memories are, specifically regarding visual memory. We are remarkably susceptible to the power of suggestion. If someone tells us we wore a blue shirt on Christmas when we were 12, we are quite likely to build a visual “memory” of us wearing a blue shirt on Christmas when we were 12. That memory can feel as true to us as any other “real” memory.
I’ve read a bit on memory and how frail it is. (Ugh, so unfortunate that we rely on eye witness testimony in trials.) What stood out to me this time was how visual our memories are, and what that means for how we think in general. Our memories are not statements. I don’t remember being at the beach on our 5th anniversary by seeing in my mind the statement “We were are the beach on our 5th anniversary.” My memory is comprised of the visuals of the water meeting the sand, the wisps of cloud over our heads, the grains of sand under our feet on the edges of the beach blanket, Chris in his silly beach hat (that he bought just to f*ck with me. Ah, marriage).
That means that that memory is comprised of a whole host of statements compiled into one visual. “There is blue water.” “The sand is warm.” “The breeze is making it hard to keep the pages of my book still.” “Chris looks like a tool.” All those single qualities are joined together to make a single mental visual that is my memory of our beach trip on our 5th anniversary.
I think this has deep relevance to how we think about other people, and how we build our ethical systems.
In general, humans tend to “chunk” information as a way of retaining information and recalling it more easily. The easiest example is phone numbers. Rather than have to remember a string of 10 digits (5551689753), we break phone numbers into three chunks: 555-168-9753. Those chunks are easier to remember than the single string.
Chunking is a way of grouping information by patterns or similarities. It’s also why we are more likely to recall that we need to call the plumber when we are in the office bathroom — situational similarities prime our brain to recall similar information.
While chunking is helpful as a cognitive learning strategy, it can have negative consequences when we apply it to human groups. Which we tend to do. Chunking can lead to stereotyping, grouping a bunch of people together based on one similarity and then attributing to them another set of qualities that are, in actuality, unrelated. We have just found an original representative of the first similarity and attributed all his/her characteristics to the full group we made. Stereotyping can evolve from experience or from social cues and suggestions.
Of course we all are aware of the dangers of stereotyping. I think of how it relates to our moral and ethical systems. Particularly regarding what it means to be a good, moral, ethical person. Our mental moral exemplar image is often more concrete than we realize.
It’s hard to deconstruct and separate all the qualities that go into what we think makes a “good” person, to separate the truly moral from the social conditioning. I think one of the ways we can start to address our own mental models is to sit down with a pen and paper and think of the word “good”. (Or “courageous,” “kind”, any virtue.) Then write down whatever comes to mind. If it’s an image, describe that image. Describe the skin color, the anesthetics, the situation, the clothes. Pay attention to all of the details that are NOT ethical or moral. All those things that come to mind are part of your “chunk” of the ethical good and probably need to be excised or complicated in some way.
Any time we associate something distinctly non-moral with our concept of morality we put ourselves in dangerous territory. At the same time, it is also simply the result of the very natural progression of our brain development and of the way we learn. We learn what is good by observing those around us, and those observations will include non-moral elements that will inevitably get mixed up with the moral as we learn HOW to distinguish what is moral and what is not. It can be really hard to separate the elements into their appropriately-qualified pieces. But as adults, it is incumbent upon is to do so, if we want to be part of creating a more just, moral, Good society.