Beware of Mental Traps

Hector F. Sierra


The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.
—Attributed to William F. Gibson

Many people are convinced that the end of the world is nigh—even aft er the failure of predictions in 2012 based on the Mayan calendar—due to what they believe is stated in the Book of Revelation. To be sure, it is hard not to have a sense of impending doom when we receive daily reminders of the havoc being created by pollution and global warming and of the international conflicts that are anticipated to result from a shortage of resources needed to feed a world population expected to reach nine billion by mid-century—and this amid the worst economic and financial crisis since the Great Depression.

These problems are daunting, no doubt. Yet it is clear that humans have the technical know-how and wherewithal not only to reverse most of the damage inflicted upon the environment by their own actions but also to place the global economy on a more sustainable and equitable path. What is preventing humans from taking collective action to solve their more acute problems? Why are things getting worse instead of better, despite some global initiatives? The treaties that emerged from the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro two decades ago failed to achieve even a fraction of the promises made by world leaders. In fact, global carbon dioxide emissions have soared, not fallen, in the twenty years since the Earth Summit.

These are difficult but clearly important questions in which I have deep professional and personal interest. For many years, I worked as an economist for a large development institution, trying to help poor countries overcome obstacles to growth and prosperity. Through this work, I gained firsthand knowledge of the confluence of complex economic, political, geographical, ethnic, social, and cultural factors that either keep a country stagnant or propel it onto a path toward growth. What I learned is that there are multiple ways a country can be “trapped” in poverty.

There are the obvious geographical and conflict traps. Consider the case of the Central African Republic (CAR), a landlocked country in the heart of Africa and one of the first countries in which I worked as an economist. Almost the size of France (from which it gained independence in 1960), the CAR is among the ten poorest countries in Africa and one of the poorest countries in the world. Its current population is estimated at about four million, although no one knows for sure because its borders are very porous.

Like most countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the CAR’s political borders were drawn in the power centers of Europe by its colonial masters. These boundaries, superimposed over the indigenous cultures and regions of Africa, divided coherent groups of people and merged together disparate groups that did not get along in practice. The CAR’s population alone is composed of over eighty ethnic groups, each having its own language. Only a small part of this population has more than an elemental knowledge of French, the country’s official language. One of the most troubling legacies of the colonial period was the creation of countries such as the CAR, which are not only inherently conflict-prone but economically nonviable. For example, about 30 percent of Africa’s population lives in landlocked countries. In the developing world excluding Africa, that figure is only 1 percent.

There are also the widespread bad-governance and corruption traps. Many countries are afflicted by these scourges, which can have a more devastating impact than the geographical and conflict traps combined. One of the most damaging aspects of these traps is the squandering of a country’s natural resources, which are often used by leaders to enrich themselves and their families and subordinates or to achieve personal political or ideological ambitions, as in countries such as Venezuela and Kazakhstan.

Overcoming all these traps will require the creative combination of instruments such as aid, trade, security, laws, and charters. It is clear, however, that finding efficient and sustainable solutions to these traps is everybody’s problem. Every year, for example, thirty-two million acres of forest are destroyed. This is responsible for 20 percent of global carbon emissions, more than from all the cars, boats, and planes in the world. In CAR, like in most other developing countries, poor farmers cutting firewood cause much of the deforestation.

It is also clear that we have to deal with all the traps at once. Breaking just one trap is not going to help failed states to flourish.

Mental Traps: More Pervasive and Insidious Than We Think

After several years of slow progress and setbacks, I decided to change jobs. The last straw for me was a coup in the CAR that toppled the president and undid many years of progress in implementing policy reforms. The new administration reversed many of the policies designed to add transparency to government spending and to modernize the CAR’s obsolete legal and judicial framework. I am still involved in development but now mostly in the area of financial risk management. Dealing with risk and uncertainty is fascinating in its own right, although I miss the challenges and the sense of mission I had in my former job.

The most important lesson from my experience working in the CAR and other countries is that underdevelopment is as much a mental condition as an economic one. In fact, the most precious resource a country has is not its visible infrastructure and wealth but what is inside people’s minds. Just as there are dysfunctional policies, there are dysfunctional beliefs and traditions that can be costly to a country. As it happens, dysfunctional policies are easier to eradicate than dysfunctional beliefs. In effect, “mental” traps can be more subtle and insidious than the traps of being landlocked, conflict-prone, and suffering from bad governance.

We can think of a mental trap as a belief that induces self-reinforcing behaviors in the population that can be highly detrimental to the country. For example, the belief that we owe unconditional loyalty to the members of our own ethnic group or clan has helped perpetuate conflicts in countries such as the CAR. No sooner does a leader take over than he (most are men) surrounds himself with loyal members of his clan, with little regard for their qualifications. The animosity that these actions provoke among members of rival ethnic groups often results in the toppling of the leader, after which the same pattern will be repeated.

Consider also the belief that we should not invest much in our children’s education. If this belief is generalized, it will lead to fewer resources on a national scale being allocated to education. A poor educational system will in turn reinforce the belief that education is not worth much. This phenomenon occurs in many Latin American countries, where education has not been traditionally seen as the ticket out of poverty (although this is now changing). We see similar situations in Arab countries, where it is widely believed that women are not as capable as men. This belief has lead to underinvestment in women’s education, which has reinforced the stereotype. In contrast, strong belief in education has been a critical factor in the impressive economic success of the so-called Asian Tigers.

Most economic practitioners think of traps as black holes that keep poor countries poor. The pull of some of them is so powerful that some countries, such as North Korea, are in danger of collapsing. But once a country is able to escape their pull, as the thinking goes, it is on its way to join the selected group of industrialized countries. This is not quite right, however. Although my ideas on mental traps were shaped by my experience in developing countries, I realized that they are also pervasive in the industrialized world. An industrialized country may have easy access to the trade markets, be conflict-free, and have good governance, but it may still suffer from the effects of mental traps. This made me think more generally of mental traps as mutually reinforcing beliefs and behaviors that can have a negative impact on society, no matter how advanced the country is. In fact, as I will now argue, mental traps are the main hurdle that free democratic countries will need to overcome in the twenty-first century.

The Mechanics of Mental Traps

In order to better understand how people can get “trapped,” I will use as an example one of the scourges of the industrialized world: obesity. Since the 1970s, the obesity rate in the United States jumped from around 20 percent to over 30 percent. Together with inactivity, obesity is now one of the main causes of diabetes, which now affects 10 percent of the world’s adult population. Recent studies predict a huge burden of medical costs and physical disability ahead in this century, as diabetes increases a person’s risk of heart attack, kidney failure, blindness, and some infections.

The brain is the organ responsible for maintaining a stable body weight. To perform this function, it relies on a complex network of appetite-controlling mechanisms honed by millions of years of evolution. These mechanisms are designed to control our caloric intake and maintain our body weight within a narrow range. They work remarkably well, allowing humans to thrive in all but the most extreme environments. Yet they are not infallible.

Some foods, for example, contain psychoactive ingredients called “endocannabinoids” that play a role in heightening appetite. When endocannabinoids bind to cellular structures known as receptors, brain tissues release dopamine, a messenger molecule that elicits a pleasant feeling. An urge to eat will persist until this reward system turns off. These ingredients are found in foods that contain corn oil, soybean oil, and other polyunsaturated vegetable oils, which are common in today’s Western diet. Humans crave these energy-dense foods, which were scarce in the environments in which our Paleolithic ancestors evolved. Thanks to modern technology, they have now become abundant.

Eating these foods in excess, however, can damage our calorie-sensing network and leave it stuck in the “on” state. Worse, excess body weight itself can increase the risk of malfunction, with the brain telling a well-fueled body to keep eating. This sets up a particularly nasty vicious cycle.

There are two aspects of this cycle that make it difficult to break. The first is that the underlying “hunger” mechanisms work without conscious control. People become aware of them only when the brain triggers the release of hormones that elicit sensations of hunger or thirst or a sense of fullness. The second is that even if we are fully aware of our bad eating habits, we may not be able to muster the willpower needed to change them. Humans did not develop the cognitive power to resist vicious cycles because, simply, there was no need for it. For example, studies show that an imbalance of brain chemicals and hormones can increase cravings and make certain foods basically impossible to resist. This is the result of the action of genes that most likely evolved to protect humans against famine. However, they have become maladaptive in environments in which foods loaded with sugar and fat are plentiful.

Our propensity to eat fat-rich foods, of course, is not the only “primitive” drive that can get us into trouble. Ready access to potent drugs results in addictions that are almost impossible to beat. For example, cigarette smoking produces a rapid distribution of nicotine to the brain, with drug levels peaking within ten seconds of inhalation. The acute effects of nicotine dissipate quickly, however, as do the associated feelings of reward. This causes the smoker to continue dosing to maintain the drug’s pleasurable effects and prevent withdrawal. This would be self-limiting if the smoker had to manufacture his or her own cigarettes instead of buying them at the store.

Of course, none of this is breaking news to the countless psychologists and health experts who have studied these issues over the years. What remain under-analyzed, however, are the complex dynamics and interactions of the economic, political, and ideological forces that supercharge these vicious cycles and turn them into national or even global scourges.

For example, one critical factor in the creation and main-tenance of vicious cycles is that powerful economic agents benefit from them. The fast-food industry, for one, spends millions of dollars in advertisements targeted at young people. Effectively, the ads reinforce their belief that eating junk food is cool and will bring them happiness. In fact, aggressive marketing is probably one of the main reasons there has been a sharp increase in the prevalence of obesity and type 2 diabetes in children and teens. According to a comprehensive study, aggressive advertising by fast-food companies has taught 15 percent of preschoolers to ask to go to McDonald’s every day and convinced teens it is OK to consume as many as 1,100 calories in a single meal.

As this example highlights, those most negatively impacted are usually the most vulnerable. There is, for example, a growing disparity in the marketing and consumption of fast food. The same study mentioned above shows that minority kids are disproportionately targeted by the ads, with McDonald’s and KFC taking the lead in targeting African-American youth with television commercials and dedicated websites. Such ads feature foods that contain twice as many calories as ads aimed at white children, and African-American children see at least 50 percent more fast-food ads than their white peers. Similarly, cigarette companies spend millions of dollars in advertising aimed at young adults who have the highest risk of becoming lifetime addicts. As in the case of obesity, there are also class and race differences among those who smoke.

Thus, vicious cycles are in reality “systemic” in the sense that people get caught in them not because of one particular factor but because of the way many local, national, or even global factors interact. I still call them “mental traps” because, in the end, humans are “ambushed” by their own minds. Minds have enabled humans to change environments faster than they are able to adapt to them. Minds are also the tools that can help humans get over those traps.

The nature and causes of mental traps can be complex and varied but, in essence, they all follow the stages shown in figure 1. Consider the ethnic-conflict trap described above. We all have a strong bias to favor our own and distrust strangers, even if we are not aware of it. This tribal bias is deeply rooted in our older limbic or mammal brain, which means we are wired for favoritism. This is adaptive in the sense that it fosters cooperation within groups, which is why it has contributed to human survival. However, it becomes maladaptive in environments in which ethnic groups compete with each other for limited resources and for political supremacy, as is the case in many African countries. Politicians and other powerful groups exploit these biases for their own advantage, which is one of the reasons the cycle is repeated over and over.

I intend to show now that our current political dysfunction follows a pattern similar to the one in figure 1. As with other mental traps, I will argue that our dysfunction can be traced to adaptive traits that have now become maladaptive and that interest groups benefit from the resulting maladaptive behavior, thus reinforcing and perpetuating it.

The Mental Trap behind Our Political Dysfunction

Like many modern societies, ours is composed of heterogeneous groups with contrasting and conflicting views and ideas. This diversity is to a great extent what has given our democracy its energy and vitality. Indeed, democracy functions more effectively when diverse opinions are considered. Three factors in particular have contributed to make our democratic system successful: the belief that the system is fair, the fact that the most extreme and bizarre voices tend to cancel each other out, and the fact that there is no one powerful group able to dominate the rest. This is changing, however, as our society is becoming more fragmented, unequal, distrustful, and extreme. In other words, diversity is turning maladaptive.

Ironically, this is in part the result of modern technology, which has allowed people to interact only with like-minded peers while disregarding information that challenges their beliefs. This self-selection happens automatically and even if we are not actively looking for it. The more we use sites such as Google, Amazon, and Facebook—and even news sites—the more our choices are personalized: based on our previous queries, the sites filter information to show us what they think we want to see or buy. What we see can then be very different from what other people see, thus limiting our exposure to information that could challenge or broaden our worldview. The result is that most of us live in what the Internet entrepreneur Eli Pariser calls a “filter bubble”: our own personal unique universe of information.

In fact, many segments in society have gone well beyond that: they now inhabit their own “reality bubbles”—in effect, their own separate universes. Evangelical Christians, for example, not only have their own places of worship where they spend most of their social lives, but they also have their own blogs, broadcast news, entertainment services, and educational institutions. They even have their own museum, the multimillion-dollar Creation Museum in Kentucky. Their theologians and apologists are charged with the task of protecting churchgoers’ core beliefs against the onslaught of the inconvenient evidence. At the same time, there is a growing group of the home-schooled, who go through life without ever having to socialize with people of differing ideologies.

