[NOTE: This part of a developing series (which began here) related to Peak Oil, but addressing the considerations and potential solutions from a different perspective than purely fact-based and/or he-said—she-said perspectives. With the caveat that I have NO professional expertise/training in psychology or its related fields, I’ll look at emotional and psychological “tricks” and traits we all use—Left, Right, and in-between—to bolster our beliefs and opinions as we do battle with our “opponents” in the increasingly polarized political forums which too-often dominate our culture.

The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else-by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusion may remain inviolate   – Francis Bacon [courtesy of David McRaney]

As I observed in that first post of this Looking Left and Right series: ‘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….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.’
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!]

In his excellent book, Collapse, scientist Jared Diamond looked at a number of societies that had seen their physical climates change. He tried to determine what made some cultures die out while others persevered. According to Diamond, it wasn’t the severity of the change, or its speed that was the determining factor. One important variable was the foresight of those societies’ leaders — their ability to properly diagnose the problem and adapt, to come up with proactive solutions to the problems they faced.
[Quoting Diamond]: ‘[O]ne always has to ask about people’s cultural response. Why is it that people failed to perceive the problems developing around them, or if they perceived them, why did they fail to solve the problems that would eventually do them in? Why did some peoples perceive and recognize their problems and others not?’ [1]

Good questions … ones we need to find answers for before too long. Now would be an excellent time to start.

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]

Liberals! Right-Wingers! Environmentalists! Big Oil! Doomers! Deniers! On and on are the labels applied, each utterance displaying more contempt, disrespect, and enmity than the last. I’ve certainly done my part to contribute.

Is this the best we have to offer? The ideal problem-solving model to pass on to future generations (assuming we’ll still have many left)?

Economic woes have not yet run their course. Millions too-many of our fellow citizens have no job, no savings, and little hope for “better” anytime soon. Our planet is warming; oil supply has been on a precarious plateau for more than a handful of years now … facts bear that out; opinions and ideologies and hopes/expectations suggest otherwise.

Elected officials pandering to the worst while the wealthy inject themselves and their money far too deeply into our politics now define too much of our democracy. Congress couldn’t issue a unanimous proclamation honoring each of their membership’s own mothers, yet we expect them to lead out of this long-developing mess without so much as mussing anyone’s hair. If Plan A doesn’t solve the problem, then let’s just be sure someone else has to pay or do or sacrifice under Plan B.

Is this the best we have to offer? Is our best/only hope more of the same?

ALL of our positions on issues arise in part out of a subconscious desire for social cohesion and safety. In other words, they are not purely a matter of free conscious will.
But we are not absolute slaves to these instincts. We do have will. We can reason. We are all responsible to some degree for our choices and behavior, responsible not only to ourselves, but to each other….[3]

But there are “obstacles” which prevent us from speaking with one another rather than at or past each other. Understanding these obstacles, respecting what they intend to provide, but then moving beyond them if they cannot serve greater purposes as we commit ourselves to finding meaningful, lasting solutions and plans to the challenges we face—climate change, economic growth, and energy supplies chief among them—is the task at hand, and for all of us….

Relying solely on others as our primary strategy has run its course. Too much is at stake to leave it all to those others who too often demonstrate that what motivates them is far different than the desires and needs we expect them to address.

So, let’s look at a few of the predominant obstacles for starters, and then delve more deeply into them—and how they influence us—as this series develops. [Bold/Underline mine]:

The Misconception: When your beliefs are challenged with facts, you alter your opinions and incorporate the new information into your thinking.
The Truth: When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.…
Once something is added to your collection of beliefs, you protect it from harm. You do it instinctively and unconsciously when confronted with attitude-inconsistent information. Just as confirmation bias shields you when you actively seek information, the backfire effect defends you when the information seeks you, when it blindsides you. Coming or going, you stick to your beliefs instead of questioning them. When someone tries to correct you, tries to dilute your misconceptions, it backfires and strengthens them instead. Over time, the backfire effect helps make you less skeptical of those things which allow you to continue seeing your beliefs and attitudes as true and proper.
Psychologists call stories like these narrative scripts, stories that tell you what you want to hear, stories which confirm your beliefs and give you permission to continue feeling as you already do. [4]

What’s going on? How can we have things so wrong, and be so sure that we’re right? Part of the answer lies in the way our brains are wired. Generally, people tend to seek consistency. There is a substantial body of psychological research showing that people tend to interpret information with an eye toward reinforcing their preexisting views. If we believe something about the world, we are more likely to passively accept as truth any information that confirms our beliefs, and actively dismiss information that doesn’t. This is known as ‘motivated reasoning.’ Whether or not the consistent information is accurate, we might accept it as fact, as confirmation of our beliefs. This makes us more confident in said beliefs, and even less likely to entertain facts that contradict them. [5]

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….
The same psychological and social processes that induce individuals to form factual beliefs consistent with their cultural orientation will also prevent them from perceiving contrary empirical data to be credible. Cognitive-dissonance avoidance will steel individuals to resist empirical data that either threatens practices they revere or bolsters ones they despise, particularly when accepting such data would force them to disagree with individuals they respect….
One constraint on the disposition of individuals to accept empirical evidence that contradicts their culturally conditioned beliefs is the phenomenon of biased assimilation. This phenomenon refers to the tendency of individuals to condition their acceptance of new information as reliable based on its conformity to their prior beliefs….
Two additional mechanisms reinforce the tendency to see new information as unreliable when it challenges a culturally congenial belief. The first is naïve realism. This phenomenon refers to the disposition of individuals to view the factual beliefs that predominate in their own cultural group as the product of ‘objective’ assessment, and to attribute the contrary factual beliefs of their cultural and ideological adversaries to the biasing influence of their worldviews….the truth will be held up at the border precisely because it originates from an alien cultural destination. The second mechanism that     constrains societal transmission of truth—reactive devaluation—is the tendency of individuals who belong to a group to dismiss the persuasiveness of evidence proffered by their adversaries in settings of intergroup conflict. [6 – with citations]

So we all employ these “tactics” at times—unconsciously, so it seems. How’s it working for us so far?

Just getting started … much more to come.


[1] http://www.alternet.org/teaparty/153554/how_right-wing_conspiracy_theories_may_pose_a_genuine_threat_to_humanity; How Right-Wing Conspiracy Theories May Pose a Genuine Threat to Humanity by Joshua Holland – 12.25.11
[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://bigthink.com/ideas/42502; The Heartland Institute and “Climate DenialGate” by David Ropeik – 02.16.12
[4] http://youarenotsosmart.com/2011/06/10/the-backfire-effect/; The Backfire Effect by David McRaney – 06.10.11
[5] http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/07/11/how_facts_backfire/; How facts backfire: Researchers discover a surprising threat to democracy: our brains by Joe Keohane – 07.11.10
[6] http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=746508; [link to PDF download]. Cultural Cognition and Public Policy by Dan M. Kahan, Yale University – Law School; Harvard Law School and Donald Barman – George Washington University – Law School; Cultural Cognition Project – Yale Law & Policy Review, Vol. 24, pp 147 – 169, Public Law Working Paper No. 87 – 2006