Mental Myopia: A Covert Enemy of Truth

Eye of Sauron Mental Myopia

The next time you’re on the road, try making out the words on distant signs. If you can do this without the aid of specially prescribed lenses, you’re a member of shrinking subset of society who don’t suffer from myopia, aka nearsightedness. This physical phenomenon, which causes many people to only be able to see objects clearly right in front of them, serves as a metaphor for the psychological phenomenon known as mental myopia, which causes people to be blind to the truths that exist beyond their immediate attention.

In the infamous “Invisible Gorilla Test”, subjects are tasked with watching a video of two groups of people bouncing basketballs and counting the number of times one of the groups passes a ball to each other. During the middle of this short video, someone dressed in a gorilla costume enters the middle of the screen, thumps their chest and walks off the screen. While an overwhelming percentage of subjects are able to accurately count the number of times the ball was passed, surprisingly, half of subjects don’t even notice the gorilla at all. When people are distracted, they become victims of mental myopia and are unable to notice interesting truths that are otherwise accessible to them.

In his classic essay, That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen, Frederick Bastiat differentiates between an economist who suffers from mental myopia and one who doesn’t: “the one takes account of the visible effect; the other takes account both of the effects which are seen and also of those which it is necessary to foresee.” The immediate and visible effects of government taxing and spending are what are touted by advocates of programs such as public works, economic development projects, the arts, welfare, “nation building” and price fixing, to name a few. Roads are built, interest rates are more affordable, the arts are more accessible, we bombed some bad guys – these are what are seen. But the economist who doesn’t suffer from mental myopia will see that unintended financial (and I’ll add immoral) costs result from short-sighted policies.

Bastiat’s Broken Window allegory serves as an example of how bad economists can only see the immediate effect of a policy. A boy breaks a shopkeeper’s window. Onlookers (bad economists) attempt to console the shopkeeper by pointing out that it’s a good thing because now the glass-repairer will have a job to do. The boy, in effect, created a job! The spending and circulation of money will encourage industry, no? By this logic, the boy would be doing society a service by going around breaking as many windows as possible. What is unseen is what the shopkeeper could have done with the money required to fix the window. Perhaps he could have bought some new shoes or added a new book to his library. Regardless of how the money is transferred, the truth is, he, and by extension – society, are at a net loss by precisely one window’s worth.

Our nation’s inability to foresee unintended consequences are resulting in catastrophes such as a crushing national debt, entitlement mentality, malinvestment, blowback, and hundreds of other horrible outcomes that many don’t, or refuse to see.

Our inability to hold a broad, objective perspective combined with our tendency to judge people quickly and harshly result in unfair biases. When we learn that a historical figure is the hero, we neglect to see their faults – or if their faults are pointed out to us, we excuse them. When we learn that a historical figure is the villain, we neglect to see any good that they may have done. Likewise, in our current relationships, by honing in on someone’s wrongdoing at the expense of all else, we tend to vilify them completely. Or, under a euphoric trance or comfortable complacency, we neglect to see significant flaws that require the establishment of important boundaries.

Mental myopia is often a result of our own negligence and we therefore become our own source of ignorance. External influences also prey on our mental weakness when ideas, history, current events and public figures are depicted in a one-sided, incomplete manner or, as is often the case, not depicted at all.

Rather than jeopardize their credibility by telling an outright falsehood, crafty pragmatists will use people’s mental myopia against them by shining a focal light on particular true-isms at the expense of other pertinent truths. Had they been dedicated to the whole truth, they would have shined a flood light on as many of the pertinent truths of which they were aware.

The scriptures occasionally describe some tactics of the father of lies and his followers in two separate words: “lying” and “deceiving”. Wouldn’t “lying” be a sufficient descriptor? Why specify “deceiving” as well? A way to look at it is that lies are outright falsehoods but deceptions could be true-isms meant to lead people down a wrong path. Differentiating between the notions of a lie and a deception correlates with the difference between the notions of “truth” and what is “true”. Truth encompasses pertinent context and is neither subjective nor deceptive. On the other hand, what is technically “true” may or may not be serving the whole truth. In some cases, particular facts can be crafted to mislead others from comprehending important truths. It is the “may not be serving the whole truth” part of true-isms that we need to train our brain to be watchful for.

When I was young, a friend recited to me something that he had heard – that Joseph Smith was killed breaking out of jail. This is true, from an isolated, literal perspective. But it’s also deceptive when more context is added. The truth that was left out of that statement is the part about the mob of men shooting him before, during and after he jumped out of the jail’s second story window (aka “broke out of jail”). The “true” statement made it sound like he was executed attempting to escape the law and justice. By adding pertinent context, the truth turns a fugitive to a martyr.

Another example of diversional deception is what happened when Edward Snowden exposed the grossest violation of privacy that the world had ever seen. Instead of shining a focal beam on those revelations, the media focused primarily on painting Snowden as a criminal leaker. Whether intentionally or not, the mainstream media are some of the craftiest diversion artists. They rarely tell outright lies but they often manipulate people’s perspectives in the manner they frame the “news”. Here are a few more examples:

Heart disease, a highly preventable disease, is the most common cause of death in the US but to an uninformed citizen who gets their world-view molded primarily from the media, they probably are more fearful of airplane crashes, shooters and terrorist bombers as high likelihoods for their deaths. These highly sensational causes of death, which media outlets constantly shine focal lights on, are relatively rare but slow deaths don’t create viewership, or corresponding ad sales, the way sudden and horrific deaths do.

The anti-gun bias that most of the mainstream media espouses causes them to shine their focal beam on violent crimes involving guns but completely ignore when guns are used to stop or prevent crime. In a recent study ordered by the CDC and conducted by The National Academies’ Institute of Medicine and National Research Council, it was discovered that more crimes were prevented by armed citizens than there were crimes committed with guns. The results of this study are never publicized by our “guardians of the public trust”. It doesn’t serve a particular narrative.

The nation’s political establishment, supported by the media, shines the light on only the two parties in power. These two parties are so similar that their actions are almost identical and when they debate each other, a meaningful difference can hardly be discerned. Other individuals or parties who offer more meaningful proposals rarely receive any attention by those managing the spotlight.

In addition, today’s historians, storytellers and liberal arts professors shine a focal light on the horrific acts perpetrated by 20th century fascist governments but rarely, if ever, shine any light on the horrific acts perpetrated by marxists governments. Again, when you contrast the numbers, there is a much bigger culprit that is being ignored. Last century, fascism resulted in the deaths of dozens of millions of lives. Communism resulted in the deaths of over 100 million lives, not to mention the enslavement of billions more. Rather than objectively acknowledge the horrific means and outcomes of all totalitarian governments, many biased “shiners of light” will only tolerate the beam being pointed where it most conveniently fits their narrative.

Our brains are incapable of focusing on multiple things at once, which is a good thing or else we would become overwhelmed by the millions of past, present and future mental and environmental stimuli vying for our attention. Sensory overload can cause us to become incapable of focusing on anything at all. Acknowledging this fact doesn’t preclude us from doing our due diligence to expand our understanding of people and situations more completely. Understanding our tendency to succumb to mental myopia can serve as a warning sign of internal and external pitfalls that we are prone to fall for. Recognizing this pattern can help us to discern whether the manner in which ideas, historical and current events and personalities are being framed are truthful or deceitful and it’ll help us to notice the unseen with the seen.

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