Ezra Klein had a great rundown yesterday on a psychological phenomenon called motivated skepticism:
On the simplest level, American politics presents us with an incentives problem: McConnell — like most minority leaders — is an avowedly reflexive opponent of the president’s reelection. The president’s reelection campaign depends on an improved economy. That a rational actor working inside the system’s rules might prefer — and even be able to bring about — a weak economy should scare us, even if we don’t believe they’ll purposefully try and do it.
In part, that’s because the word “purposefully” doesn’t offer as much protection as we might wish. Humans have a funny way of following their incentives even when they don’t realize that’s what they’re doing. McConnell doesn’t have to believe he’s hurting the economy in order to hurt the economy. Rather, if the incentives and distortions of heated partisanship leave powerful actors like McConnell unable to partner with the White House to help the economy recover, that in itself could do damage to the economy, particularly amid divided government (indeed, there’s some evidence that the economy performs better under unified government). And McConnell could easily do that while believing everything he’s doing is meant to help the economy.
Psychologists call the mechanism behind this “motivated skepticism.” When we’re faced with information or ideas that accord with our preexisting beliefs about the world, we accept them easily. When the ideas and information cut against our beliefs, however, we interrogate them harshly, subjecting them to endless scrutiny and a long search for contrary evidence which, when found, we accept uncritically.
This concept seems pretty fundamental to understanding why people hold and advocate the beliefs they do. Yet so often our speculation about the motives of partisans and advocates gets reduced to who really believes what they’re saying and who’s a pure snake oil salesman. The reality is a whole lot messier than that: I don’t think Glenn Beck is trying to pull one over on his audience when he tells them to invest in gold, but Goldline advertising dollars wouldn’t exactly incline anyone to be more skeptical of gold’s value. Similarly, those on the left who expressed outrage at the Bush administration’s civil liberties abuses yet remain silent through Obama’s aren’t opportunists indifferent to the horrors of torture and indefinite detention. It’s just significantly harder to accuse someone whose success you feel invested in a war criminal.
Understanding how motivated skepticism affects your opponents’ positions is important. But I’d argue it’s even more important to be aware of how it affects your own positions. For example: Much of the time I’m a fairly predictable orthodox liberal. (You might have noticed.) My career path and social milieu, among other things, are both very strong incentives to adhere to orthodox liberalism as much as possible. Knowing that, I try as best I can to factor it into my understanding of policy matters. That means reconstructing conservative arguments own my own as best I can to make sure that I’m representing them to myself accurately, and treating liberal arguments with just as much skepticism, if not more.
At least, that’s the standard I try to hold myself to. We’re not really built to do that, but it seems to me like making the attempt to compensate for these cognitive biases is often the definition of good faith engagement..
Semi-related: You know what’s a great blog? You Are Not So Smart.