People As Neurons

Haidt contends that confirmation bias is inherent in how we reason, that efforts to overcome this limitation are doomed.

Thus, our best hope is to think of ourselves as neurons in a vast system. “We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to act civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. That’s why it is so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth (such as an intelligence agency or a community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or advisory board).” p. 105

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The Impact of Education on Judgment

Even if the default mode of reasoning is that our subconscious renders judgement nearly instantaneously and our conscious mind invents a narrative to post hoc justify that judgment, the good news is that education counters this tendency by teaching up to be rational thinkers. Right?

Not so fast. Haidt points to the work of David Perkins, who gave subjects at various grade levels a social issue and asked them to write down their initial judgment. Then he asked them to write down as many arguments they could think of, on both sides of the issue. If education is successful at making us critical thinkers, then higher education should coordinate with longer lists on both sides of the issue.

What he found was that IQ correlates with the number of arguments generated in favor of your position, but education level doesn’t. Further, neither education nor IQ correlates with the number of counterarguments generated (which was always a much shorter list than than the number of arguments favoring their position). Since education advancement correlates with IQ, the system is more likely to reward and advance individuals who are good at generating confirming arguments without regard to their ability to generate disconfirming arguments.

There are possible confounds with the research, of course. Number of arguments doesn’t necessarily correlate with depth of analysis of openness to changing position. Performance on an artificial list task isn’t necessarily the same as thinking through an issue in the real world. But still, the results suggest that education doesn’t make us more critical thinkers–it doesn’t influence us to consider disconfirming evidence–it just makes us better at defending our intuitive positions.

Self-Interest and Voting

The health care debates last year were interesting in part for the number of journalists who were interested in the question of why the president’s base would support an overhaul that would hurt them disproportionately.

Haidt would say self-interest is not a big factor in politics. Rather, “our politics is groupish, not selfish.” People consider how a policy will be received by the group they identify with rather than on personal impact.

Our Internal Press Secretaries

It’s difficult in these political times not to picture a White House Press Secretary when Haidt writes:

If you want to see post hoc reasoning in action, just watch the press secretary of a president or prime minister take questions from reporters. No matter how bad the policy, the secretary will find some way to praise or defend it. Reporters then challenge assertions and bring up contradictory quotes from the politician, or even quotes straight from the press secretary on previous days. Sometimes you’ll hear an awkward pause as the secretary searches for the right words, but what you’ll never hear is: “Hey, that’s a great point! Maybe we should rethink this policy.”

The role of our conscious brain is to be our personal Baghdad Bob.

The Alternative to Groupishness?

Haidt contends that being naturally groupish is a big part of the acrimonious political and cultural divisions we see today. To be an “us,” there needs to be an “other.” But he also points out that the alternative to groupishness is that human culture as we know it probably would have never had the chance to evolve.

“Our tribal minds make it easy to decide, but without our long period of tribal living there’d be nothing to divide in the first place. There’d be only small families of foragers–eeking out a living and losing most of their members to starvation during every prolonged drought.” (p. 212)

Panopticon, part 2

I think part of the reason I’m interested in the role of reputation in human motivation is that at work I tend to advocate that learning is best and deepest when internally motivated rather than extrinsically.

But if people are inherently prone to making good choices only if being watched…

In a professional context, part of the answer might be to ensure there is a clear link between what you can learn in training and your job performance, and therefore your professional reputation.