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Motivated reasoning and politics and stuff

by Dan Burns on September 15, 2016 · 6 comments

brain2Every so often I use the phrase “motivated reasoning” in a blog post. When I try to find a good hyperlink, everything is either too complicated or too simple. So I’m writing up my own.


First of all, the phrase “cognitive dissonance” is often misused. It is not the same thing as motivated reasoning. Cognitive dissonance happens when people are trying to hold different beliefs that don’t fit together well (for example, “the Twins are all set to be a contender next year” with “the Twins will lose 100+ games this year.”) Or when we notice that our attitudes and behavior are notably inconsistent (when we don‘t notice, or affect not to notice, that‘s called “hypocrisy”). It’s not a pleasant feeling, and people try to get rid of it.
Motivated reasoning is basically all the mental gymnastics people do to justify believing what they want, based on dogmatism, emotionalism and/or (often ego-driven) cognitive biases, when said beliefs have little or no apparent grounding in fact and/or reason. People use it to, among other things, quell cognitive dissonance. In some ways, a well-known phrase that could be a synonym for m. reasoning is “wishful thinking,” only you don’t accept that it’s wishful when it’s you that’s doing it.
(It’s possible that learned specialists would take issue with my definition, perhaps as too rough-and-ready. I certainly wouldn’t claim that I’m right and they’re wrong. I’m just trying to provide an indeed rough-and-ready description for practical understanding in socio-political contexts.)
Suppose I feel the need to internally justify a vote for Donald Trump for president. I fall back on unthinking, irrational, completely unsupported dogma that right-wing conservatism is good doctrine that produces good results. Emotionalism in that I will be gleeful to see people of color, assertive women, liberals, etc., get theirs. And I can call on all kinds of cognitive strategies like denial, rationalizing, confirmation bias, authoritarianism, groupthink, and so forth to convince myself that he is in reality knowledgeable, fair, honorable, kind, generous, and all that good stuff. Again, despite apparently infinite evidence to the contrary. All of these processes generally are, in real life, entirely or at least mostly subconscious.
By no means is motivated reasoning confined to the political right wing. On the contrary, it is as pervasive as the very air. We all do it. Including me. Trying to be aware that one is doing it is the first step to replacing it with the discipline of logic – that is, to really reason from fact.


Politically messed-up heads

by Dan Burns on June 5, 2015 · 2 comments

brainHere are a couple of items having to do with how muddled, irrational beliefs negatively impact governance. First, “7 Things People Who Say They’re ‘Fiscally Conservative But Socially Liberal’ Don’t Understand.”

You can say all you want that modern conservatism in the United States isn’t what you, personally, mean by conservatism. But hanging on to some ideal of “conservatism” as a model of sensible-but-compassionate frugality that’s being betrayed by the Koch Brothers and the Tea Party — it’s like hanging onto some ideal of Republicanism as the party of abolition and Lincoln. And it lends credibility to the idea that conservatism is reasonable, if only people would do it right.
If you care about marginalized people — if you care about the oppression of women, LGBT people, disabled people, African Americans and Hispanics and other people of color — you need to do more than go to same-sex weddings and listen to hip-hop. You need to support economic policies that make marginalized people’s lives better. You need to oppose economic policies that perpetuate human rights abuses and make marginalized people’s lives suck.
And that means not being a fiscal conservative.

Also “Study: Lawmakers Assume Voters Are Way More Conservative Than They Are.”


Well, it happened again, yesterday:  that pang of distress that I experience whenever one of my Facebook friends “likes” Mitt Romney and/or Paul Ryan.  In this particular instance, the perpetrator and I were tight, back in high school.  We were both on the basketball team, and both had part-time jobs at the same grocery store.  We’d hang out at the home of our twenty-something supervisor, drinking Grain Belt and bs-ing about the fair sex, rock bands like Zeppelin and the Stones, and the other topics that you’d expect.  Good times.  Anyway, he’s my age, fifty-one, as is his wife, and therefore Social Security and Medicare aren’t all that far off.  Moreover, he has a son that graduated from one of Minnesota’s fine liberal arts colleges – Hamline, if memory serves – a little over a year ago, and a daughter that I think is a junior at Augustana.  I could double-check the details, to make sure, but, you get the picture.

And he’s voting Republican?!?!

Oh, I suppose that he’s probably politically conservative because his parents were.  Or because he’s an NRA member.  (I don’t know that he is, but in the fall he does regularly post images of migratory waterfowl, recently slain by firearms.)  Or something.  More below the fold.
A little background:  Unlike most of the other front page contributors here, I don’t actively use Facebook for political purposes.  (I do “like” or “follow” a lot of progressive organizations and individuals.  Actually, that’s how I find many of those “Quick Hits” that I’m always posting.)  So I have a mere 125 FB friends, the majority of whom are either relatives, or people I went to high school or college with.  Few of them are heavily into politics, to say the least, bless their hearts.

I think that twelve of them have “liked” Romney/Ryan.  One, from college, a born hustler, is a financial industry multi-millionaire now.  That’s an explanation, not an excuse.  Two were selfish, whiny jerks in high school, and from everything that I’ve seen and heard since still are, so Republicanism is unfortunately to be expected.  One’s just a bona-fide clueless right-wing crazy, despite getting his health care at the VA.  But the others, mostly women, are middle-class, and have children in their early twenties or younger (still pre-teen, in one instance).  And, without the slightest apparent consciousness of what they’re really doing, they’re going to go in on Election Day looking to screw themselves, and screw their kids worse.  Arrrgggghhhh!!!

As to why that is, books have been written about it;  What’s the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank, is probably the best known.  As to what to do about it, there’s little indication that any of these people – who I emphasize are mostly excellent parents and spouses – are persuadable.  I guarantee that adding progressive commentary to their (mostly rare) political “status” updates will only upset them – in the biblical sense, “harden their hearts.”

Well, if there were easy solutions, to the problem of how to get people with those views to pull their heads out and get it together politically, there wouldn’t be conservatism, or for that matter political dogmatism of any sort. But there are no “easy solutions.”  My best bet would be to simply refuse to allow myself to be saddened and perplexed, pondering all that.  But I don’t find that to be as simple as it sounds.


Authoritarianism – A Text

by Dan Burns on January 26, 2010 · 3 comments

Some years ago John Dean wrote a bestseller, Conservatives Without Conscience, where he relied heavily on the work of the social psychologist Bob Altemeyer.  Authoritarianism, briefly, involves automatic submission to what is perceived as established authority and doctrine.

At one point Dean quotes Altemeyer thusly:

Probably about 20 to 25 percent of the adult American population is so right-wing authoritarian, so scared, so self-righteous, so ill-informed, and so dogmatic that nothing you can say or do will change their minds.

It would seem, to me, that that ’20 to 25 percent’ is substantially over-represented at all levels of political power, the reason being that they all vote, in every election, while less than half of the rest of us do.

But that’s our problem.  The real reason for this post is to let anyone who might be interested know that Altemeyer’s own book, The Authoritarians, is available online, for free, here.