Q: Dr. Hurd, can you please explain the psychology of “gotcha”? By this I mean the type of person who’s always ready to point out something you did wrong, or may have done wrong. I see it in the newspapers, in the media, but also in daily life.

A: “Gotcha” refers to the idea that catching a person in an error is an end in itself.

To the “gotcha” mentality, it’s not objectivity or truth that matters — or if it does, it’s secondary. The “gotcha” person wants to feel superior. The way to feel superior is to prove you wrong. The underlying psychology of it all, if it could speak, would say: “If I prove you wrong, then I’m smarter than you. I have to find out where you’re wrong, so I’ll be perceived as smart, by you or by others. If I’m perceived as smart, then I’m smart.”

Notice how the “gotcha” personality doesn’t take reality and truth to be objective. Instead, knowledge and intelligence are a matter of approval. This is the sort of person who worms his way into the approval of the most “in” or popular crowd, irrespective of the intelligence or character the members of that crowd individually possess.

Although I ultimately maintain that human beings possess free will and free choice, I do blame a lot of this on education as we know it. Instead of teaching children how to gain objective knowledge, the primary purpose of education is seen as teaching children how to “socialize” with others. If Johnny can’t read  or think, you might or might not get a call from his teacher. But if he’s not making a lot of friends, alarm bells go off all over the place. Children are taught to “think” in classroom or group discussion contexts. This implies the message, at a very early and vulnerable age, that knowledge is what the group-as-a-whole claims it to be. How many times do adults even remark, “What this or that authority says makes no sense to me. But I didn’t want to be the one to say anything.” Is it any wonder we end up with a President Bush or a President Obama? How else could such nitwits inhabit the Oval Office once held by Jefferson, Madison and Washington? Or what about the people who say, “I didn’t follow what you were saying, but I was afraid to ask. I didn’t want to appear foolish.” So let me get this straight: It’s foolish to increase your knowledge and understanding about something important to you, and it’s wise to look cool and smart even when you’re not? This is the sort of idiocy that only group-oriented education could generate, especially in nationalized public schools where group-oriented thinking is not only encouraged, but institutionalized. (This is also how we got “President Obama,” who rose to power on coolness, not substance or experience of any kind.)

“Gotcha” is a neurosis or sickness that springs from an insecurity. The insecurity is always rooted in the lack of confidence in one’s own mind, and the objectivity of knowledge itself. The “objectivity of knowledge” is not merely some high-minded concept, relevant only to intellectuals. It applies to anyone who confronts choices and dilemmas in daily life, at work or in personal life. Acceptance that truth is derived from logic (not popularity) results in a willingness to reason with one’s boss, one’s employees, one’s spouse, one’s kids or one’s friends and family. The willingness to reason stems  from a confidence in the power of reason, persuasion, facts and knowledge to illuminate rational conclusions about events in daily life. This confidence ought to be developed in childhood, and at school, but it’s not.

I’ve read that the “gotcha” mentality is prevalent in the politics of Washington DC, whether it’s a liberal or a conservative in charge of the establishment. Everyone is looking for the slightest thing to discredit a person’s intelligence or skill. The problem is much more widespread than that. Of course you see it in Washington, because everyone there, from the President on down, was trained in the same basic form of education: the group-think model. Very few alternative models are available. The only major one I’m aware of is the educational model of Marie Montessori, whose underlying approach to education was helping the individual learn objective truth at his or her own pace. There may be other methods, and just because someone claims to be utilizing Montessori methods doesn’t mean they’re doing so. Likewise, some children endure and intellectually survive conventional schools with their minds intact, because they somehow absorbed some notion of common sense and objectivity that overrode the group-think. Children are no different from adults in that there are varying levels of intelligence and psychological independence among them. The independent and the brightest always tend to survive intact, no matter what is done to them. But cultures rise or fall not only on the best and brightest, but also on the majority trends. The majority trends in American society are in the direction of group-think, which in practice means the ignorance, naivetand even stupidity of mob rule. The best and the brightest cannot survive if swallowed up or otherwise put down by the mediocre impulses of those raised in group-think.

A respect for knowledge, objectivity and rationality is the antidote to “gotcha.” Reasonable people see errors, and aren’t afraid to say so. But they point out errors in the language of reason. They have no need for sarcasm or anger. They have no neurotic, irrational need to feel superior. They don’t want victory; they just want the truth.