Friday, August 02, 2013


Gasset wasn't the first to notice the phenomenon of mass-man. Marx recognised his type in the lumpen-proletariat and Mencken saw his middle class equivalent in the booboise. Jesus called them his sheep. Orwell, in talking about the proles, his idea of mass-man, probably gave the best description of them:
Inner and Outer Party members are under constant telescreen surveillance in both private and public; by contrast, proles' quarters are generally free of telescreens, since they are not expected to understand their exploitation as cheap labour by the Party, and thereby unable or unwilling to organize resistance. Their functions are simple: work and breed. They care little about anything but home and family, neighbour quarrels, films, football, beer, lottery tickets, and other such bread and circuses. They are not required to express support for the Party beyond mild patriotism; the Party creates meaningless entertainment, songs, novels and even pornography for the proles—all written by machines except for pornography, which is compiled by members of the Outer Party and accessible only by workers in Pornosec. Proles do not wear uniforms, may use cosmetics, and have a relatively free internal market economy. Proles also have liberal sex lives, uninterrupted by the Party, and divorce and prostitution are permitted. Despite these personal freedoms, the Thought Police plant agents among the proles to spread false rumours and mark down and/or eliminate any individuals deemed capable of causing trouble. Prole quarters consist of rundown apartment buildings, shops and pubs. Though trade between Outer Party members and proles is nominally prohibited, all Party members participate, as proles are the only source for certain minor necessities
Unlike the others, Gasset recgonised--rightly in my opinion--that the prole mind had infected all strata of society. For Gasset, much of what made up the society's governing technocratic class; such as doctors, lawyers, professors were nothing more than highly skilled proles.

Gasset and the others were easily dismissed as elitist, but unfortunately for their detractors, cognitive science has verified their understanding of humanity.  The mind of mass-man is the mind of the cognitive miser.

To understand what cognitive miserliness is, it's first important to understand the Dual Process Theory of human cognition.* Briefly, human cognition can be considered as two separate types of thinking.  Type 1 thinking; which is instinctive, reflexic and emotionally influenced and Type 2: which is slower, deliberate, effortful and analytic.

Now it's important to recognise that many people live most of their lives in the type 1 zone. It's best to think of type one thinking as our habitual thoughts and manners and our innate preferences. It's surprising just how successful people are by just working in this zone. Think of a high level function such as driving a car. Once proficiency in the task is mastered most people run on "autopilot" afterward. Likewise, navigating our modern comfortable and non-challenging life means that for many people life is just simply "going through the motions" i.e habitual and pre-learned responses.

Life for the cognitive miser is less about thinking and reflection but more about doing "what works" to get by in life. Short term solutions which deliver results but which are  ultimately destructive are favoured over long term ones in which reward is delayed. Practical issues dominate over the abstract and things which are emotionally congruent with beliefs are reinforced. Responding more than understanding is the order of the day.  What works now is more important than what will keep on working indefinitely.

But this same type of automatic thinking can also influence our higher order intellectual functions.
For example, most experienced doctors are able to diagnose a disease not due to complex reasoning but simple pattern recognition due to habituation.  Rare diseases which are similar to common ones are frequently missed for this reason. What's saved my hide more than once is strict adherence to diagnostic protocol instead of going with "my gut".  You're quite capable of appearing professional whilst operating on autopilot, professional qualification being no guarantee of deliberative thought. This is also why Hi-IQ is no absolute protection against outstanding stupidity.  The Hi-IQ may do better in life because their solutions may be relatively better than the solutions of others but they may not be the solutions which are optimal.

The other facet of the cognitive miser is of the importance of emotion on their "thought". Cognitive misers are strongly influenced by their emotional states and the rationalisation hamster is strong in these individuals. But more on this in another post.

The problem, as Gasset recognised, is that when these cognitive misers are given control of a complex system--Modern American Styled Democracy--is the system falls apart simply because the governing element lacks the cognitive capability to maintain it. The slouch toward Gomorrah ensures.

*Note, Stanovich convincingly describes a tripartite model of cognition which I think is more functionally rather than biologically relevant.