For this essay, a conceit is defined as a false, artificial,
arbitrary, contrived or overly simplified rule or set of rules
used to explain the way things are or they way they are supposed
to be. A conceit is often made to give an answer where there
is none known or to give a simplified answer to a complicated
A Victorian England book of etiquette stated that on a bookshelf
a book by a male author should never be placed next to a book
by a female author. The exception was when the authors were married
to each other.
A wealthy American businessman and amateur historian decided
to build a duplicate of an Ancient Greek pillar on his ranch.
His expressed intent was to make it as historically accurate
as possible, down to the smallest known detail. Partway through
the construction scholars discovered that the Ancient Greeks
had painted the original pillar a bright light blue. The businessman
was taken aback at this finding. All the pillars he had seen
in person and depicted in books were unpainted. Painting one
of those beautiful stoic pillars a bright color bordered on the
distasteful, like following a fine meal with lime jello. The
businessman built the pillar exact in all known details except
it was unpainted.
The human being lives in a universe that is largely beyond
its experience and comprehension.
None of us knows the volume of the universe, the complete
inner workings of our own minds, what birds really think about
or what it's like to be in someone else's shoes. We can speculate,
we can make up stories, we can theorize, but we don't know for
It's fair to assume that Albert Einstein would have said there
were many areas of science he knew little about. Just because
you are a famous nuclear physicist on the cover of Time magazine
doesn't make you a wiz at biology, veterinary science, economics,
geology or cosmetology.
While humans know little about the universe they have an innate
need for answers and order. Most of us want to know the meaning
of the universe and what is our purpose on earth.
In an attempt to overcome their lack of knowledge and sate their
desires for answers and order, human beings create pseudo answers
and artificial order. This is most commonly done with conceits.
The following are examples of conceits:
* The sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening (The
sun does not rise and fall. This is an earthly optical illusion
caused by rotation of the earth.)
* Baby boys must wear blue, baby girls must wear pink.
* When men greet they must shake hands.
* A painting should be framed and hung from the wall. You
should not display it on a tabletop or leaned against a wall.
* A Gothic novel must have dark, stormy weather and a castle
* It is uncouth to drink wine out of a coffee cup. Wine should
only be drunk from a wine glass.
*A properly set table must have, from left to right, fork
on napkin, plate, knife, spoon and drinking glass above the knife
and spoon. A table set any other way is set incorrectly.
* A cowboy movie has to take place in a dusty hot place like
in Arizona or Texas. If it takes place in Maine, it's not a cowboy
* There is great significance in 10 year (decade) and 100
year (century) increments. Nine, 11 or 98 year durations are
of lesser importance.
Conceits are used in all facets of our lives. From the fashion
rules for the shoes we wear to how we describe the universe to
our children. From the way a house is supposed to be decorated
to how music is supposed to sound. From the ways we conceptualize
the unknown to the required color for artificial turf in a sports
stadium (I hate to break it to you, sports fans, but there's
no practical reason artificial turf can't be blue, purple, grey,
red or white).
A conceit can be said or unsaid, conscious or subconscious,
innate or learned. In cases it is a set of rules posted on a
sign. In other cases it is a gut reaction ('That's just the way
it's supposed to be').
Conceits can be trivial ('pencils always go to the right of
the pens on my desk') to large (religious or philosophical belief
requiring a leap of faith).
One's conceits can be idiosyncratic or widely held (custom).
Many of one's conceits change or develop over one's lifetime.
Bugs are icky
Soft music, low lights and candles are romantic
You must dress up to go to the opera or symphony
One's socks must match in color and pattern
The human is wired to interpret its environment in the form of
conceits. The human's environment is so dense and complex, the
human constantly bombarded with so much internal and external
information and stimuli, the human uses conceits to create an
understandable translation. Conceits is a human language.
Someone who claims to have no conceits has pointed out she
has an additional one.
Anyone who doesn't believe in the prevalence of conceits should
go to a mall or busy street and observe the variety of fashions.
And, perhaps more important, observe how he or she reacts to
the different fashions ('Damn hippie,' 'Must be a Republican,'
'Honey, hide your purse.').
For just one day try to live without conceits. No prejudice,
no preconceptions, no traditions, no fashion, no habits, no arbitrary
choices, no simplified answers to complicated situations, no
made up answer when the real answer is unknown, no doing something
'because that's the way I always do it.'
Realize that exchanging one conceit for another is not ridding
yourself of conceits.
