Thursday, June 20, 2013

Avoiding the poutrage

Chris Mooney explains:
...when we think we’re reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing. Or to use an analogy offered by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt: We may think we’re being scientists, but we’re actually being lawyers. Our “reasoning” is a means to a predetermined end—winning our “case”—and is shot through with biases. They include “confirmation bias,” in which we give greater heed to evidence and arguments that bolster our beliefs, and “disconfirmation bias,” in which we expend disproportionate energy trying to debunk or refute views and arguments that we find uncongenial.
Liberals like to illustrate this by pointing to conservatives who are climate change deniers in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence. But this particular quote from Mooney's description can't help but remind us of certain lawyers-turned-ideologues on the left who demonstrate their capacity for what he calls motivated reasoning. If those ideologues close themselves off from challenges (ie, block people who disagree with them or attack them personally rather than engage their arguments), that kind of "reasoning" leads to what Julian Sanchez calls epistemic closure.

But before we get up on our high horse about this, its important to remember that this isn't something that only affects "those people." We all do it to some is the human condition.
The theory of motivated reasoning builds on a key insight of modern neuroscience: Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion (or what researchers often call “affect”). Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds—fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before we’re aware of it. That shouldn’t be surprising: Evolution required us to react very quickly to stimuli in our environment. It’s a “basic human survival skill,” explains political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan. We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.
The truth is, the only way we can ensure that we're fighting off motivated reasoning is to recognize that its our natural instinct and work against it by choosing to expose ourselves to "threatening information" and allowing the questions to surface.

One of the sure "tells" that someone is trying to engage you in motivated reasoning is if they are always attempting to gin up your emotional response - its why the term "poutrage"was invented. And its exactly why so many people on the left react negatively to "no drama Obama." Unfortunately, that seems to be what a lot of our new media excels at doing.

Don't get me wrong, anger and passion are essential tools in motivating people to change...they help us identify the problems. But they are not much use when it comes to reasoning out solutions. As a matter of fact, they often disguise themselves as reasoning and lead us to what Stephen Colbert so prophetically called truthiness.

Whenever I think about this I go back to something Nezua wrote a few years ago about the dangers of being sure. is not like a series of books in a course on anything. It fluctuates. We fluctuate. We are not a being, but a becoming, as Friedrich once said. And sometimes ideas are hammered out and we draw lines and walls and are told we fall on one side or the other and so do our thoughts and so does all that follows from them...and so it goes. We buy into these illusory borders, too...

I am far more comfortable navigating the in-between than I am in any Place. I like no thing as much as the coming and going from one to another. It is on the purpling beaches of dusk and the roseing gauze of dawn that my true eye shines lidless and I see so much more than in broad daylight. In the falling away of my tired husk I remember my shape can only be held temporarily. And to cling too tightly to it is to rot.

Being sure is but the borderwall we place around a heart to ward off the skinstripping wind of the next living moment.


  1. I absolutely love this post!

    The thing is that emotions are powerful things. They need to be dealt with and processed.

    However, there will always come a time when you must reason out what's the next step.

    For me, it's not either or. Both emotion and logic have their place in humanity. And they don't have to be enemies.

    Thanks again!

    1. Absolutely right nabsentia23 - its not either/or.

      When we avoid our feelings, they disguise themselves as "truthiness."

    2. Damn right!

      I love Stephen Colbert! I've always followed comedy, but Colbert was the one comedian who fascinated me enough to stick around. Colbert is one of those rare people who, "helped me see the light."

      I send my sincere condolences to him as well as my continued admiration and respect. He makes a fool of himself 4 days a week so hopefully we can see the intelligence and the foolishness within ourselves.

  2. A fool without a doubt is a fool, without a doubt.

    1. :-) I like that. Is that a Lockewasright original?

    2. Honestly, I can't recall. I have had that one rolling around in my head since early in the George Dubya era. I googled it to see if anyone else is credited with it. I couldn't even find the phrase in use anywhere. It certainly seems like the sort of thing that I would say.

  3. One of the big gulfs on the Left is between those of us who do policy research and advocacy and those who do not. I put anyone who reads deeply and well into the former category, but overall we who have to pitch a case to create policy changes tend to see things quite differently from those who get their information from opinion sources. That is the difference between Lawrence O'Donnell, a former Congressional staff person, and Ed Schultz who is not.

    You can tell the difference fairly easily by what is cited by someone. Do they point you to documents and data or to other opinions and critiques that are undocumented to start? In the NDAA "they're coming for us all" meme, those who posted the language of the bill showing that was not true were ignored by those who read only OTHER 'they're coming to take us away ha ha" screed. But anyone can read the language and see the truth. So vetting your own sources is important. I am not fond of Randi Rhodes as a commentator but WOW I respect her sourcing! I am fond of Rachel Maddow, but sometimes... MOST of the time she can cite chapter and verse, and I find I disagree with her when I've done the research - and she has not.

    OK - I sound like your high school civics teacher but honestly, vetting facts the only way to make good decisions.

    1. You are so right, Churchlady.

      Don't worry about sounding like a high school civics teacher. They really need to bring civics back to the schools. And it should be taught in a way that engages the students instead of just plain lecture.

      Maybe future high school students can re-enact the Debt Ceiling fiasco of 2011? Or the Monica Lewinsky/Bill Clinton affair? Or the voting in support of AUMF and Gitmo? Or the Iran-Contra Hearings? Heavens know that the last 30 years of American politics have been frustrating, yet interesting at the same time. I always like historical re-enactments in school. I learned a little more from then than just a lecture.

      One of the reasons why I tuned out my high school civics teacher was because she was so boring and a dingbat to boot. But, I digress. Thank goodness my college Poly Sci professors were a lot more interesting. Ha!

  4. I wrote in a post a few months ago that when outrage is all you have, you're not going to get much done. Outrage is good to get the boat in the water; but you still have to navigate, not go around in circles. Poutragers think getting in the water is all that matters; they don't realize that they're lost on the sea.

  5. All I can say is "thank you" to YOU and all of the responders. You are awesome!

  6. This is why I usually take a wait and see position before jumping off a cliff when some new piece of information emerges. I learned a long time ago that it's best to have as much evidence as you can before making a decision. I avoid the poutragers like 14th and 15th Century Europeans avoided the bubonic plague. If you allow yourself to be swayed by them, you'll usually regret it. Allowing one's emotions to make your decisions for you is a bad way to address any issue.