I spent last week wrestling other people’s demons. Could it be there isn’t a conspiracy? Could it be it’s not all about you? Why do we all jump so readily to self-centred conclusions?

In fact it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do. The human version of Occam’s Razor – the simplest theory is generally the best; people are indeed out to get you…

Or at least that’s what two thirds of our brain thinks. The brain stem and limbic systems react instinctively and emotionally – mostly to protect us. The poor old neo-cortex has its job cut out to plod to a slow deliberate alternative. And a good thing too for most of human history.

But we are made for finer things these days. The ‘love of thought’ has been an organised pursuit for at least 3000 years and language for much longer. So hats off to W.V.O. Quine for expressing so perfectly how our rational brains work:

“We adopt, at least insofar as we are reasonable, the simplest conceptual scheme into which the disorganised fragments of raw experience can be fitted and arranged.” From a logical point of view (1953)

It’s still instinctive and still guesswork, but at least we think it’s rational…

And that’s why we jump to conclusions. The human animal is wired to discern intent, develop belief and divine agency; even when it’s not there. It’s the simplest way to ‘fit and arrange’ those disorganised ‘fragments of experience’.

It’s happening to me, so it must be about me – except most of the time it isn’t. And Quine’s gimlet eye above invites us to take that thought very seriously.

Bureaucratic Mirroring

I was interviewed by someone this week who was desperate to find a conspiracy theory. There isn’t one. But she was frustrated. After the interview I described to her the theory of ‘Bureaucratic Mirroring’.

This is the institutional pathology that, even though rationally, people know it’s madness, they can’t escape the subconscious belief that their adversary has the same organisation and structures as they do.

Allegedly a feature of the Cold War, spoofed by Dr Strangelove, the Americans have also been accused of it post 9/11, gearing up for Al Qaeda as though Osama bin Laden had a situation room and Central Command in a bunker under Tora Bora. Bureaucratic Mirroring means you can’t imagine your enemy as other than yourself.

And this came up in conversation over lunch today. We all carry a world-view, a cultural frame of reference and our own personal form of ‘Bureaucratic Mirroring’, assuming others are as we are.

Cosmopolitanism says it ain’t so, we’re all different. Which means letting go of our prejudices and assumptions – as much of any of us can – is vital to escaping our own bunker.