If you can't live without conceits for a day, try it for a
partial day, try it for an hour, try it for five minutes. Time
yourself with your stopwatch.
Why is pink so associated with girls and sissies? Is there something
inherently feminine about the color, similar to the biological
attraction of hummingbirds to brightly colored flowers? Or is
it mostly a matter of tradition? If 100 years ago the tradition
started that girls wore dark blue, would tough guys today wear
pink sweatshirts taunting the guys who wore blue?
What is the hair color of your dream lover?
If you had to eat maggots and there was no health or taste concern
would you rather they were cooked or live? Why?
A way to expose a person's conceits is
to change superficial qualities just a bit, and see the change
people are so set in their
like color or angLE or shape or style,
ARE SO distracted t h a t they find it difficult
to focus beyond
.....changes and do
simple as read
In a dating relationship would you feel uncomfortable if the
woman were much taller than the man? Why?
We all purposely limit the amount of information we receive.
It's a normal, daily occurrence. The human being doesn't have
the mental ability to take in everything at once, and must pick
and chose what it focuses on.
"Can we discuss this later? I'm busy right now and don't
want to lose my concentration."
"Don't anyone tell me the score of last night's game.
I had to work and taped the game so I can watch it tonight."
"Honey, pull the shades. I don't even want to know what
the neighbors are doing."
"I'm not going to the Doctor, because I don't want to
know if there's something wrong with me."
"I'll look at my bank statement on Monday morning. This
is the weekend and I want to enjoy myself."
"They're my parents for God sake. I don't want to know
about their love life."
It's probably no surprise that humans trick or otherwise manipulate
. Embellishing one's job position to impress
the future in-laws
. Psyching out your opponent at the
big ping pong tournament
Tricking your sibling out of
the last donut
Humans also trick or otherwise manipulate themselves. Many
of the following examples are closely related to the previous
'limiting information' examples.
"Honey, hide the bag of Doritos. You know I can't help
myself if they're just lying around."
"If I buy myself a new power suit, I will have confidence
for the meeting."
"I'm going to turn my watch ten minutes ahead, so I'm
not always so late to my meetings."
"I'm going to force myself not to think about her. Maybe
that will help heal my broken heart."
Give two examples of how you trick or manipulate yourself.
Keeping Up Appearances
We all dress up facts to suit out tastes. Even if we know
the meaning remains the same, outer appearances are important.
"I'm not a secretary, I'm an administrative assistant."
"Don't call it a toilet. That's just rude. It's a little
"I didn't get a pay raise, better office or the other
things I wanted, but I did convince the boss to change my title.
You're looking at the new assistant director for data processing.
I can't wait to phone mom. She'll be so proud."
"Don't say 'damn.' Say 'darn.'"
What euphemisms do you use?
Choosing to pay for what is free
I used to write an email newsletter about collectables. While
it had wide readership and received positive feedback, it was
nearly impossible to get any donations of time or money to support
it. I had planned on having a series of articles on collecting
wirephotos-- identification, dating, valuation, etc. Before I
was able to include the series, I decided I had enough of doing
the newsletter for free and ended it. With the newsletter finished,
I printed the wirephotos articles into a Spartan 35 page booklet
on my computer printer and offered it for sale for about $7 a
copy. Within the first week and a half I made more money from
that little booklet than I hard received in donations in over
two years of publishing the newsletter. Because of their bias
about how information should be disseminated (physically printed
versus email), the readers chose to pay for information that
they would have received for free. Not that I was complaining.
Most conceits are based on biases. People's views of the world
and even of facts are affected by biases.
A bias is a strong preference for or against something for
reasons that do not have a rational basis. A bias can be identified
when someone is offered the choice of items that are identical
except for one subjective quality (color, shape, other), and
the person consistently picks a particular item because of the
Each morning five shirts are laid out on your bed. The
shirts are identical other than in color. If you only or usually
pick the blue shirt, you have a bias towards blue, at least as
far as shirts go. If, over time, you wear all the shirts except
the yellow, you have a bias against yellow shirts.
We all have a range of biases. We all have prejudices (meaning,
judging before all the facts are in, jumping to a conclusion)
and predilections (a strong liking to something based on temperament
or prior experience).
While the word bias often has a derogatory connotation, many
are worthwhile and even helpful. We all have personal preferences
that are positive influences on our lives. I feel no need to
apologize for preferring Chinese food over Italian, Rachmaninov
over Brahms or having a favorite color of blue. No one should
run to the confessional because she dislikes watching basketball
and loves to wear pearl earrings. Life would be boring without
The problems arise when biases prevent us from being able
to make what should be or is represented as rational judgments.
