Monday, April 7, 2014

What the wonks among us don't get

Yesterday Ezra Klein launched his new media venture Vox. His opening piece of writing is a doosey titled: How Politics Makes Us Stupid.
There’s a simple theory underlying much of American politics. It sits hopefully at the base of almost every speech, every op-ed, every article, and every panel discussion...It’s what we might call the More Information Hypothesis: the belief that many of our most bitter political battles are mere misunderstandings. The cause of these misunderstandings? Too little information...If only the citizenry were more informed, the thinking goes, then there wouldn’t be all this fighting.

It’s a seductive model. It suggests our fellow countrymen aren’t wrong so much as they’re misguided, or ignorant, or — most appealingly — misled by scoundrels from the other party. It holds that our debates are tractable and that the answers to our toughest problems aren’t very controversial at all...

But the More Information Hypothesis isn’t just wrong. It’s backwards. Cutting-edge research shows that the more information partisans get, the deeper their disagreements become.
This one is right up my alley because its something I think about all the time. Perhaps because I spent over 20 years questioning the religious orthodoxy under which I was raised, I am particularly fascinated with our human ability to fool ourselves into maintaining our belief systems in the face of evidence.

Not too long ago I wrote about scientific research that labelled this tendency motivated reasoning.
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...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.
What Klein adds to this discussion is the work of Yale Law Professor Dale Kahan who helps us understand what motivates this emotional response to threatening information.
Kahan calls this theory Identity-Protective Cognition: "As a way of avoiding dissonance and estrangement from valued groups, individuals subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values." Elsewhere, he puts it even more pithily: "What we believe about the facts," he writes, "tells us who we are." And the most important psychological imperative most of us have in a given day is protecting our idea of who we are, and our relationships with the people we trust and love.
I am reminded of something Sarah Robinson wrote about honoring the process of those who abandon an authoritarian mindset.
We must never, ever underestimate what it costs these people to let go of the beliefs that have sustained them. Leaving the safety of the authoritarian belief system is a three-to-five year process. Externally, it always means the loss of your community; and often the loss of jobs, homes, marriages, and blood relatives as well. Internally, it requires sifting through every assumption you've ever made about how the world works, and your place within it; and demands that you finally take the very emotional and intellectual risks that the entire edifice was designed to protect you from. You have to learn, maybe for the first time, to face down fear and live with ambiguity.
That is a daunting task to ask anyone to undertake - and almost impossible to do alone.

In many ways Kahan is right - protecting who we are and our relationship with those we love and trust IS more important than facts and data. As human beings we can't survive without it. That kind of reality leaves a wonk like Ezra Klein pretty despondent as he tries to find a solution to the gulf that separates us.

Its interesting - because my mind immediately went to this:

The answer isn't - as Kahan suggests - a better "science communication strategy." It starts with broadening the definition of "we," expansion of our moral imagination. When we make our circle of concern big enough to include even those we disagree with - facts are no longer a threat to our identity. It is captured by the African concept of Ubuntu.
Mandela understood the ties that bind the human spirit. There is a word in South Africa - Ubuntu – that describes his greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that can be invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us...He not only embodied Ubuntu; he taught millions to find that truth within themselves. It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailor as well; to show that you must trust others so that they may trust you; to teach that reconciliation is not a matter of ignoring a cruel past, but a means of confronting it with inclusion, generosity and truth. He changed laws, but also hearts.


  1. It's easy to stop struggling with the fact that cognitive dissonance plagues the ability to reach understanding and defeat the fear of the other when we do what you have done, Nancy: expand our universe. I think of the way people behave when trying to defend themselves and their belief systems from threats as tribalism. My solution was to expand my tribe. It's exactly in line with that clip from PBO's speech: The United States of America. No matter our differences, we are all Americans. Period.

    Maybe someday, Ezra Klein will learn to embrace the concept of expanding his tribe and start to see that facts are messy and even the left preserves its own set of facts. It isn't about facts and's about people's self-interests. The President knows this, all too well (as you have so brilliantly illustrated at this blog). Ezra would do well to learn that lesson, too. Cognitive dissonance stops being scary then.

    1. On the Myers/Briggs scale of thinking/feeling, Ezra is almost 100% thinking. Its hard for him to grasp that emotional intelligence is as important to understanding/solving these issues as intellectual data. But he's young. A few of life's hard lessons will probably soften that up some day.

    2. The fact that he thinks all this makes us stupid isn't a great starting place. Do life's hard lessons soften up privilege? I haven't been paying close enough attention to notice.

  2. George Lakoff has been trying to have us find the moral core of our beliefs since the 2004 election. You'd be amazed how many people can't do it. One trainer, trying to have us create value structure arguments, noted that the Right has an amazing capacity to do zinger arguments, and we submit 40-page reports. If we don't know the core VALUES of our own work, then we cannot begin to engage with others. Today I had a very wonderful conversation with people with whom I share a lot - but not all. By starting with points of total agreement and where I respect their work, we then could move to the points of disagreement in kindness and willingness to engage in finding solutions. It was not an easy conversation, but it wasn't a hard one either. It led to some openness on personal experiences that actually brought them closer to me. We solved nothing - but we had an open and sometimes funny engagement. Lots of pleasure in securing the ground upon which we all stood and calm discussion of how to navigate the places of disagreement now and in the future. Because we started with common values, the rest was unraveled in peace, compassion, and kindness. This was a discussion between two MAJOR advocacy groups. It was not just personal but organizational. And it worked very well. I will never yield on my values where we disagree, but I can find places where I care about their being able to function even if we don't. Human kindness matters.