Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The primary difficulty in learning from experience

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Learning from experience seems to be extremely difficult—cf. this column today by Paul Krugman, in which he comments in passing on the reason: to learn from a bad experience—a failure of some degree or other—one has to face the fact that he was wrong. The bigger the failure, the bigger the impact such an acknowledgement has on the ego, and many simply do not have the ego strength to withstand such a blow. So they will not admit that they were wrong, and continue unchecked in their course (cf. Congressional Republicans).

That perhaps is why an experiment is so valuable: doing something simply to test an idea or hypothesis, and then any failure is the failure of the hypothesis to withstand the scrutiny of experience. The experiment is designed to court failure of the idea. It can put the failure outside the ego boundary (though not, of course, if the experimenter has already developed a loyalty to the idea before testing it—he may then view the failure of the idea as his own failure, with the usual resulting denial).

But why the frantic effort to deny the obvious lessons of experience? What sort of damage does the ego fear? I think the dread is that everything is lost: if he’s held an incorrect idea, his entire life from the point he adopted the idea has been wasted: it was all for nothing.

That’s not true, of course: he still has lived his life over that time, and recognizing his error does not erase his experiences, it merely allows him to view them in a new light—indeed, the recognition of failure often turns out to be invigorating, a kind of reawakening and new-found freedom that lightens the load and reveals all sorts of new possibilities—but those are evident only after the failure is acknowledged and absorbed so that the scales are fully removed from the eyes. Before that happens awakens the dread of loss, and that dread is enough to keep many imprisoned in their old beliefs, which at some level they probably recognize as wrong. But once that path is chosen, the denial becomes stronger, the chains become thicker, and learning becomes close to impossible.

I suspect that the reverence for “loyalty” also plays a role: suddenly seeing that you were wrong can be viewed as being disloyal to those with whom you were previously in agreement. People who prize loyalty above all else cannot admit error, for that would mean being disloyal. By admitting that you were wrong, you betray those who cling to the erroneous belief.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 January 2013 at 10:12 am

Posted in Daily life

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