Many of our biases make us jump to false conclusions. Many of
our biases cloud what should be cleared vision. Many people confuse
bias for fact or truth.
When there is the latest political scandal, do you in part
judge the guilt or innocence based on the accused's political
affiliation? Are you more likely to suspect him guilty if he
is a member of the other party? If he shares your political beliefs,
are you more likely to ascribe the accusations to being partisan
In the news there are all those latest health findings
on what's good for you and what's bad for you: drink this amount
of wine weekly, eat this, avoid that, get this amount of exercise,
etc etc. When first hearing the latest health finding, do you
in part judge the scientific validity of the report based on
how it relates to your lifestyle? If you love red meat are you
more likely to accept on its face value a report claiming the
benefits of red meat and dismiss the report claiming that red
meat should removed form one's diet?
When an important medical report is given to the public
on television, do you in part judge the validity of the report
based on what the doctor is wearing and from where he is presenting
the findings? Even if the report is the same, would you give
more credence if the doctor is wearing a white lab coat and stethoscope
and speaking from a laboratory (test tubes, vials, scientific
charts in the background), as opposed to if he is wearing jeans
and a well worn T-shirt and speaking from a park bench? Why do
you think makers of commercials hawking that fad diet or libido
pill use an actor dressed up as a doctor, wearing lab coat and
Many biases are subtle, many are genetic. If we were born
cats, we'd have different points of view. We have habits we don't
know exist until pointed out by others. Movie makers know that
lighting, camera angle and music affect the viewer's opinion
of the characters.
Many people complain that a news organization holds a bias. Most
of these people are not looking for unbiased reporting, but reporting
with a different bias (theirs).
The traditional way to kill cockroaches is by taking a can
of bug spray and spraying the offending creatures. Years back
a company invented a different way for killing cockroaches. Instead
of directly spraying the bugs, this company had a new disc that
was discreetly placed out of sight-- under a bed, the back of
a closet, or such. This disc was more effective than the spray
can-- meaning, it killed many more bugs. The company test marketed
the product with inner city mothers who had cockroach problems
in their homes and used bug spray. The mothers were shown the
disk and told it would kill more of the cockroaches in their
home. When polled afterwards, the majority of the women said
they would not purchase the disc, as directly spraying the cockroaches
gave them a sense of control.
Learning from experience
Former U.S President Bill Clinton and Vice
President Al Gore at a 1997 Press Conference
Much of how the human being sees, interprets and reacts is
based on past experience. Both consciously and subconsciously
we use past experience to show us the way things are. Sometimes
we learn from repeated experiences, sometimes from a single experience,
sometimes from what others tell us.
Most of us have learned not to put one's hand on a red burner
on the stove because of personal experience (ouch!) or because
we were taught by an elder. We learn how to identify plants,
animals and places through experience. Many people love to go
up and smell roses because they know what roses have smelled
Through repetition, or even single experience, many things
become second nature. We barely have to be conscious of them.
It's raining, you need a raincoat. If a burner is bright red,
don't touch it. Rabbits are soft and sidewalks are hard. Jiggle
the handle on the upstairs toilet or it will run all night. Aligators
are dangerous. Chocolate is sweet. Salty and fatty foods are
bad for you. Grass is green and beaches are sandy.
Our subconscious minds and bodies learn from experience--
depth, reacting to gravity, muscle control. Athletes perfect
their skills through practice. By repeating shots and moves,
the moves become second nature to the basketball player. Though
practice, the gymnast gains balance and muscle memory.
Not only do humans learn from precedent, they gain psychological
and even physical attachment to what they have learned. This
is part of how habits become second nature. If someone was bit
by a large dog as a kid she may shake with fear when a large
dog approaches her on the street. If someone had great childhood
vacations at his favorite aunt and uncles cabin on the beach,
he may get an warm and fuzzy feeling when he sees a magazine
picture of a similar beach.
This psychological attachment to what we have learned can
be helpful. The practical use of the gut reactions should be
apparent in the following: instant fear when a Grizzly crosses
your path, wariness or even nausea towards a piece of a meat
that smells funny or has a strange color, a warm feeling towards
someone who gave you a fair shake when no one else would.
The problem is that no matter how seemingly logical or natural
or how deep we feel it in our bones, what we learn as correct
is not always correct. Sometimes it's plain wrong. Scientists
would laugh at laboratory conclusions based on an arbitrary example
or hearsay. Yet this is how we learn in everyday life.
