We all act much the same way, ideologies notwithstanding. Human nature, I suppose. The more important questions: might we benefit from a bit of introspection before doing more of the same….

What comes after the ideology is appeased? How do we each and collectively deal with the outcomes of roads taken and not taken?

I could spend hours pointing out the nonsense of Republican orthodoxy, and sure as hell ten from the Right will rise up and point out what an idiot I am because they happen to have Chart A, Opinion B, and Evidence C to show me why I’m so thoroughly wrong. And just as quickly, ten of my peers will produce Chart D, Opinion E, and Evidence F to show why the Right is clueless. There are surely no topics having influence or impacting any segment of society which are not subjected to this type of analysis, dialogue, and dispute. And on and on it goes….

As an ideological exercise designed to reassure us that we are obviously correct and our opponents are just as decidedly insane, there’s merit in continuing to wage philosophical, political, and economic war with those on the “other” side who just simply don’t get it … at all! Ever! In a fact-free and consequence-free world, we could indulge ourselves forever by playing this game. Every day is Groundhog Day.

What is this getting us, exactly (besides a healthy stroking of our egos and intellect, of course)?

Back in the day, when all of life was so much simpler and easier, we could afford to just take care of our own, prosper, debate, solve problems, and then carry on with the assurance that tomorrow all but guaranteed better opportunities than those of today. That dizzying pace never got away from us.

But today, “our own” is … everyone else, and the pace has quickened in every direction. Several billion people want to be just like the best of our best. But when the few best resist the efforts and attempts of everyone else, or deny them the very opportunities which boosted them up the ladder, we have problems. And when the game board itself has changed to, and we no longer have all the pieces we need to win the game on our own, we’ll have even more problems if we don’t consider changing the rules a bit—assuming “winning” is still the goal. If not, then the current winners will by and large remain, everyone else loses, and pretty soon, everyone loses … all 100% of us.

Sound like a good strategy for the 21st Century?

I’m thinking a bigger vision is needed. As I suggested several months ago: “do we bog ourselves down by nit-picking—working harder to find out why something won’t work or why it is not perfect in every way under every condition and for every person—or do we adopt a grander strategy that will under no conditions be perfect or even acceptable to everyone, but provides us with the best long-term opportunities…?”

That remains a choice we each and all own.

The challenges are exacerbated by little tricks each and every one of us plays. They must help us in the moment, else we would change, but introspection might offer up some different approaches to help us all, and for a longer period of time. We shouldn’t be turning down any chances to make things better.

… [P]eople who know very little about an issue — say the economic downturn, changes in the climate or dwindling fossil fuel reserves — tend to avoid learning more about it. This insulates them in their ignorance — a pattern described by researchers as ‘motivated avoidance.’
Faced with complicated or troubling situations, these people often defer to authorities like the government or scientists, hoping they have the situation under control….
‘This is psychologically easier than taking a significant amount of time to learn about an issue, all the while confronting unpleasant information about it,’ [Steven Shepard] added. [1]

Too often, the “authorities” deferred to have motivations and interests entirely at odds with those who have turned to them for assurances that everything is being managed and “under control.” The result is obvious: Authorities misinform, misdirect, or even outright lie to promote their own agenda.

More and more we respond by shutting out the assault of cognitive dissonance and retreating from any unwelcome input. We surround ourselves with news outlets, friends and even neighbors who carefully reinforce what we want to believe. We are building our own reality to support our chosen narrative. It doesn’t seem to be working out well on a personal level and it’s rotting our politics. [2]

Is this the better and wiser approach (notwithstanding the pointlessness of it all)? Will there come a time when most of us (I’m not that optimistic!) decide that perhaps we ought to consider choosing paths which give us the best chance of leading to a reasonable and acceptable level of continuing well-being and prosperity—even if those choices do not mesh with the ideologies and beliefs we cling to so tenaciously?

That commitment requires that we take a moment to consider what happens if we don’t do so. This is not the time or place for delusion and denial.

… [A]n array of new discoveries in psychology and neuroscience has further demonstrated how our preexisting beliefs, far more than any new facts, can skew our thoughts and even color what we consider our most dispassionate and logical conclusions. This tendency toward so-called ‘motivated reasoning [citation]’ helps explain why we find groups so polarized over matters where the evidence is so unequivocal: climate change, vaccines, ‘death panels,’ the birthplace and religion of the president [citation], and much else. It would seem that expecting people to be convinced by the facts flies in the face of, you know, the facts….
We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself….
[O]ur quick-fire emotions can set us on a course of thinking that’s highly biased, especially on topics we care a great deal about….
‘[We] retrieve thoughts that are consistent with [our] previous beliefs,’ says Charles Taber [political scientist from Stony Brook University], ‘and that will lead [us] to build an argument and challenge what [we’re] hearing.’
In other words, when we think we’re reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing … Our ‘reasoning’ is a means to a predetermined end—winning our ‘case’—and is shot through with biases. They include ‘confirmation bias,’ in which we give greater heed to evidence and arguments that bolster our beliefs, and ‘disconfirmation bias,’ in which we expend disproportionate energy trying to debunk or refute views and arguments that we find uncongenial. [3]

Okay … guilty as charged. So now what?

We obviously wouldn’t be making use of these psychological tricks of the trade if they didn’t provide us with benefits and gratifications. So is that it? Shrug our shoulders, admit that we are all guilty from time to time and then … nothing?

Might we consider the possibility of being “better” than that? If we choose to solve what might appear at first blush to be overwhelming and even insoluble problems, we need more. We need more from our systems, more from our leaders, and more from ourselves. “Greater/better” leads to greater responsibilities of course, and there are ample reasons why we may prefer to just leave that to others.

A choice, of course. But every choice has an outcome, and when the challenges are great, great effort is called for. The alternative outcome is usually quite obvious: worse….

Guilty as charged there, too. Not much long-term benefit, to be sure, but easier in the moment by a long shot….

… [A]ccording to Charles Taber and Milton Lodge of Stony Brook, one insidious aspect of motivated reasoning is that political sophisticates are prone to be more biased than those who know less about the issues. ‘People who have a dislike of some policy—for example, abortion—if they’re unsophisticated they can just reject it out of hand,’ says Lodge. ‘But if they’re sophisticated, they can go one step further and start coming up     with counterarguments.’ These individuals are just as emotionally driven and biased as the rest of us, but they’re able to generate more and better reasons to explain why they’re right—and so their minds become harder to change.
Cherry-picking is precisely the sort of behavior you would expect motivated reasoners to engage in to bolster their views. [4]

Sound familiar?

More shoulder-shrugging, or do we reach for and seek to be … more?


[1] http://www.eenews.net/public/climatewire/2011/12/19/1; PUBLIC OPINION: Report finds ‘motivated avoidance’ plays a role in climate change politics, by Umair Irfan – 12.19.11
[2] http://www.frumforum.com/where-the-crazy-may-be-coming-from; Where the Crazy May Be Coming From, by Chris Ladd – 09.16.11
[3] http://motherjones.com/politics/2011/03/denial-science-chris-mooney; The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science – How our brains fool us on climate, creationism, and the vaccine-autism link, by Chris Mooney – 04.18.11
[4] Mooney