Human Bias and Passover

This is my favorite page on Wikipedia.

It’s a called List of Cognitive Biases, and besides showing what a nerd I am, it basically maps out all the ways in which our brain, on a daily basis, screws up how we perceive the world. These aren’t vague ideas, or suggestions – for the most part, they’re laboratory-tested, easily repeatable things that all of our brains do wrong. Some of them are familiar: the Gambler’s Fallacy (“If I just got three heads in a row, the next flip MUST be tails!”); Hindsight Bias (“Oh, yeah, I KNEW she was going to do that.”); and, getting into sinister territory, the Just-World Hypothesis (“Wow, look at that prisoner. He must’ve done something AWFUL! Fuck him.”).

There are well over a hundred of these biases, just listed on the one Wikipedia page; and, as amazing as it is to go through that page and just “click!” “Oh, I do that!” “click!” “Oh my God, that too!” it’s still a tiny amount. We’re juuuuuust starting to understand ourselves. Philosophers posited the atom in India and Greece in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, and the physical world has been studied for as long as we’ve been a species, if not longer. But the social survey didn’t exist until around the 1000′s; many people consider the 14th-century Arab Islamic scholar Ibn Khaldun as the first sociologist; and the term sociology wasn’t even defined until 1780, in an unpublished manuscript by French essayist Emmanuel-Joseph Saiyes.

Our very own Sigismund Schlomo Freud didn’t start hypothesizing about what makes individual human beings tick until the late 1800s, and the first social psychology experiment, fusing the social with the psychological, wasn’t published until 1898, when Nathan Triplett wrote down his findings of Social Facilitation, the idea that people do better on simple tasks with other people around. The machine gun, the telephone, the automobile and aspirin are all older than the scientific field of social psychology.

That being said, we humans waste no time applying what we learn – in the hard sciences. Plutonium was first discovered in 1934, and first synthesized in a lab in 1940. In 1945, a billion dollars later, it was used twice to kill 330,000 Japanese men, women and children.

We like hard sciences. They’re clean and neat. It’s easy to see how, if we don’t use an atom to wipe out some people across an ocean, they’ll use it to wipe us out. It’s relatively easy, once somebody makes a computer, to make a smaller, lighter, faster computer. You just use the first computer to design the second one, and invest your time and money and labor; boom, better computer. Since the Industrial Revolution, we’ve had a lot of great role models for this kind of thing.

But we don’t like to be studied. Maybe it makes us feel vulnerable. Our role models in understanding and controlling people using social psychology are all bad. Macchiavelli has a bum rap. Hitler, Stalin and every cult leader since the dawn of time have earned their bad raps a million times over.

Think about that… control. To control a situation scientifically, or even politically, is good. “I got our water pollution problem under control.” “The riots are under control.” “You’ve really got the town pee wee soccer team under control.” All good things. We like control.

But the nuclear bomb of the 21st century is people, and we don’t want to properly control ourselves. Israel / Palestine is just one of the many challenges we’ll have to face. We’re entering a world with not enough food or water; a planet that’s warming so fast, some of our big cities are going to drown; a post-Cold War, post-Pax Americana era where several superpowers share the stage and nobody really knows what will happen next. On September 11th, 2001, we didn’t merely see two planes crashing into two buildings; we saw two societies, from vastly different perspectives, crashing and burning and becoming worse together. We saw unresolved problems resolving themselves through violence, which, given how tribal we are, is our default setting.

“Then came a Pharoah in Egypt who knew not Joseph.” Our own bible provides ample history lessons on the fickleness and frailty of human society. We went to Egypt to search for food. Our patriarch, Joseph, advised the Pharoah and interpreted his dreams. Our people ate, labored, multiplied, and became numerous.

And then came a Pharoah for whom our numbers scared him – that is to say, a very ordinary human being. He saw foreigners in his midst, and he used us for slave labor. It took two hundred years, the intrigue of a few family members, a burning bush and ten massive plagues to extract ourselves from the war of tribe over tribe. All we wanted was to leave, and we remember God’s deliverance; but we forget how easy it is to do evil, how natural it is to want to control something that threatens your turf.