Even your own eyes can lie. If you don't believe me, take
a second look at the above picture. It is not of Bill Clinton
and Al Gore. Both are Bill Clinton, but one has different
hair. Your brain and eyes just go into the habit of seeing things
a certain way.
Optical illusions illustrate that even our brains have conceits
about the way things are. Look at the following five images.
What may appear to be a spiral, actually is a series of
Despite initial appearance, all the columns
are of equal width throughout
Beleive it or not the orange on the left is the
same color as the orange on the right.
dots and boxes
All the dots are the same color and tone.
Greta Garbo in hat and coat:
There are no illusions with this picture other than caused
by your expectation that there was one. It's just a picture of
Greta Garbo wearing a hat and coat. You must admit it's interesting
that after only several images you created a new (and false)
logic. You started a minute ago interpreting as true a false
image (Clinton) and ended up with interpreting as false a true
Absolute statements often aren't
Scrutiny will reveal the fallacies in many of our sweeping,
absolute statements about society or life or politics or art
or sports or how things are supposed to be.
A liberal Mayor may proclaim from the podium, "I am
against all forms of racial discrimination" yet supports
racial quotas for schools and government contacts. Shouldn't
he really say, "I am against all forms of discrimination,
except for the areas where I'm not against discrimination"?
A conservative states' rights US Senator may proclaim,
"I am for states' rights and against the national government
imposing their will on states," then proceed to block a
state from enacting a law he dislikes. Shouldn't the statement
more accurately have been, "I'm am for states' rights and
against national government imposing their will on states, except
where I'm not for states rights and am for national government
imposing their will on states"?
Looking closely you will discover that most sweeping absolute
statements are not about the person attempting to be factually
accurate, but trying to gain power relative to someone else.
When a brother yells at his kid brother, "You always ruin
everything!," he knows the statement is not accurate. However
in the middle of a sibling fight the statement "You do many
things quite well and mom says you got a B+ on you last French
quiz which is quite commendable, but do mess up a percentage
of things on various occasions" doesn't pack the in the
heat of the moment punch.
When their sports teams clearly are not number one, why do
college fans and cheerleaders raise their index fingers and yell
"We're number one!"?
Notice this is done in the heat of the moment. During Tuesday
morning physics class the student likely won't claim the school's
1-6 basketball team is the best in the nation. However, when
you point a television camera on him and his friends during Saturday's
warm-up out comes the number one sign.
The human being is an emotional animal
romantic attachment, embarrassment, repulsion, giddiness
This is part of who we are and how we interpret the world. Often,
emotional interpretation is more important to humans than facts.
Emotions regularly override or temper facts. And who's to say
it's always a bad thing. Sticking by family through thick and
thin isn't a bad rule of thumb.
For humans it's difficult and sometimes impossible to separate
meaning from emotion, facts from emotion, worth from emotion.
What is right is supposed to feel right. Religious faith necessitates
an emotional attachment to the ideas. There is an emotional connection
to the music or paintings or movies we love. If there wasn't
an enjoyable emotional reaction to the actors on the screen and
their story, who would pay good money to sit in the dark theatre
for two hours?
No matter how well plotted and witty the dialogue, a movie
or song is deemed not worthy if it doesn't 'move' the critic.
"It simply didn't move me" or "I didn't connect
with the characters" is considered appropriate critical
judgment to be New York Times critic.
Even the most logical of people judge facts by their aesthetic
appearance. An M.I.T. engineering professor will spend hours
contemplating what picture and background color should be on
his upcoming textbook. He may have a hissy fit if the publisher
says the book cover will be hot pink with a picture of Santa
Claus water skiing. A mathematician will carefully write and
rewrite her equations so they are parallel to the bottom and
top edges of the paper and with attractive vertical margins.
Emotional reactions or states can be good or bad. Most would
agree that love for your children, leading you to look out for
the best interests, is good. Most would agree that getting a
satisfaction from kicking friendly dogs is not good.
Emotional states can alter out landscapes. When we are head
over heals in love a drizzly gray day is gorgeous. When we are
unrequited, a rainbow can weigh like lead in the heart.
Mood is an integral part of human life ... Getting the mood
right for a romantic evening ... Decorating the apartment to
make you feel at home after a long day at work.
