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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 5/12/14

The Art Of Shooting Oneself In The Foot

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There is some phenomenon--other than the paucity or inaccessibility of scientific information--that shapes the distribution of factual beliefs about, and the existence of political conflict over, law and public policy. What is it?
The answer, we propose, is a set of processes we call cultural cognition. Essentially, cultural commitments are prior to factual beliefs on highly charged political issues".culture is prior to facts in the cognitive sense that what citizens believe about the empirical consequences of those policies derives from their cultural worldviews. Based on a variety of overlapping psychological mechanisms, individuals accept or reject empirical claims about the consequences of controversial polices based on their vision of a good society....

In one of my blogs (Peak Oil Matters), I touched on similar liberal versus conservatives themes in a number of posts. [The Category "Looking Left and Right" contains a full listing, if you're interested in this topic as it relates to our energy supply.] In one of those posts, I noted this:

There is a great deal at stake for all us, and we might all be better served understanding not just what we do in asserting and defending our beliefs, policies, and opinions, but why. Appreciating that might make a world of difference ... literally!

My opinion has not changed. In light of the hyper-partisanship we're all dealing with on a regular basis--with its potential for so much damage to the very fabric of our democracy and the principles upon which we've relied for 200+ years--I'm that much more convinced we need to take a few moments to examine what we are and are not doing.

After the ideology is appeased, then what? How do we each and collectively deal with the consequences of choices made or passed over?

[My] research led me to two conclusions. First, when gut feelings are present, dispassionate reasoning is rare....This is the first rule of moral psychology: feelings come first and tilt the mental playing field on which reasons and arguments compete. If people want to reach a conclusion, they can usually find a way to do so....
I would say that the second rule of moral psychology is that morality is not just about how we treat each other (as most liberals think); it is also about binding groups together, supporting essential institutions, and living in a sanctified and noble way.

It's important that all of us--Left and Right--appreciate the truth of Jonathan Haidt's first stated conclusion. While we all like to think that all of our important decisions are made after calm, rational evaluations of all the relevant factors, research suggests we're instead coming up with the reasons and facts to justify the emotions which serve as the initial determinant.

Feelings (in many cases almost instantaneous) point us in a particular direction first. Then we collect the provisions needed for that destination.

It's just as important for us (liberals in particular) to understand that the "moral foundations" upon which our values and supporting social/cultural institutions depend is more than just treating our fellow citizens fairly. Conservatives more so than liberals place just as much importance on sustaining their "clubs" and honoring moral considerations which many of us on the left side find unworthy of much thought at all.

All of us--Left and Right--are "guilty" of employing various psychological tools to bolster our sense of self and to affirm that both we and our "group" stand on solid ground in making the assertions we do in support of policies and beliefs we hold. None of us are above making use of them to aid our causes:

The mechanisms are also diverse. They include dynamics such as biased information search, which involves seeking out (or disproportionally attending to) evidence that is congruent rather than incongruent with the motivating goal; biased assimilation, which refers to the tendency to credit and discredit evidence selectively in patterns that promote rather than frustrate the goal; and identity-protective cognition, which reflects the tendency of people to react dismissively to information when accepting it would cause them to experience dissonance or anxiety.

People who are motivated to form perceptions that fit their cultural identities can be expected to use their greater knowledge and technical reasoning facility to help accomplish that--even if generates erroneous beliefs about societal risks.

All of these tools obviously serve us well most of the time. But when we're confronted with matters of more-than-the-usual significance and impact, our knee-jerk reactions may not be such an ally once we take the time to play out the decisions/beliefs we've already committed to. First things first, perhaps?

In these times, when members of the "other" party chime in with a proposal, suggestion, observation, principle, whatever, more often than not they are dismissed outright simply because they are from the other side. It's no longer a given that the alternative viewpoints are worthy of at least some consideration and possible incorporation into the decision-making process. Now, there's no way they can be correct, and there's no way their perspectives have any weight or value.

Shooting ourselves in the foot is a strategy. It's not a good one, but it is a strategy.

Adapted from a blog post of mine
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Looking Left and Right: Inspiring Different Ideas, Envisioning Better Tomorrows I remain a firm believer in late U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone's observation that "We all do better when we all do better." That objective might be worth pursuing (more...)

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