My friend and Joplin blogger Jim Wheeler recently wrote a short review of Edward O. Wilson’s book, The Social Conquest of Earth. Jim commented:
…I often find myself amazed at the depth of ignorance about science in the modern general public. It is almost as if we were two species, one cognizant and rational and the other, larger one, superstitious, primal, tribal, and bellicose. There is some evidence that groups of humanity may be evolving apart in those regards.
That’s interesting because on “Up with Chris Hayes” this past weekend, we were treated to an absolutely fascinating discussion about ideology and brains, featuring Chris Mooney, author of The Republican Brain, and Jonathan Haidt, who wrote The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.
Hayes introduced the two authors by stating that an “insidious” feature of our current political polarization is that it is “difficult, if not impossible, to relate to people at the other end of the spectrum. They seem irrational, detached from reality, outright crazy.” He then posed this question:
If through evolution we’ve all inherited the same moral intuitions, then how do we end up so far apart on so many basic political issues?
Given the nature of our modern life, this question is one of the most important we can ask. Just what makes some of us seem, as Jim Wheeler suggests, “cognizant and rational,” and others seem “superstitious, primal, tribal, and bellicose“?
Now, anyone interested in this topic should follow the link above and watch the segment (I can’t post it here at the moment), but the answer to that crucial question seems to be pretty much how Hayes summarized the current “social-psychological research” on the subject:
“Reason” is essentially constructed ex post to come up with reasons to justify things that we already arrive at viscerally and through intuition.
In other words, all, or at least most, of us are led around by our emotions, by our gut, and we essentially adopt some form of reasoning after the fact to support our emotional preferences. If that is true, it has profound implications, no? It would mean, for instance, that in order to change someone’s mind, the appeal should be an emotional one rather than a logical, rational one.
Consider this story on NPR this morning:
When pollsters ask Republicans and Democrats whether the president can do anything about high gas prices, the answers reflect the usual partisan divisions in the country. About two-thirds of Republicans say the president can do something about high gas prices, and about two-thirds of Democrats say he can’t.
But six years ago, with a Republican president in the White House, the numbers were reversed: Three-fourths of Democrats said President Bush could do something about high gas prices, while the majority of Republicans said gas prices were clearly outside the president’s control.
The flipped perceptions on gas prices isn’t an aberration, said Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan. On a range of issues, partisans seem partial to their political loyalties over the facts. When those loyalties demand changing their views of the facts, he said, partisans seem willing to throw even consistency overboard.
Nyhan suggested that,
partisans reject facts because they produce cognitive dissonance — the psychological experience of having to hold inconsistent ideas in one’s head. When Democrats hear the argument that the president can do something about high gas prices, that produces dissonance because it clashes with the loyalties these voters feel toward Obama. The same thing happens when Republicans hear that Obama cannot be held responsible for high gas prices — the information challenges their dislike of the president.
In other words, Nyhan continues, “partisans reject such information not because they’re against the facts, but because it’s painful.” Now we can see why it is so hard to change someone’s mind with “the facts.”
All of which has now compelled me (!) to soon post a piece I have withheld due to its personally disturbing implications. The tease:
In his latest book, philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris tackles the issue of free will. He says,
Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have.