Sanity and Custom
People tend to believe that 'sanity' and 'insanity' are absolute
terms, with a medical doctor saying a patient is insane as she
would say someone has a broken arm or dandruff. The popular and
legal definition of sanity and insanity is substantially based
on that society's customs and the prevailing fashions. No matter
what it is, if enough people are doing it it won't be considered
If you don't believe this, examine which currently socially
acceptable behavior would be deemed bizarre, if not psychotic,
if no one else in society did them.
* Decorative body mutilation, such as piercing one's ears
or getting a tattoo
* Lying in the sun with the expressed intention of turning
* Wearing makeup and styling and coloring one's hair
* Taking an animal as a pet, giving it a name, walking it
around the neighborhood on a leash and telling people it's the
new member of the family
* Dancing, singing or playing an instrument on a regular basis
* Insisting that people shake your hand when you meet
* Manicuring one's lawn and garden, including cutting the
shrubs into shapes
If you did the above, and they were not done by anyone else,
you would be considered mentally ill and in need of serious medical
try it, you might like it
* How did your feelings change about a person once you got
to know him or her? ("She seemed so stuck up, but once I
got to know her she was nice and down to earth.")
* Have you ever gone to a place that was totally different
than you had expected?
* Have you ever seen a move or TV show that you were sure
you'd hate, but turned out you liked?
* Are there any books or movies or television shows you have
a strong opinion about, but that you've never read or seen?
* How much of your world view is based on opinions and assumptions
of places you've never been to, people you've never met and things
you've never experienced?
Given once a year to a single college football player, the
Heisman Trophy is the most famous sports trophy in the United
States. Unknown to each other, two former Heisman Trophy winners
and their families lived in the same neighborhood. One afternoon,
one of the men's son came home disappointed in his dad. His dad
had always told him how rare was the Heisman Trophy on the living
room mantle, but the dad of the kid down the street had the same
The BaMbuti Pygmies of Congo traditionally live their entire
lives in the dense rainforest, where the furthest away anyone
can see is feet. They learned, loved, played and hunted in this
environment. In his 1961 book The Forrest People (Touchstone),
anthropologist Colin Turnbull wrote how he took one of these
Pygmies, named Kenge, for his first time to a wide open plain.
As the two stood on a hill overlooking the flat land, a group
of water buffalo was seen a few miles away. Having no experience
of how things appear smaller over long distance, Kenge asked
what kind of insects they were. Turnbull told him they were buffalo
and Kenge laughed loudly at the "stupid story." Turnbull
drove Kenge towards the buffalo. Watching the animals growing
visually larger, Kenge became scared and said it was witchcraft.
Human beings develop an idiosyncratic logic and sensibility
distinct to the environment where they were brought up. The environment
one grows up in is seemingly the world. A kid born and raised
in the inner city versus the country, rich versus poor, in Cairo
versus Chicago, conservative family versus liberal, woods versus
desert. The person who has lived her whole life in Portland or
Cairo may get a chuckle at that story about the Pygmy then dismiss
the idea that a similar incongruity could exist with her native
As Kenge interpreted the open expanse based on his jungle
experience, humans interpret such esoteric and largely unfathomable
things as the afterlife and the meaning of the universe based
on their limited experience. It should not be surprising that
common human interpretation of the supernatural largely has an
earthly sensibility. The supernatural beings often dress like
humans, live in night and day, drink and eat human-style meals,
speak and read and write, play human-style instruments and games,
and even sneeze. It should not be a surprise that to the Ancient
Egyptians the gods dressed like Egyptians and to the Ancient
Greeks the gods dressed like Greeks.
John Nash's Aliens
John Nash is a famous mathematician and winner of the 1994
Nobel Prize for Economics who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia.
While a professor at M.I.T. Nash suffered severe mental episodes
and largely dropped out of society. He began hallucinating, hearing
voices in his head. In this state he deduced that aliens were
talking to him.
To most of us his conclusion seems loopy. It does reveal how
the human mind works. In a situation well beyond his normal experience
he wanted a concrete answer for what was happening. While bizarre,
the aliens conclusion 'logically' matched his illogical situation.
It is abnormal to hear voices in one's head so, when one starts
hearing voices, daily life answers will not explain. It is almost
expected for someone to explain the abnormal with an abnormal
answer, especially when he is in a confused mental state. It
probably is not coincidence that Nash subconsciously picked a
conceit that was part of popular culture.
Years later when he had largely recovered from his mental
problems, Nash was asked how he had come to the conclusion that
Aliens were talking to him. He said that he came to conclusion
in the same intuitive way that he came to the mathematical conclusions
that won him the Nobel Prize.
(c) david rudd cycleback, cyclback.com
all rights reserved