By Cathy Young
With the election less than a month away, ’tis the season to despair over the state of our political discourse.
People who disagree on politics are talking at, not to, each other. Arguments seem designed to bolster pre-existing biases and reinforce partisan solidarity, not to appeal to those who hold different views. Sniping, not persuading, is the order of the day. Meanwhile, some psychologists say that such is our nature: Human beings are not rational animals after all, and when we use facts and logic it is only to justify our intuitively held beliefs.
Looking around, it’s hard to disagree. But instead of accepting irrationality, we should at least try to do better.
Recent psychological studies of moral and political reasoning — popularized by New York University professor Jonathan Haidt in his book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion” — tell us that most people, whatever their beliefs, are profoundly biased.
When presented with facts, we have a knack for selecting ones that support our side and screening out ones that support the opposing viewpoint. Being forced to admit a fact unfavorable to our point of view causes discomfort; being offered an excuse to reject such a fact produces positive emotions. The new research marshals evidence from neuroscience and physiology to confirm these patterns.
A cynic might say that the scientists are spending a lot of time and money to tell us the obvious.
Sometimes, partisan loyalty even overrides personal preferences. People are more likely to endorse a particular position on a political question when told that this position is backed by politicians from the party with which they identify.
To some extent, this is unsurprising. Most public policy issues are dauntingly complex. To arrive at a truly informed position on even one — health care reform, economic programs, Middle East policy — is practically a full-time job. So people make conclusions based on their broad philosophical outlook (for instance, one that favors activist government versus one that favors minimal regulation) and cherry-pick the facts and studies. Our fundamental outlook, in turn, is usually shaped less by reasoning than by cultural background, life experience and personality.
Does this mean there’s little hope for reason? Not necessarily.
Haidt himself may underestimate the power of rational persuasion. He has pointed out that the shift in attitudes toward same-sex marriage came about not because of better arguments in its favor, but because young people who’ve grown up around openly gay men and women are far less likely to react to homosexuality with visceral disgust.
True; but many older people, raised when homosexuality was treated as a shameful secret, have also realized — thanks in part to persuasive arguments in favor of gay rights — that their discomfort with gay equality was based on prejudice, not rational objections. Some still feel that discomfort on a gut level, yet they don’t let it affect the way they vote or treat people.
Understanding our built-in biases can help us correct them. If we know that our inclination is to dismiss facts and arguments that contradict our viewpoint, we can make a conscious effort to give those arguments careful consideration. We could spend more time talking and listening to people on the other side — something that Haidt encourages. While we’re at it, we could use some psychological studies to understand what makes more open-minded people tick. Human nature shouldn’t be used as an excuse to behave like partisan sheep.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and the website RealClearPolitics. This was written for Newsday. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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