How is it that in America, the land of the free – where individuality, freedom to pursue one’s happiness and live fully within one’s inalienable rights is the standard–we are settling for a government put in office by a foreign dictator and intent upon removing the rights of American citizens? How could that possibly happen? Why are senators and representatives, FBI agents and Attorney Generals just sitting there doing nothing about it, even though citizens everywhere are screaming for their help? How can American values be so skewed as to allow the government to be run in any way by a foreign dictator? Lets look at willful ignorance and self-deception.

The difference between willful ignorance and true self-deception is subtle, but important. Willful ignorance tends to be more adaptive than self-deception. Willful ignorance is a cognitive strategy that people adopt to promote their emotional well-being, whereas self-deception is less controllable and more likely to be detrimental. Although willful ignorance and self-deception sometimes help individuals to avoid unpleasant facts, in the long run, it is usually better to confront reality than to avoid or deny it. Because the self-deceived person fully believes things that are untrue, they have fewer resources for correcting their course when erroneous beliefs lead them astray.

It happens in the same exact way that it happens in our family systems. The first step is going to sleep at the wheel. What happens when we let someone else take over the wheel of our lives. And why would we tolerate those things?

We live in a society that has long held a secret, pernicious myth that we are not really responsible for our own happiness. That someone else, out there, is responsible for making us happy, free, okay, safe, etc. This makes us susceptible to the abuse of others. This makes it possible for abusers to convince us that we are going to be taken care of, that life is going to be better than ever, because the abuser is going to make that happen for us.

For example, in America, we’ve been given the right to pursue our own happiness.  But what have we done instead? We have pursued our own denial by putting other people in charge of our happiness. We believe that the boss, the husband, the lover, the BFF, the money, the time, the houses, the cars, the lifestyle is finally going to make us happy. We sacrifice our ethics, our time, our money, our most authentic lifestyle, all in the name of making sure we can stay attached to those people who can make us believe that we are safe and that things are okay. We fell asleep at the wheel 3 years ago when we elected Donald Trump, a pathological narcissist as President.

What happens when family members fall asleep at the wheel? Any and all of the following:

  1.  Emotional, verbal, physical, and sexual abuse in our homes.
    2.  Substance dependence and all that comes with it.
    3.  Lies and secrets and all kinds of false and meaningless interactions daily.
    4.  No one in charge does anything to change any of this.
    5.  A gigantic cover-up plan is implemented throughout the system so that no one outside the home notices what’s going on within and the family will look normal.

What happens when a whole nation falls asleep at the wheel?

  1.  Half of America does not vote at all in an election.
    2.  The winner of the vote is not allowed to take office.
    3.  A foreign dictator is allowed to influence the election so profoundly that his choice for office actually takes office.
    4.  No one in government does anything about this outrageous event.
    5.  A giant cover-up plan is implemented so that everyone will just shut-up about it and make it seem normal.

When we go to sleep at the wheel we refuse to take responsibility for our own individual and collective happiness—which involves our own individual and collective safety, health, economy, and peace of mind.  For over 200 years, the American public has voted and then gone back to sleep, thinking that voting was all they had to do, and the rest was up to someone else. We started awakening to reality somewhat in the sixties, but then we just went back to sleep again.

In a family system, the abusers want us to stay asleep. They don’t want us to wake up and call them on their actions. In America, those who have been put in office by a foreign dictator want us to stay asleep.

But each one of us is responsible for his or her own happiness, safety, economy, health, and peace of mind. It’s not up to them. It’s up to us. It’s time for us to WAKE UP.

But what does that mean, exactly? Why is it so very important to hold on to our understanding that these sorts of things are abnormal? What would be lost if we stopped seeing them as abnormal and started seeing them, instead, as simply “bad” or “wrong”?

To get a better understanding of these issues, we can turn to research in cognitive science. Recent studies have taught us a lot about what happens when people classify events as normal or abnormal. The findings have real potential to help us understand what would actually occur if behavior like Trump’s were to be gradually normalized.

Our minds use the normal-abnormal distinction to rule out many options in advance

At the core of this research is a very simple idea: When people are reasoning, they tend to think only about a relatively narrow range of possibilities. You are sitting there in a restaurant, trying to decide what to order. Almost immediately, you determine that you are going to get either the chocolate cake or the cheese plate. You then start to consider the merits and drawbacks of each option. “Should I get the chocolate cake? Nah, too many carbs. Better get the cheese plate.” One important question about human cognition is how people end up choosing one option over the other in a case like this.

But there is another question here that is even more fundamental — so fundamental that it’s easy to overlook. How did you pick out those two options in the first place? After all, there’s an enormous range of other options that would, at least in principle, have been possible. You could have stormed into the kitchen and started eating directly out of the chef’s saucepan. You could have reached under the table and started trying to eat your own shoe. Yet somehow you manage to reject all of these possibilities before the reasoning process even begins. It’s not as though you think, “Should I try to eat my shoe? No, it’s not very tasty, or even edible.” Rather, possibilities like this one never even enter your reasoning at all.

This is where the notion of normality plays its most essential role. Of all the zillions of things that might be possible in principle, your mind is able to zero in on just a few specific possibilities, completely ignoring all the others. One aim of recent research has been to figure out how people do this. Though the research itself has been quite complex, the key conclusion is surprisingly straightforward: People show an impressive systematic tendency to completely ignore the possibilities they see as abnormal.

We make use of the normal-abnormal distinction when thinking about causality Joshua Knobe is a professor of cognitive science and philosophy at Yale University. He is a co-editor of the book Experimental Philosophy. He wrote:

Although researchers have developed numerous methods for studying the way people think about possibilities, one of the most popular is just to look in detail at the way they use the word “cause.” This sort of research might at first seem a bit far removed from any question of real importance, but it actually serves as a valuable indirect method for figuring out which possibilities people consider and which they ignore.

People consider the range of causes for an occurrence much as they weigh the dining options at a restaurant: with a built-in selectivity. For example, suppose a person lights a match and carelessly drops it on the ground, and a forest fire begins. Now take the sentence, “The lit match caused the forest fire.” If you are like most people, you will think this sentence sounds about right (even if it doesn’t tell the whole story).

Of course, the sentence does not itself mention any alternative possibilities, but most researchers think it gives us an important clue about which possibilities people are considering. In particular, it suggests that people are thinking something along the lines of: If the person hadn’t carelessly dropped the lit match, the forest fire would not have occurred.

Okay, now consider a different case. Start with the same story. Person drops match, forest fire starts. But this time, take a different sentence: “The presence of oxygen in the atmosphere caused the fire.” If you are like most people, you will think this sentence sounds very wrong. But why? On some level, the two cases are completely parallel. After all, you would surely agree on reflection that If there hadn’t been any oxygen in the atmosphere, the forest fire would not have occurred.

Yet there is a deeper respect in which this second case is completely different. The difference is that most people would never consider possibilities in which there is literally no oxygen in the atmosphere. These possibilities seem outlandish, preposterous, not even worth entertaining.

In short, just by looking at the fact that people agree with certain sentences, we can get valuable clues about which possibilities they are considering. There have now been a whole slew of different studies using this method, and although some controversy remains about how to interpret the results, the overall pattern seems to be pointing toward an important and very general conclusion: People appear to have a systematic tendency to focus on the possibilities they see as normal and to ignore the ones they see as abnormal.

So, for example, a situation in which there is no oxygen in the atmosphere is seen as “abnormal,” and for the sake of cognitive efficiency, the mind gives it zero consideration.

Once an option is recategorized as “normal,” people are more likely to choose it

There is a corollary to this finding: If people’s ideas about what is normal and abnormal change, that can cause changes in the possibilities they consider — and even the actions they take.

Trump’s rhetoric may be shifting the boundaries of what the American polity will consider

This framework now makes it possible to understand the difference between seeing Trump’s behavior as bad and seeing it as abnormal. When we see something as bad, we feel there are specific reasons not to move forward with it. This is the attitude that liberals typically take toward tax cuts. They think people should think critically about fiscal policy, see what is bad or wrong about tax cuts, and then fight to resist them.

But this does not seem to be an appropriate response to the sorts of things Trump has been doing. When a candidate faces a challenge from a college student, we do not want the candidate to be thinking: “Should I start tweeting out insults about her? No, that would be bad because…” On the contrary, if we get to the point where candidates are thinking about whether behavior like this would be good or bad, things have already gone too far. This is the sort of possibility that should be ruled out before the process of considering different options has even begun.

And it’s not just a matter of a few inappropriate tweets. Once-unthinkable policies, such as new laws to constrain the press, or a federal registry of Muslims, are now being placed in the category of the “thinkable.” Of course, many people still believe these policies are deeply wrong, but all the same, it can hardly be denied that people are considering them. These are policies that would at one time have been regarded as completely outside the sphere of possibility.

It has become something of a cliché to blame the media for these developments. The usual suggestion is that if only the press had been more strident in its condemnation, Trump’s behavior could never have been fully “normalized.” This cliché gets everything wrong. The sign in the park included a vigorous denunciation of theft, but it nonetheless served to normalize the very behavior it was denouncing. Likewise, no matter how frequently and loudly we insist that what Trump is doing is wrong, we normalize his behavior just by letting people know about it.

The park found a simple solution to its problem. It removed the sign and thereby stopped informing people about the prevalence of theft. The trouble is that there is no hope at all of adopting an analogous solution in the case of Trump’s behavior. Trump is our president, and there is no real way we can refrain from informing people about the things he does. Whatever else we might decide to do, we can’t just agree to stop talking about him.   He is not normal!

In Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril (public library), serial entrepreneur and author Margaret Heffernan examines the intricate, pervasive cognitive and emotional mechanisms by which we choose, sometimes consciously but mostly not, to remain unseeing in situations where “we could know, and should know, but don’t know because it makes us feel better not to know.” We do that, Heffernan argues and illustrates through a multitude of case studies ranging from dictatorships to disastrous love affairs to Bernie Madoff, because “the more tightly we focus, the more we leave out” — or, as cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz put it in her remarkable exploration of exactly what we leave out in our daily lives, because “attention is an intentional, unapologetic discriminator.”