The Wisdom to Know the Difference

Two ideas to think about this weekend. Both come from the philosopher William James. I am plodding through his wonderful book, The Varieties of Religious Experience. James was a Boston kid who was so smart Harvard named their social sciences building after him.

The James quotes guide judgment and decision-making. The first quote presages Daniel Kahneman and his influential research on cognitive bias. Cognitive bias is evolutionary. Among our original cognitive biases was and is our fight or flight instinct. This instinct has enabled us to survive as a species for many tens of thousands of years. Cognitive biases are not morally good or bad they just are.

We all have learned biases as well. The culture in which we were formed imbedded such biases deep in our brains. James wants us to manage them so they don’t manage us.

“A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.”

If we don’t pay attention, our brains will come to conclusions based on instinct and previous experience alone. Instinct and experience are critical to good decision-making – indeed keys to survival – but without awareness they can lead us into trouble.

“The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human can alter his life by altering his attitude.”

We control how we feel about things. “Pain is inevitable but misery is optional.” Think of the famous “Serenity Prayer,” written by the American theologian Reinhold Niebhur for American chaplains in WWII.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”

James thinks most of the situations that bug the hell out of us do because of how we react to them. The situation bugs me because of what’s in my mind and brain.

Try to think of the situation that had you upset, angry or anxious two weeks ago today. Odds are that you can’t remember. It felt hugely significant at the time, raising your heart rate, crowding out all else from your mind and spirit, causing adrenaline to surge. But a mere 14 days later and you could not name it if your life depended on it.

A corollary to James is the old saw, “You don’t have to go to very fight you are invited to.” You have to go to some. But in life, especially in the law enforcement field, we get invited to dozens of fights every day. No one “has to” go to all of them, or even most of them.

We want to fight because we decide to, or we let our brains decide to, not because we have no choice.

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About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at www.sergeantsleadership.org. I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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