We look across the wall we’ve built, to our subordinate, fast-multiplying, threatening class of brown people in the West Bank, and we fear them. We fear their “lack of civilization,” we fear their “savagery,” we fear their numbers. Even when we talk about forming one secular state with no preference for one religion, one people or another, we fear their numbers.

Of course any number of arguments will separate biblical Jews from modern-day Palestinians, the story of Passover from the saga of the modern-day Middle East conflict. But the people do not change. People are not really genetically different from each other, not in any way that matters to group behavior. Which leaves circumstance as our only rationale for acting as we do. Circumstance and our own brains, so well-adapted to the reality of Great Ape warfare that is our inheritance.

Israel is supposed to be a light unto the nations, and there is still time. But we need to trust what we’ve learned about ourselves. We cannot fear that by applying the Contact Hypothesis, which lays down conditions for cooperation between former adversaries, that we will be turning into little Hitlers and Stalins; we cannot fear that self-control is evil. We have to trust our eyes and our brains which God has given us, and apply the wisdom with which God has graced us. When the Contact Hypothesis says that both sides need to be interdependent, not in a mutually predatory relationship; when it says that both sides must be treated as equal by a superior authority, as opposed to one with a state and one without; when it says both sides must work together towards a common goal, this is something which cannot have preconditions. It is our last, best and only hope to make the Holy Land holy, and not a raging contradiction of holy speech with profane action.

We must take that final step and liberate ourselves, from our own psychological limitations. We are Chosen to be better than the basest human instincts, and we must take that challenge seriously. This Pesach, may we resolve to liberate those who are oppressed, and to understand that that is everybody. Liberation today requires that we read our owners’ manual for our minds, and reconfigure ourselves to succeed where earlier generations have failed.

Chag sameach,

- Josh

8 Responses to “Human Bias and Passover”

  1. We look across the wall we’ve built, to our subordinate, fast-multiplying, threatening class of brown people in the West Bank, and we fear them.

    @Josh

    I’m really beginning to wonder if you aren’t engaging in some sort of cognitive dissonance regarding the Second Intifada.

    Why did Israel wait 35 years to begin building the wall? Was 2002 just the time when funding became available?

    I invite you to give an answer other than, “thinking about the conflict from only one side simply perpetuates the unproductive zero-sum game outlook.” There is much truth to that.

    On the other hand, some of us remember the days (less than a decade ago) when some of those brown people would walk into cafes and onto buses in the middle of Tel Aviv and Haifa and West Jerusalem, detonate a bomb, and kill and maim tens of people. (Not attacks on military installations, or against settlements, but in the heart of Israel proper.) Some of us remember turning on our TV’s and seeing thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of those brown people having huge celebrations in the streets to celebrate those bombings. It happened over and over and over and over and over and over again.

    And some of us turn on the news everyday and read about who is in charge of Gaza: an organization with an avowed raison detre that includes the destruction of our home. And that organization is just biding its time before asserting control in the West Bank.
    (not Vietnam or Algeria, but a 15 minute car ride to the center of our cities.)

    Despite your obvious good heart you’re yet to demonstrate a capacity for understanding our fears.

    Just humor me for a moment and say that our fear is justified.


    Jonathan1 · April 6th, 2012 at 2:28 am
  2. @Jonathan -

    It must take a lot for someone who’s been through what you have to see things from another perspective. I admire and respect you for it greatly. I hope we get to meet someday, so I can get your perspective in person.

    I do understand the fear, and I never mean to minimize it. My girlfriend probably understands it better – she was in Kuwait when Saddam invaded in 1991. She lived in a refugee camp until she was airlifted back to India by the Indian government. To this day, she worries about security more than anyone in their late 20′s should.

    I come from a privileged position as an American middle-class white youth. My life has never been threatened, that I know of. I cannot speak to the fear.

    The only advantage of my position is to see that one person’s fear and another’s ultimately amount to the same thing. I have very good friends who are Israeli and very good friends who are Palestinian. I don’t expect them to like each other’s governments. I also grew up in New York, surrounded by refugees from El Salvador, which had descended into absolute anarchy; the government and the rebels there massacred each other – and civilians – for well over a decade. My Salvadoran friends didn’t trust ANYONE.

    I guess this piece speaks to fear more than anything. That’s why I’m so concerned with the issue. This will never be easy. As one of the rabbis who addressed us at the J Street conference said, Israel is the ultimate test of Jewish power in the real world. It’s fitting that the very question of Israel’s existence is the greatest challenge.

    Real people live on both sides of the wall, and no individual can just throw off history and ignore it – it’s too great a burden for you or for anyone else. I guess what I’m arguing for is for both sides to see that the fear itself is the problem; or rather, the way the status quo is set up generates constant fear, and THAT’S the problem. We’re programmed to react really badly to the current arrangement. We need a massive rearrangement, and we need it soon.

    Thanks for hanging in there and thanks for trying to make things better. I feel strongly that we can do this together. I can’t imagine God would want anything for us but to be the people who overcome the seemingly impossible. But we’re only human, and that’s why there need to be a lot of us working together, tenaciously, over decades. And we can’t be afraid to critique each other along the way, which is why I love your feedback.


    Josh Hyman · April 6th, 2012 at 3:46 am
  3. I guess what I’m arguing for is for both sides to see that the fear itself is the problem; or rather, the way the status quo is set up generates constant fear, and THAT’S the problem. We’re programmed to react really badly to the current arrangement. We need a massive rearrangement, and we need it soon.

    Ok. This is all I can from you.

    (Believe me that I’m about the last person on earth deserving anybody’s respect, btw.)

    Chag Sameach


    Jonathan1 · April 6th, 2012 at 4:06 am
  4. “ask from you”


    Jonathan1 · April 6th, 2012 at 4:07 am
  5. One bias is that we accept and learn from figures of authority. That is, we have a tendency to accept that something is true because a figure of authority has said it. This is often why people are religious. Sadly. There is no god, but there are enough religious praised and placed in an authoritative position to “spread the word”. It’s an unfortunate human bias.


    Jon · April 7th, 2012 at 10:13 am
  6. Hey guys,

    Check out this new passover video on youtube.
    Its filmed in Israel and very inspirational music!
    www.youtube.com/watch?v=u0UN_06tess


    Mark · April 10th, 2012 at 8:40 am
  7. In general a good and thoughtful piece. Thank you.

    One technical quibble. Only one bomb dropped on Japan was Plutonium. The other was U235.


    Jeff Marker · April 10th, 2012 at 9:31 pm
  8. Psychological/neuroscience history goes back a good bit farther. The “History of Psychology” wikipedia page is an ok starting point. If you’re talking about personality & humanity, one needs to start at least with the case of Phineas Gage, which is a solid generation or two before Freud left cocaine research and applied physical science pressure models to personality dynamics.

    I also disagree that people feel less comfortable with being studies versus the results of hard sciences. It’s just much easier to apply and control what we know about the hard science. We know a lot about how vision works for decades, but are only now getting to the point where people are seriously talking about replacing retina’s to make a blind person see. The path from splitting an atom to unleashing energy from splitting many atoms is fairly clear.

    My bigger complaint is that you’re linking psychology tests in controlled environments to the much fuzzier world of evolutionary psychology. As is very clear today, humanity’s genetics are very similar, but genetics only goes so far. Environment effects us in very clear ways and even effects the intensities of the various cognitive biases you talk about. Someone who has battle fatigue/shell schock/PTSD is going to react in fundamentally different ways than someone who doesn’t. People who grow up in impoverished environments whether the impoverishment is food, shelter, security, or diversity of experiences will be different from others. Many truly great leaders are great because they were able to rise above their environment, but it’s not easy and it’s not something you can ask populations to just will into effect.


    Dan Ab · April 19th, 2012 at 4:53 pm

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"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik