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APPENDIX III : Self-Consciousness in Debilitating Decisions

 

Dialectical Shuttles

Self-consciousness can create a situation where a decision maker does not know how to act because to make the best decision depends upon knowing another person’s state of mind. The decision maker is trying to evaluate the other person’s motives and thoughts to determine probable action so that he can formulate a response. This situation is a composite of contradictory purposes at different levels. Without reading another’s mind, it is impossible to know upon which level of thought the action will be decided. Therefore, it is impossible to make an intelligent decision in response.

We call this type of situation a “dialectical shuttle”. The tentative conclusion shifts back and forth between opposite points of view like a shuttle. Each swing of the reasoning process moves thought to a deeper level. Ignorant of the other person’s thinking, the decision maker does not know where this process should stop. His conclusion is therefore tentative and unsure. The decision is made by an assessment of probabilities or “gut feeling” rather than by calculations made with assurance. That is why life in contemporary human societies can be quite complicated. The choices needing to be made reflect dialectical processes at work.

The following situations illustrate dialectical shuttles. The first four are based on actual cases although the reasoning process is imagined; the remaining ones are hypothetical. Each situation features the point of view of the person who goes through the reasoning process - “the decision maker” - and of another person whose thoughts are surmised - “the adversary”. Only the “adversary” can say with certainty where the truth lies.

Situation #1

Decision maker: General Erwin Rommel, Commander of German troops in Europe
Adversary: General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Allied Supreme Commander in Europe

The situation: The German army is expecting Allied forces from Britain to land on the coast of northern France in late May or early June 1944 in order to open a second front in World War II. General Rommel is charged with defending Germany’s “Festung Europa” against the expected attack. The element of surprise will play an important part in the outcome. It would help Rommel to know where the Allies will land so that he can concentrate his defenses at that point instead of spreading them out along the entire coastline. Where should he expect the attack? The General thinks to himself, in successive stages:

1. The most logical place would be in the vicinity of Calais. Here the distance between England and France is about twenty-five miles. The Allies could quickly transport their troops across the English Channel and strike a damaging blow before we realized what was happening. The only way to defend against such an attack would be to concentrate our forces heavily in this area.

2. No, General Eisenhower surely knows that we would be expecting the invasion to take place near Calais. The element of surprise would give him a greater advantage in the attack than the speed in bringing troops across the sea. Therefore, it is likely that the Allies will pick another location along the French (or Belgian or Dutch) coast which is somewhat more distant from England but not so much as to increase transport time significantly if our defenses are light. We can foil this strategy if we position our troops in several places besides Calais from which we could quickly rush them to the precise location of the attack once it materializes. How about Cherbourg, Le Havre, Boulogne, and Oostende?

3. Actually, it is reasonable to expect the Allies to know that we would not be so foolish as to station the bulk of our troops at Calais. Also, their spies and reconnaissance flights could easily detect the scattering of our troops among these various other locations. In that case, they might decide to strike at Calais. Not only could they strike more quickly but the element of surprise would be in their favor. That combination of advantages could finish us off. Better play it safe and choose the most logical place to invade, which is Calais.

4. No, no, no, we do not win battles by playing it safe or being logical but by throwing the enemy off balance. Have the courage to go with your gut feeling that the Allies will strike some place else than at Calais. Back to scattering our defenses between Calais, Oostende, Boulogne, Le Havre, and Cherbourg.

5. What, am I making high-level military decisions on the basis of having to prove my own courage or being illogical enough to confuse the enemy? I have to decide things intelligently - apply reason to the available facts. What facts? Let me sleep on it. Perhaps more definite information will turn up in the morning.

Historical Note: The Allies did strike along the Normandy coast near Cherbourg in the D-Day invasion that took place on June 6, 1944, and were able to establish a beachhead there. It is known that the Germans expected an attack near Calais in part because the Allies had used General George Patton (whom the Germans knew as their most aggressive general) as a decoy. They had given him command of a phantom army stationed near Dover, England, across the Channel from Calais, and used visual subterfuge to make it seem that this army existed. After the successful invasion near Cherbourg, Patton’s command was quickly transferred to a real army, the 3rd Army, which played a leading role in the western assault on Nazi Germany. The success of the Allied invasion in Normandy convinced Rommel that further prosecution of the war was hopeless. Rommel was implicated in a plot against Hitler and he committed suicide in July 1944. Dwight Eisenhower, the top Allied commander, went on to become a two-term President of the United States.

 

Situation #2

Decision maker: Political commentators or the general public
Adversary: former U.S. President Richard M. Nixon

The Situation:

In early 1976, Richard M. Nixon was the pariah of American politics, having resigned the Presidency of the United States under pressure two years earlier. He was a man seemingly without political influence, hated for the “crimes” of Watergate. Yet, Nixon was a man never content to sit on the sidelines of political campaigns. He was a man of devious thinking, called “Tricky Dick” by his detractors. Is it possible that Richard Nixon, despite his unpopularity, played a significant role in influencing the 1976 Presidential election campaign?

In February 1976, Nixon’s hand-picked successor, Gerald Ford, was engaged with Ronald Reagan in a tough fight for the Republican Presidential nomination. The polls showed Reagan slightly ahead in New Hampshire, scene of the first primary in early March. Gerald Ford had been widely criticized for pardoning Nixon in the previous year. Therefore, it came as a shock to many of Ford’s supporters to learn that Richard Nixon had accepted an invitation from Hua Kuo-feng to visit the People’s Republic of China on the fourth anniversary on his initial visit, beginning on February 21st. That meant that during the critical last few weeks before the New Hampshire primary - the single most important event in the nominating process prior to the convention - the newspapers would be full of stories about Nixon’s trip to China, reminding voters of Gerald Ford’s close association with this unpopular man.

What were Nixon’s motives? Was the timing of his trip strictly coincidental - dictated by the terms of Hua’s offer? Even so, Nixon, the astute politician, must have realized that the resulting publicity would have a strong impact, one way or the other, upon Gerald Ford’s chances to win the New Hampshire primary. If those considerations were the least bit important to Nixon, he must have decided to go ahead with the trip deliberately intending to help or hurt his successor in the White House. Which was it?

(1) Richard Nixon was out to hurt President Ford. In early 1976, Nixon was a bitter man. He was angry both with Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger, who had disassociated themselves from him politically. He, Nixon, had made them what they were, and now, in his darkest hour, these two men were turning their backs on him in public. The trip to China offered Nixon a way to get even. His criticism of detente in the toast with Hua Kuo-feng lends credence to that view.

(2) Being an experienced politician, Nixon recognized the “backlash” potential which his unpopularity might have in this campaign. The primary voters in New Hampshire would be too smart to allow him to interfere with Gerald Ford’s campaign. If they did not see through his mischief, then the media commentators would explain it to them. Yes, Nixon could count on his ever-watchful critics in the media to analyze his every move and attribute the most sinister motives to this visit. The voters might then resent Nixon’s ungracious slap at Gerald Ford - who, after all, had pardoned him of criminal wrongdoing - and vote for Ford rather than Reagan. Actually, Nixon was grateful to Gerald Ford for the pardon, he wished his chosen successor well, and he realized that Ford had to disavow him publicly to remain a viable candidate. Therefore, the trip to China was a backhanded way to help Ford, letting his hated media critics create the necessary climate of opinion. Ah, sweet revenge!

(3) “Tricky Dick” may have outsmarted himself this time. There could be a “backlash against the backlash” which would bring public sentiment back to its original position. If the voters in New Hampshire perceived that Nixon was trying to trick them into voting for Gerald Ford, they might decide to vote for Reagan instead. Maybe Nixon himself realized this. He really did want to get back at Ford and Kissinger and help his fellow Californian, Ronald Reagan, who, like him, was facing an uphill battle. Nixon knew that he could count on his relentless media critics to expose his devious support of Gerald Ford and swing the primary vote instead to Reagan.

Historical Note: Where does the truth lie? Perhaps on Level 2. History shows that Gerald Ford won the 1976 Republican Presidential primary in New Hampshire. Reagan had been expected to win, but in the last few days most of the undecided vote swung to Gerald Ford, giving him a narrow margin of victory. No wonder Richard Nixon smiled when reporters, catching up with him in Kweilin province, asked Nixon to comment on criticisms of his trip from the Ford supporters. The old fox had one more “trick” to play on his political opponents before he called it quits.