The fragmentation and polarization of society has been abetted by the legion of pundits, politicians, religious figures, and business interests that benefit from this state of affairs. Right-wing radio and television personalities such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity make millions of dollars criticizing what they regard as liberal policies and politicians, as well as what they perceive as a pervasive liberal bias in major U.S. media. There are also entire segments of the media that promote conservative principles, such as Fox News and, arguably, The Wall Street Journal. They serve as magnifying echo chambers for those who share their fears, biases, and prejudices. Although less strident, Left-leaning pundits and media segments attract those who share their liberal bias. When people sort themselves into such enclaves, plenty of empirical evidence shows, they tend to become more confident, more unified—and more extreme.

Not surprisingly, Americans have become more doctrinaire and ideological in their political views. A recent Pew Research Center survey shows that there are partisan differences of thirty-five points or more over such fundamental issues as the government’s responsibility to care for the poor. Another study identifies two main groups, “Staunch Conservatives” and “Solid Liberals,” who share almost nothing in common with one another on major political issues. They not only reject each other’s arguments purely on ideological grounds, but as the journalist Jonathan Kay writes in his book Among the Truthers, they also reject each other’s realities.

This polarization has also afflicted the political process itself, with politicians making use of their own echo chambers to win reelection and rally support for their pet policies. What makes this particularly puzzling is that many people embrace policies that work against their own self-interest. Indeed, the trickle-down fiscal policies implemented during the Reagan and Bush administrations, and their blind faith in the ability of free markets to self-regulate, have benefited only a few and have made upward mobility more difficult. Worse, inequality is taking a toll on economic growth and also making the political system more dysfunctional, thus contributing to the instability of our economic system, which in turn generates more inequality.

The conditions that make this trap so detrimental for our democratic process are of course not unique to the United States. The situation in Europe is not much better, because it is trapped in its own political and policy gridlock. The ongoing debt crisis has exposed major differences among the leaders of the member countries of the European Union regarding the origin of the crisis and how to fix it. Many experts fear that the lack of policy consensus may ultimately result in the collapse of their common currency, the euro, with devastating consequences for the world economy. Moreover, European countries have not been successful in integrating their diverse and rapidly growing immigrant communities into their societies, thus creating insular “bubbles” similar to those in the United States. During times of crisis, people naturally look to the reassurance and comfort of their own bubbles, thus reinforcing the fragmentation and alienation of society.

Escaping Mental Traps: Educating Citizens for the Twenty-First Century

I believe that seeing complex social problems through the lens of mental traps can help us better understand why some problems dissipate with time, while others become intractable. For example, I mentioned earlier that many Latin American countries suffer from an “educational trap.” This is changing at last. Thanks to the Internet and social media, there is a growing realization among the general population that a first-rate education is valuable. As democracy and free markets spread, politicians and business interests are also realizing that they can derive more benefits from an educated labor force than from an illiterate one. As a result, most governments in Latin America are starting to invest a larger share of their gross domestic product in education.

However, we do not have the luxury of time to wait until our “dysfunction trap” resolves itself, if it ever does. The stages of mental traps shown in figure 1 suggest several actions that we can use to escape their pull. The first obvious one is to improve our knowledge of the conditions under which adaptive traits become maladaptive. As we saw, many of the mechanisms underlying mental traps operate below our conscious radar. Once we have become aware of the specific mechanisms that can get us trapped, we can start developing effective coping strategies.

Consider one of the main reasons people congregate in information bubbles: the motivation to seek confirmatory evidence for their beliefs and disregard disconfirming evidence. This is known as “confirmation bias.” Like the tribal bias, it is deeply ingrained in our nature. In fact, the human mind may have evolved not to make us better thinkers but to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade fellow humans. This is highly adaptive given our exceptional dependence on other humans, but it distorts our evaluations and attitudes and allows erroneous beliefs to persist. Indeed, plenty of evidence shows that humans systematically strive not for the truth but for arguments that justify their beliefs or their actions.

