If you are on Facebook, and have a wide variety of Friends, you have often witnessed groups of people voicing strong opinions for or against someone or something that is controversial. Of course, this has been going on since the beginning of time, but Facebook has made it easy to see on a global basis.
For example, when left-wing liberal Al the All-Knowing, makes some strong statement against a conservative issue or presidential nominee, many of his friends place comments under the post expressing their complete agreement with Al and their disbelief that anyone could view it differently. In other words, “We are right, they are wrong! How dare them!” Al, reading the supportive responses in his home-office, nods with a smug look on his face, knowing that as usual, he is always right. He knows this for certain, because 20 of his friends just confirmed it for him.
If you have conservative friends on Facebook, you will see the exact same thing happen from the other side. For example, you may see Nathan No-To-All post a comment wondering how those left-coast Hollywood types can be for this, that or the other thing. And especially the other thing! Where do they get off? Are they completely clueless? Are they so high on weed that they can’t see the obvious truth through all of that smoke from their bong? Bunch of New York Times-reading hippies who think they are intellectually superior! Deport ‘em all! Of course, his friends agree completely with him, posting their support. Nathan, reading the supportive responses in his home-office, nods with a confident look on his face, knowing that he has set the record straight and stood up to all of those dim-witted liberals.
Now, if you’re like me and sit in the middle as an independent, watching both sides, you may wonder why neither side will even consider the arguments from the other side. But they don’t. They haven’t. And I promise you, they won’t. I have had many debates with friends on both sides, very smart people, who will stick to their arguments no matter how ill-informed, close-minded or irresponsible their positions may be. I am always perplexed by this, because I wonder how smart people cannot even consider the other side. Let me repeat that — these are very smart people! If they were to come to the same conclusion after honestly looking at the other side, it would be much easier to accept. But anytime an attempt is made to look at the opposing side, the boilerplate response is to downgrade the opinion, saying it’s so trivial that I wonder why they even bother to voice it. So they spew out the same arguments. The response from both sides has become a predictable reflex response.
For years, I tried to find answers about this social phenomenon of smart people being so narrow-minded. I searched for answers with no luck. Then I watched an appearance by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt on a morning news programs. In reference to the 2012 Presidential election, he talked about this phenomenon, which he addresses in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. I immediately ordered the book and he answers my questions in the first section, which I appreciated.
If you are frustrated with people you know, or perhaps those you watch on news talk shows, hopefully this will help you understand it a little better. This is information from experts who conduct studies in order to find out why people act that way.
From page 84: We believe only what we want to believe.
The social psychologist Tom Gilovich studies the cognition mechanisms of strange beliefs. His simple formulation is that when we want to believe something, we ask, “Can I believe it?” Then we search for supporting evidence and if we find even a single piece of pseudo-evidence, we can stop thinking. We now have permission to believe. We have a justification in case anyone asks.
In contrast, when we don’t want to believe something, we ask ourselves, “Must I believe it?” Then we search for contrary evidence and if we find a single reason to doubt the claim, we can dismiss it. You only need one key to unlock the handcuffs of must.
Psychologists now have file cabinets full of findings on “motivated reasoning” showing the many tricks people use to reach the conclusion they want to reach. When subjects are told that an intelligence test gave them a low sore, they choose to read articles criticizing (rather than supporting) the validity of the IQ tests. When people read a (fictitious) scientific study that reports a link between caffeine consumption and breast cancer, women who are heavy coffee drinkers find more flaws in the study than do men and less caffeinated women.
From page 86: We are team-players when it comes to policy preferences.
Many political scientists used to assume that people vote selfishly, choosing the candidate or policy that will benefit them the most. But decades of research on public opinion have led to the conclusion that self-interest is a weak predictor of policy preferences.
Rather, people care about their groups, whether those be racial, regional, religious or political. The political scientist Don Kinder summarizes the findings like this: “In matters of public opinion, citizens seem to be asking themselves not ‘What’s in it for me?’ But rather ‘What’s in it for my group?” Political opinions function as “badges of social membership.” They’re like the array of bumper-stickers people put on their car showing the political causes, universities, and sports teams they support. Our politics is groupish, not selfish.
Several studies have documented the “attitude-polarization” effect that happens when you give a single body of information to people with differing partisan leanings. Liberals and conservatives actually move further apart when they read about research on whether the death penalty deters crime, or when they rate the quality of arguments made by candidates in a presidential debate, or when they evaluate arguments about affirmative action or gun control.
From page 79: On confirming our own bias.
Peter Watson called the phenomenon confirmation bias, the tendency to seek out and interpret new evidence in ways that confirm what you already think. People are quite good at challenging statements made by other people, but if it’s your belief, then it’s your possession – your child, almost – and you want to protect it, not challenge it and risk losing it.
From page 81: Answers my question about smart people.
The findings of an eminent reasoning researcher, David Perkins, found that IQ was by far the biggest predictor of how well people argued, but it predicted only the number of my-side arguments. Smart people make really good lawyers and press secretaries, but they are no better than others at finding reason on the other side. Perkins concluded that “people invest their IQ in buttressing their own case rather than in exploring the entire issue more fully and evenhandedly.”
If thinking is confirmatory rather than exploratory in these dry and easy cases, then what chance is there that people will think in in an open-minded, exploratory way when self-interest, and strong emotions make them want or even need to reach a preordained conclusion?
I hope you find this information helpful. I did. At least I will now be able to understand the Facebook posts, arguments at social gatherings or debates on television and radio as I witness them in the future. Here’s to the social psychologists of the world like Jonathan Haidt. Thanks for the insight.