 

Situation #3

Decision maker: a juror at an accused murderer’s trial
Adversary: Frazier, the defendant

The Situation: Time magazine reported the antics of an accused mass murderer: “Frazier appeared for the hearing with the left side of his head completely shaved, the right side still bearing his beard and long hair. The first suspicion was that Frazier was trying to prove he was crazy. Not so, said Dr. David Marlowe, a University of California psychologist who has interviewed the defendant for a total of 75 hours over the past year, and who testified with Frazier’s consent. Marlowe claimed that Frazier really wants to die in the gas chamber; in an exercise in reverse psychology, he hoped that the court would assume he was deliberately trying to appear unbalanced, would see through the act and refuse to put him in a mental institution.”

A juror might reason as follows:

(1) The defendant is obviously insane. Just look at him - I mean, long hair and beard on the right side; clean-shaven on the left side! He’s obviously unbalanced.

(2) Frazier is faking insanity to avoid the gas chamber. Because the legal case against him is so strong, that’s his only chance to live. To let him trick the court into sending him instead to a mental hospital would be a miscarriage of justice. Convict him!

(3) As Dr. Marlowe suggests, Frazier really wants to die. He realizes that the court will see through this obvious trick, which is really a disguised suicide attempt. Maybe he should be placed in a mental institution.

(4) We can’t take Marlowe’s testimony at face value. After all, he is testifying with Frazier’s consent. He and Frazier may have come to some sort of understanding during the 75 hours of interviews. It is possible that Dr. Marlowe is trying to help Frazier escape the gas chamber. He may have a personal or professional interest in sending him to a mental hospital. Dr. Marlowe’s opinion is practically worthless.

(5) Deep down, Frazier may just be crazy. Anyone who would go through with such an elaborate deception must be desperately unbalanced.

(6) What other choice did he have?

 

Situation #4

Decision maker: a Washington D.C. taxicab driver
Adversary: Senator John F. Kennedy

The Situation: In Democratic Digest, the story is told of a certain Congressional Democrat who declared that, whenever he took a cab, he would tip the driver at least one dollar (a large sum of money in those days) and tell him to “vote Democratic”. John F. Kennedy, then a young U.S. Senator, replied that his habit was to tip the cab driver a dime and tell him to “vote Republican”. Assuming that this joke is factually based, what might the cab driver’s reaction be to receiving the dime tip? He might think to himself:

(1) You cheapskate, you think you can bribe me to vote Republican for a dime? I’m voting Democratic this year.

(2) Well-dressed gentlemen such as this, getting off on Capitol Hill, would not be so thoughtless as to offer a dime to a hard-working cab driver. He must be a Democrat, posing as a Republican. At least, the Republicans are honest. I’m for them.

(3) That Democrat’s got a neat sense of humor. Yes, the Republicans are cheap when it comes to the average working man. He really understands our feelings.

(4) That joke was at my expense. I’ll be laughing all the way to the voting booth.

 

Situation #5

Decision maker: an a administrator with the Federal Aviation Administration
Adversary: possible critics, his own conscience

The Situation: An F.A.A. administrator is trying to decide whether or not to recommend that a lucrative air route be awarded to an airline where he was once employed or to a competing air line. The two proposals seem equally deserving of the award. The administrator thinks over a cup of coffee.

(1) I can’t let my old buddies down at a time like this. I know how much they want that route, and I may have to apply for a job there again some day. I’ll give them the recommendation.

(2) No, the worst thing for me as a public official would be to show favoritism. Even if I have sound, defensible reasons for awarding the route to my former employer, the public will be suspicious of my motives. On the other hand, if I rule in favor of the competitor, no one can accuse me of playing favorites. It’s best to remain above suspicion.

(3) It’s not being fair to my former employer to “lean over backwards” to criticize their proposal when the real reason was to protect my own reputation. My duty is simply to be fair. I might have been overcompensating when I felt inclined to award the air route to the competitor.

(4) How do I know I was overcompensating? I really might be prejudiced. I’d better take another look at the competitor’s proposal before making up my mind.

 

Situation #6

Decision maker: one who must perform in a competition
Adversary: his self-conscious self

The situation: An individual, facing a tough competitive contest, is trying to psych himself to perform better by imagining that he is the “underdog”. He often feels better when he thinks of himself as the underdog, but is not sure in this case. He begins to worry about his own attitude:

(1) It’s obviously better to be the favorite in this contest. I’d be considered more likely to win.

(2) I personally feel more comfortable in the underdog role. The front-runner gives me a target to beat . This way, I feel that I have everything to win and nothing to lose by competing in the event. I can give my best performance in that frame of mind.

