Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Laureate cognitive psychologist, has empirically demonstrated that relying on our own intuition leads to a flawed understanding of the objective world. Kahneman recommends consulting with statistical evidence before making decisions that may be intuitively flawed. Nassim Taleb, cognitive philosopher, illustrates, in “The Black Swan” that an over-reliance on these self-same statistics impairs one’s view of reality. Specifically, he critiques the financial sector’s reliance on past data, neatly placed under a Gaussian Curve, to extrapolate future events.
Hence it may boil down to a psychological appreciation of what influences the mind to retreat from reality; whether it is a retreat into our flawed intuitions (Kahneman) or statistical data (Taleb). Lewis Mumford articulated Taleb’s idea in the following summation:
“[t]hose who use machinery because they are incapable of facing the stream of life and directing it, those who seek order in automatons because they lack the discipline and courage to achieve order in themselves, become the victims of their instruments and end by becoming mere attachments to a mechanical contrivance.” LEWIS MUMFORD, CITY DEVELOPMENT: STUDIES IN DISINTEGRATION AND RENEWAL 46 (Harcourt, Brace and Company 1945).
In my opinion, Freud, offers the most compelling psychological explanation of the retreat from reality. The repression of our Darwinian impulses ultimately leads to their perverse manifestations, the most salient and omnipresent of which is a flawed understanding of objective reality.
In summary, individuals make the rational choice to retreat from reality rather than facing it (note, I employ “retreat” and “face” to provide a clear juxtaposition though they do suggest a certain bravado, it is unintended and please disregard it). However, retreating from reality is detrimental in two significant ways: 1) it forces one to repress our Darwinian instincts which lead to their perverse manifestation and; 2) it does not offer the cathartic effects of facing reality.
I do want to avoid categorization as an ill-tempered Nietzschean; perhaps the following example will help to distill these inferences.
Steve’s boss yells at him for breaking the copying machine; a defunct, antiquated machine that broke through no fault of anyone. Steve’s primordial impulse maybe to strike his boss; and while social constraints dictate that he not do so –he is in no sense prohibited from doing fifty push ups in the bathroom or taking a run on his lunch break. Steve will receive a catharsis from the expurgation of the stress hormones that were released when his boss berated him. Steve, in this sense, has faced reality.
Steve could have chosen to do nothing and stew in his cubicle; and in his own hormones, most notably Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) which stimulates the release of cortisone, a hormone released in response to the sympathetic nervous system’s (popularly known as fight or flight) response to perceived environmental threats. Cortisone has the beneficial effects of increasing blood pressure and providing short term pain relief; however, excess levels thereof, hypercorticalism has been associated with depression. Symptoms of depression vary, but one of the most common is mental lethargy. Thus, a retreat from reality creates an impediment to comprehension of the objective world.
I agree with Hume’s dictum, “that reason must always be slave to the passions.” However, we are able to cognize this fact and rationally circumvent it –to an extent at least, as the example of Steve demonstrates.