Counteracting biases, however, is extremely difficult because it requires conscious self-control, which is literally in very limited supply. Studies show that just making a mundane decision can deplete willpower. If we manage not to take a bite from that scrumptious-looking cake, we will diminish our ability to accomplish other tasks that require self-regulation and executive control, such as interacting with people who think differently or who reject our beliefs. Modern life, alas, is filled with mundane decisions. As the number of options in life grows, so do the opportunities for conflict, requiring self-regulation and delay in the gratification of many needs and desires. This is why some consider self-regulation failure “the major social pathology of our time.”

There is, however, an assortment of cognitive tools developed by scientists in recent years that could help us devise realistic strategies. For example, because willpower is a limited resource, we should use it sparingly by focusing our attention where it really matters. If we know, for example, that we will not be able to resist a bite from that cake, we should move on. Psychologist Walter Mischel refers to this as the “strategic allocation of attention.” This is not just a useful cognitive skill for dieters, but it seems to be a core part of success in the real world. It is, Mischel argues, the skill underlying self-control. Working with underprivileged kids, Mischel found that he could teach them a set of mental tricks that could dramatically improve their self-control. “Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts,” he declares, “you can really begin to increase it.”

The fact that mental traps share a common structure means that we can draw from the same cognitive tool kit to solve a wide variety of problems. Self-control is needed not only to change our thinking habits but also our eating and exercise habits. It is then important that we all have access to the best tools available. They are too valuable to be reserved for science alone. We may not find all of them practical or useful, which means we should select the ones that better fit our own situation and context. Just as with any tools, we need to apply them in real life to become proficient in their use. We should be able to improve and refine our cognitive tool kit as we put it to the test and as new “designs” and improvements become available.

Another crucial aspect of mental traps is the role of external influences in keeping them alive and well. We saw how easily our minds can be manipulated by the marketing media to act against our own self-interest. With little effort, people are swayed to consume foods they don’t really need or that can be harmful to their health. The young and the uneducated are especially vulnerable. Likewise, people with a low tolerance for ambiguity and complexity and a preference for simple answers are easy prey to fundamentalists and demagogues (and pundits). This is another reason people congregate into their separate bubbles. While the government may be able to enact regulations to diminish exposure of vulnerable groups to addictive substances, not much can (or should) be done in a democratic society to limit freedom of speech, even if it is nonsense.

There are many lessons to be drawn from all this, although the most important is probably that we should stop being impulsive buyers and learn to be savvy consumers not only of material goods but also of ideas and information. We should be skeptical and ready to question the motivation and veracity of any assertion made by public figures, even those we respect or consider to be experts. This means we need to monitor expert testimony as best as we nonexperts can and learn the means to separate the bogus from the genuine. It also means that we should learn how to cope with uncertainty and complexity, and distrust overly simplistic solutions to complex problems. To paraphrase H.L. Mencken, for every problem there is a solution that is simple, clean, and wrong.

While these proposals are meant to help a person “escape” mental traps, they should in fact be part of any modern college curriculum. Indeed, the only way our society at large will be able to overcome mental traps is if a critical mass of citizens is provided with the information and tools needed to escape them. This means that we will need to rely on our educational system to do the heavy lifting. Unfortunately, in their current state, our institutions are not up to the task: they are handicapped by outdated practices and traditions and by a dearth of financial resources. Nonetheless, given what is at stake, it is imperative that our society have the capacity to prepare its citizens for the challenges ahead. The fact that our society is highly polarized and is in the midst of a severe economic recession makes these changes even more urgent.

To Conclude

Mental traps are pervasive and afflict developing as well as developed countries. Furthermore, they may be behind our current political dysfunction, which means we will need to overcome them if we want to mobilize our democratic society to deal with its most urgent problems. Escaping their powerful pull, however, is not going to be easy. It will require that the majority of citizens overcome their biases and cognitive limitations, which may by achieved only by endowing them with the information and tools needed to navigate an increasingly complex multicultural society. This in turn will require revamping the educational system, which in its current state is ill-prepared to deal with these challenges. The best proof that our educational institutions and methods are succeeding will be if they are able to entice people to step out of their bubbles and start collaborating with their fellow citizens to solve the gigantic problems we all face. If not, we should keep trying until we get it right. Our lives may depend on it.


Hector F. Sierra

Hector F. Sierra is a former development economist of the World Bank and a former board member of the Center for Inquiry. He is currently a consultant for the Treasury of the World Bank.

  The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed. —Attributed to William F. Gibson Many people are convinced that the end of the world is nigh—even aft er the failure of predictions in 2012 based on the Mayan calendar—due to what they believe is stated in the Book of Revelation. To be sure, …

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