(3) If I must always be the underdog, then how could I ever win? To win consistently means, at some point, being willing to acknowledge one’s self as the front-runner. If I won, it would become difficult for me to pretend any more that I was the underdog. Unless I can learn to live with success, my defeatist attitude will prevent successful performance.

(4) If success does spoil performance, I would become, once again, the underdog. I would have a new opportunity to succeed in that role. Why sweat it? Just be the underdog if that is what you want to be.

 

Situation #7

Decision maker: a devout Christian

Adversary: the devilish temptation of pride

The Situation: The devout Christian tries to put Christ first in his life, and himself second. However, he must beware of the temptation to become proud of his own righteousness. One day, a self-torturing Christian stops on the highway to help a stranded motorist. After an hour of tinkering with the engine, he manages to get the car started. Driving away in his own automobile, he thinks to himself:

(1) I’ve really been a “good Samaritan” today. Most Christians talk about helping others. I, on the other hand, perform.

(2) Watch your pride, mister. Jesus said to love others as ourselves. If I truly believed that, then I would not think about helping someone else get his car started any more than about starting my own car. My charitable deed in helping this stranded motorist is nothing compared with what Christ has done for me.

(3) So, what’s wrong with patting myself on the back every once in awhile when I am able to practice my Christian faith. This is simply “positive reinforcement”. We are all human and need to keep our spirits up.

(4) God will provide all the “positive reinforcement” that I need. Mainly, I need to guard against my own egotism and pride.

 

Situation #8

Decision maker: a white American who is uncomfortable with African Americans
Adversary: his own sense of the expected reaction from blacks.

The situation: A white American, who has grown up in an all-white community, is not used to being around African Americans. He is aware that they sometimes accuse people like himself of racial prejudice. He is fearful that he will be seen in that light. How should he act towards an African American whom he might encounter?

(1) His initial reaction might be one of fearfulness, anxiety, and mistrust, which could translate into an outward show of embarrassment, coolness, or hostility toward a black person.

(2) Recognizing these antisocial tendencies within himself, the white person might make a determined effort to overcome the personal barriers between himself and black persons and so defeat racial prejudice. He might act in a conspicuously friendly manner toward blacks, refrain from criticizing them in any situation, and always take their side in political controversies.

(3) If the “friendliness” is too obvious, black people might react negatively to it. It would not seem that this white man cared for them individually but that he was more interested in overcoming his own prejudice or in seeming to do so. Sensing this reaction, the white might move back toward his earlier attitude. He might become deliberately critical of blacks, or feign coolness or indifference toward them, to avoid giving the impression that he was overly eager to accommodate African Americans or was “desperate” to shed the image of racial prejudice.

(4) However, this deliberate coolness or indifference to black people would be just as much a product of prejudice as the overly friendly manner. It, too, needs to be avoided.

 

Situation #9

Decision maker: a business manager
Adversary: an injured secretary

The Situation: A business manager exchanged some sharp words with his secretary on Friday afternoon, which caused her to burst into tears in front of the whole office. Over the weekend, he is thinking how to mend their relationship. He thinks he might bring her a bouquet of flowers to set on her desk Monday morning. What might her reaction be?

(1) The secretary would be pleased to see the flowers. They would signal that her boss was thinking of her and wanted to restore a friendly relationship.

(2) Especially in the context of the situation, the secretary would resent this patronizing gesture. She has worked for this manager for five years and he never brought her flowers before. So it is not a natural act of kindness. Instead, the boss seems to be trying to buy his way out of a tense situation caused by his insensitive behavior Friday afternoon. If the boss really wanted to show his appreciation, he could give the secretary a pay increase rather than a bouquet of flowers worth perhaps $25.

(3) Even if this is a conspicuous and rather patronizing gesture, the secretary thinks, the boss is at least making an effort to become reconciled with me. He is “taking the first step”, even if an imperfect one. That is better than ignoring what happened the week before or pretending that it did not happen.

(4) Still, the pretty bouquet of flowers sitting on her desk would serve only to remind people in the office that there had been a quarrel between the secretary and her boss the week before. Better find a less conspicuous way to make amends.

 

Situation #10

Decision maker: a man approached by a panhandler
Adversary: the panhandler

The Situation: A panhandler approaches a man on the street saying that he is unemployed, hasn’t eaten a meal in two days, and would like a dollar to buy a hamburger at McDonald’s. “Please, sir, could you help me out?” The prospective donor thinks:

(1) This man certainly looks destitute. I don’t know what I would do in his situation. Of course, I could spare a dollar to help relieve his hunger.

(2) The reason that this man is unemployed and hungry - if, indeed, that is the case - is because he spends his time panhandling instead of looking for a job. For all I know, he might spend whatever money I give him on a drink. If I give in to his plea, it will only encourage those unfortunate choices.

(3) It is easy for me to suppose he is an alcoholic or is unemployed because he spends his time panhandling. This man probably gets turned down often. If he really is hungry, the dollar would be well spent in buying him a hamburger. Do I want this thing on my conscience?

(4) I’m a walking illustration of P.T. Barnum’s statement: “There’s a sucker born every minute.” If this man were truly starving, he could always walk down to the Mission to get a free meal.

(5) If he’s not a professional panhandler, maybe he doesn’t know where the Mission is.

 

Situation #11

Decision maker: public opinion
Adversary: some unknown terrorists

The Situation: A bomb explodes in a mid-Manhattan office building in which the Soviet Union maintains a tourist information center. An anonymous caller informs the New York police that the bomb was planted by a militant Jewish group that was protesting Soviet emigration policies. Three persons were killed in the bomb blast. Would this incident help or hurt the emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union?

(1) It might help. The Soviets respond only to direct pressure. This bombing incident would remind them of the intense bitterness and frustration felt by Jews around the world concerning their emigration policies. To avoid future such incidents, the Soviets might relax those policies.

(2) Terrorist activities of this sort would definitely hurt the cause of Jewish emigration. It would harden the Soviets against the terrorists and their cause while also alienating U.S. public opinion. For this reason, it is possible that another group carried out the bombing but blamed it on Jewish militants.

(3) From a publicity standpoint, this bombing is so obviously counterproductive that most people would readily believe the Jewish group’s official denial of responsibility for this incident. It would seem that a group opposed to them, perhaps anti-Semites, was trying to frame them. In that case, public opinion might swing back to the Jewish militants, seeing the vicious tactics of their opponents.

(4) Who knows what individual or group did the bombing? Even if the bomber was anti-Semitic, the militant Jewish group might have contributed to an atmosphere of violence by its uncompromising stance on this and other issues.

(5) But is it fair to penalize a group for a bombing that it did not carry out?

 

Situation #12

The Situation: Between the Soviet KGB and western intelligence agencies, a highly complex web of relationships developed involving several different levels of consciousness. A person who is employed in espionage might be living, for instance, in three separate roles: (1) He might front as a magazine salesman in New York. (2) He might be a Russian spy. (3) He might be a double agent with the American C.I.A. who was reporting on Russian espionage activity in the United States. The C.I.A. would have to worry whether this man might also be a triple agent ultimately reporting to the Russians. The intelligence which this agent transmits at the lower levels will be true or false depending upon its significance at the highest level (or the agent’s deepest role).

Several novels have made effective use of the technique of shifting dramatically between levels of consciousness as a spy’s roles were successively exposed. In John LeCarre’s best-selling novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, these shifts occur as follows:

(1) Most of the book features conversations between the main character, Leamis, and an East German intelligence officer, Fiedler, in which Leamis is telling Fiedler about his earlier career as a British spy. Fiedler thinks that Leamis has switched allegiances because of a bribe. Leamis knows that he has been given instructions by British intelligence in London to pass along false information to Fiedler which might discredit an East German agent, Mundt.

(2) Fiedler gradually catches on to this duplicity. Leamis’ “self-conscious” identity or narrative view becomes completely exposed during Fiedler’s speech at Mundt’s trial.

(3) The situation quickly moves to a deeper level of awareness when Mundt’s attorney, while cross-examining Liz Gold, brings out the fact that Leamis was not just an unhappy, dissipated ex-spy when she knew him. He had a mission. The clincher is that his debts were later paid. Leamis realizes the true situation when he remembers that he had specifically asked British intelligence not to clean up his debts. Therefore, his discrediting could not have been merely Mundt’s doing; London must have had a hand in it, too. Leamis concludes that London wanted Mundt to win in the trial. In the end, Mundt confides to Leamis that he was working for the British. The plot was really to destroy Fiedler so as to protect Mundt.

Dialectical shuttles are amusing. This kind of reasoning could easily drive a person crazy; either that or the person would have to discipline himself to leave a problem in an incomplete or uncertain state of resolution.

The End.

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