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A look at how humans think and see

1) Conceits
by David Rudd Cycleback

(c) cycleback 2003, 2005 all rights reserved












































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































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 situation.



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 certain.

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 or mansion.

* 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 movie.

* 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 stands out.





SOME people are so set in their ways
i f
u change seEmingly inconsequential qualities, like color or angLE or shape or style,
ey ARE SO distracted t h a t they find it difficult to focus beyond
the .......
.....changes and do
simple as read a




In a dating relationship would you feel uncomfortable if the woman were much taller than the man? Why?





Manipulating information

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."





Tricking Yourself

It's probably no surprise that humans trick or otherwise manipulate each other …. 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 boy's room."

"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 subjective quality.

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 personal preferences.

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 attacks?

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 stethoscope?

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).





Killing cockroaches

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 like before.

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 circles.





tilted lines

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 image. Fascinating.





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.





Psychological ties

The human being is an emotional animal … love, hate, 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 insane behavior.

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 brown

* Taxidermy

* 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 help.




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 trophy.





New environments

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 logic.

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