Dealing With Political Blind Spots

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.

Dealing With Political Blind Spots
Please do be so kind as to share this post.
Share

25 thoughts on “Dealing With Political Blind Spots

  1. On one hand, this psychological understanding of opposition contains some truth, but on the other hand, relying too much on this explanation can cause another psychological problem — denial — all opposition can be dismissed, explained psychologically as blind partisanship, some underlying motivation of which the opposition is not competely aware, so that what’s being opposed isn’t judged properly, thus blocking insight and the opportunity to change when wrong. You are right in how you approach the issues, objectively assessing each side of an argument.

    A correction — Beck doesn’t encourage his listeners to “invest” in gold — he tells them gold is not a good investment, but that he buys it as insurance — he tells his listeners over and over to do their homework on gold, and that it could go down at any time, altough it’s gone up over the past few years.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • I’d quibble slightly with your characterization of both my method and your characterization of Beck’s sales pitch. I think looking at arguments truly objectively is sort of a lost cause — the next best thing is a sort of intersubjectivity, which is what I’m advocating here.

      As for Beck, he uses the “do your own homework” line frequently as a way of dodge responsibility for what he’s really advocating. A quick aside about how he’s not actually encouraging you to buy a bunch of gold doesn’t mean much if it’s couched between wild speculation about dollar inflation, the future price of gold, and claims that he’s bought a lot of gold on his own. It certainly sounds like an endorsement. Though perhaps I should have said “encourages his audience to invest in gold” as opposed to tells them to.

        Quote  Link

      Report

          • I think Ned’s point is that it’s impossible to act without bias. The human brain has a plethora of biases hard-wired into it and most of them we aren’t even aware of.

            The best one can do is be aware of one’s own biases and try to give extra scepticism to ideas one is biased toward, and extra charity to ideas one is biased against.

              Quote  Link

            Report

            • Bias is hard-wired in? Can you provide the proof for this. Bias is not hard-wired into the brain — that doesn’t even make sense — the brain doesn’t even know the issues until there’s experience and value-judgement are formed, but value-judements can be re-evaluated — people do it all the time.

                Quote  Link

              Report

              • We aren’t computers programed to think a certain way — we can be, if we never take responsibility for the nurturing of our minds, and we never boter to develope our own ideas about life – but we aren’t hopelessly hard-wired by something external to our own minds. If we are, then all his chatter is useless.

                  Quote  Link

                Report

              • I can’t condense my knowledge of Behavioural Economics into a blog post, but there is clear evidence that human brains process information quite badly under certain conditions. Here’s a quick reference.

                And just because bias is hard wired in doesn’t mean we can’t fight it. We can, as you say, revise our opinions. Certain type of education can diminish some biases too, for instance a knowledge of statistics can partially protect people from a number of biases around uncertainty. We are wired with bases, but the brain can be re-wired, to an extent.

                However, while we can fight bias and make gains against it, we can’t decisively win. Short of completely redesigning the human brain bias will always be with us. It’s important to remember that because we can’t try to mitigate our bias if we think we have triumphed over them.

                  Quote  Link

                Report

        • I’ve listened to the same episodes, and what I’m saying is that the difference is primarily semantic. Beck talks about how he’s purchased gold and presents misleading information that all strongly recommend gold as an investment for the future. I’ll concede I shouldn’t have said that he explicitly tells his audience to go out and buy gold, but he certainly weights his show in favor of making that decision.

            Quote  Link

          Report

          • what misleading information? He not only doesn’t tell them to buy gold, he tells them gold should not be bought as an investment. There’s nothing wrong with advertising gold — I’ve never heard Beck say anything to fool people about gold — never. I’m sorry — I’m not a Beck apologists, but right is right, and what you have said is incorrect.

              Quote  Link

            Report

                • Record low inflation over the past couple of years doesn’t back him, though. Let’s bracket the question of what Beck believes — you can see how, when he’s getting advertising dollars from Goldline, I might at least partially attribute his claims to motivated skepticism, yes?

                    Quote  Link

                  Report

                  • So, you think Beck started buying gold 4 years ago, got a tv program and Goldline bought advertisement all in a plan to get people to buy gold and make himself rich? You are getting into conspiracy territory. Beck discloses his relationship to buying gold — he takes pains to explain he’s not recommending gold as an investment, but that he’s been buying it as insurance in case inflation takes off — why do you think gold is rising in price –because of Beck? Soros is buying gold — people are not stupid — if they have enough to invest, they wouldn’t just run out and buy gold because Beck buys it.

                    Two years is a myopic glance at what can happen — look closely at oil and food prices — the fed has just recently starting pouring more money in — there’s not an immediate effect, and the last two years mean nothing in relation to what can happen with too much money in circulation. the laws of economics don’t change just because we are America and we have a Super Bernanke

                      Quote  Link

                    Report

                    • “Dude, what do you think this whole blog post was about? I’m not suggesting that Beck has concocted this massive plot to profit off of gold advertising. I find it plausible he really does believe the dollar is going to collapse soon.”

                      I know, but the premise was wrong to begin with — then you defended it. You wrote — “I don’t think Glenn Beck is trying to pull one over on his audience when he tells them to invest in gold”

                      I was correcting you — Beck doesn’t tell his audience to invest in gold — and then you started defending what you wrote, as if you really do believe it. You wrote — “you can see how, when he’s getting advertising dollars from Goldline, I might at least partially attribute his claims to motivated skepticism, yes?”

