How We Disregard What We Know

How is it that we can act in disregard of what we know?  It must be one manifestation of what psychologist Robert Ornstein calls, “Multimind” (

A stark example of acting in disregard of what one knows comes from “Plan of Attack,” journalist Bob Woodward’s 2004 book about how the U.S.A got into the Iraq war.  Woodward describes a memo which then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld prepared for then president George W. Bush, early in the tenure of the new administration.

“Two months into the job,” Woodward writes, “Rumsfeld drafted a three page memo called, ‘Guidelines for Consideration When Committing U.S. Forces.’  He took the fourth revision to the president and went over it in detail.  It was a series of questions to be addressed:  ‘Is a proposed action truly necessary?’  ‘Is the proposed action achievable?’  ‘Is it worth it?’

“Rumsfeld argued for being clear-eyed,” Woodward continues.  “One passage foreshadowed problems to come:  ‘In fashioning a clear statement of the underpinning for the action, avoid arguments of convenience.  They can be useful at the outset to gain support, but they will be deadly later.’  He also had written:  ‘U.S. leadership must be brutally honest with itself, the Congress, the public and coalition partners.’  And he added, “It is a great deal easier to get into something than it is to get out of it!'”

Despite this knowledge, U. S. forces were committed in Iraq with no other plan than to decapitate the Iraqi government, in the expectation that the U.S.A. would get in and out easily.  The invasion was justified with the convenient argument of WMD–notwithstanding the preponderance of evidence to the contrary.

Between the writing of the memo and the Iraq war, the nation had been attacked, and the neocon culture had become ascendent in Washington, D.C..  Surely there are reasons why we disregard our knowledge.  Social psychology has accumulated an impressive record of experiments in which people act in disregard of what they know, and leaders are no more immune to such influences than anyone else.

Humanity has to learn this lesson, of being mindful of what we know, over and over.  At the individual level, the lesson is learned and re-learned, one person at a time, in each of our lives.  I’ve often referred to my office as the “room of reflection,” where my clients often reflect on how they’ve disregarded what they know, as they work on being truer to themselves.  It makes neuroscientific sense to suppose that such work consists of improving, and growing better connections between, the perceptive, affective (emotional) and executive modules and neural networks of the brain.