                      This implies his motives are influenced by money, which means at some level, he’s fooling people to make money. To say it’s unconcious is really a backdoor way to say he’s peddling gold for nefarious purposes. The premise is flawed, because, unconsciously or consciously, he is not telling anyone to invest in gold. It’s a nice way to smear.

                        Quote  Link

                      Report

        • > Ned, I have listened to Beck say over and over and over that gold
          > shouldn’t be bought as an investment — I’m sorry, this is what he
          > tells his audience.

          And yet this is a marketing tactic that actually works in many cases. I tell you that you need to use an electronic voting machine because they are less prone to error. No hanging chads! No mis-marked bubbles! That sounds pretty good. Then someone else tells you that they’re more secure. Hey, that sounds pretty good too. Oh, and they’re easier to count. Hey, why not!

          Later on, turns out, no, they’re not less prone to error. Well, okay, they’re still more secure, right? I still like them! Oh, and now someone’s telling me that they’re *not* more secure. Well, hell, we need them because they’re easier to count and everybody needs those election returns faster, that was the whole reason for having them in the first place, remember? Right? Fellas?

          I would hazard a guess that if you took a random but statistically significant sampling of Beck’s audience and asked them

          (a) do they own gold
          (b) if so, when they first bought gold
          (c) what their reasons are for buying gold, ranked in the top three

          You’d probably find that a statistically significant number of them started buying gold when Beck started talking about gold a lot. And further study would probably also show that a bunch of them believe it’s a good investment even though that was never endorsed by Beck, because *once they decide to buy the gold as “insurance”, you decide that buying gold is a good thing, and you’ll find all sorts of “buying gold as an investment” advice that you can adopt quite readily and easily into your post hoc justification for being a gold owner.

            Quote  Link

          Report

          • And yet you have no proof of any of this. And if they did buy gold after listening to Beck, you would have to know if they did their homework after the suggestion was made, and after doing their homework decided it’s a good idea. That’s advertising — it gets the product or idea out there, then people think about, and, except for impulsive buyers, people do a little homework then make a decision. Beck’s audience is fully informed about the dangers of buying gold, and the potential reward. Those who bought gold a few years back have tripled their money, so even if it’s not the best investment, as a hedge, it can also work out to be profitable. Wow, what a scam!

              Quote  Link

            Report

            • Oh, I didn’t say that I had any proof of any of this. I have no desire to validate this via an empirical study. Just showing the mechanism that could be at work.

              It’s eminently plausible that Beck is a jackass who is leveraging his audience to improve his own wealth. It’s also eminently plausible (in fact, more likely in my opinion) that he’s just a guy talking about stuff and there’s no nefariousness going on there at all. After all, if I think something is a good buy, I’m going to buy it and I’m going to tell other people to buy it. That’s human nature.

              Quite frankly the question, is Beck or isn’t he fleecing his audience means nothing to me whatsoever. I’m just pointing out that it is very easy, given an audience, to predispose that audience to do something you benefit from, and in fact you can even convince them that they’re doing it for reasons entirely different from the ones you’re using to plant the seed. This is basic marketing, you learn this stuff in an MBA program.

              It’s very likely that the Baconnaise folks have hugely profited from Jon Stewart making fun of them, because a bunch of people who would never have known about Baconnaise know about them from the Jon Stewart show. That doesn’t mean that Jon owns Baconnaise stock.

              “Those who bought gold a few years back have tripled their money, so even if it’s not the best investment, as a hedge, it can also work out to be profitable. Wow, what a scam!”

              Yeah, people said the same thing about real estate in 2005. People who bought gold a few years back haven’t tripled their money, they’ve tripled their equity in gold… unless, of course, they’ve sold it. It’s unrealized gains. If they’re still holding it when gold goes back down, they haven’t made a damn thing.

                Quote  Link

              Report

  2. Very good, Ned: it’s a simple rule of thumb; anything for which there is no proof, but that seems obviously true, should be examined very skeptically indeed. It’s like the old rule “if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” As you note, we seem to be hard-wired to blindly accept what we want to believe. History (and, for that matter, daily life) is filled with reminders that that road leads to disaster.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  3. First off: “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.”

    It’s funny to see the Democrats get to the place the Republicans were in 2008–“Bad People are intentionally making the economy go in the crapper so that they can use economics as a stick to beat on Republican incumbents!” I only wonder why Klein didn’t address this history. (Indeed, he claims that there’s “some evidence that the economy performs better under unified government”. Like that’s *not* what we had from 2001-2006?)

    ******

    MFarmer: I agree. This whole thing seems like a fancy, extra-wordy version of the ad hominem fallacy.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  4. “That means reconstructing conservative arguments own my own as best I can to make sure that I’m representing them to myself accurately,….”

    That is an excellent point, and for me at least it’s closely related to a typical forensic failing of liberals. Ie, that people who tend to make the same arguments to the same crowd over and over again tend to use shorthand or snark in place of actual coherence. For too many liberals, there’s a progession where they don’t make a coherent argument, then they won’t, then they can’t.

    That’s why it’s useful for liberals (and the rest of us) to clearly state premises and conclusions whenever possible. That preserves the ability to do it if nothing else.

      Quote  Link

    Report

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *