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Let’s Discuss: How Politics Makes Us Stupid

There is a fascinating article up at Vox.com that I encourage all NCDD members and subscribers to our Transpartisan Listserv to give some thought to. My friend Jean Johnson at Public Agenda, one of NCDD’s organizational members, alerted me to it last week, and it ties directly into conversations that are going on in both the NCDD Discussion list and the Transpartisan list.

PoliticsStupidPost1The article by Ezra Klein, How Politics Makes Us Stupid, talks about research that shows that a more informed public has little effect on politics, polarization, and political opinions.  Instead, “Cutting-edge research shows that the more information partisans get, the deeper their disagreements become.”

Researcher Dan Kahan’s findings were that people accepted some information without any problem — but in cases where their social standing and relationships were effected by their take on an issue, people dismissed information as faulty that didn’t line up with their group’s / tribe’s / community’s stances. This was true for partisans on both sides of the aisle.

Here’s an excerpt:

Kahan is quick to note that, most of the time, people are perfectly capable of being convinced by the best evidence. There’s a lot of disagreement about climate change and gun control, for instance, but almost none over whether antibiotics work, or whether the H1N1 flu is a problem, or whether heavy drinking impairs people’s ability to drive. Rather, our reasoning becomes rationalizing when we’re dealing with questions where the answers could threaten our tribe — or at least our social standing in our tribe. And in those cases, Kahan says, we’re being perfectly sensible when we fool ourselves.

And another:

Kahan calls this theory Identity-Protective Cognition: “As a way of avoiding dissonance and estrangement from valued groups, individuals subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values.” Elsewhere, he puts it even more pithily: “What we believe about the facts,” he writes, “tells us who we are.” And the most important psychological imperative most of us have in a given day is protecting our idea of who we are, and our relationships with the people we trust and love.

This has so many implications for dialogue and deliberation work — about the role of experts and the effectiveness of expert knowledge, for instance.  It makes me wonder if we emphasize enough the SOCIAL aspects of dialogue and deliberation.  Are we doing enough to help people feel affinity for each other before launching into high-level deliberative discussions, for instance?  Are we doing enough to change the culture of our communities, or are we just engaging those who are already receptive to considering different viewpoints?

PoliticsStupidPost2The article goes on to talk about how Washington has become a machine for making identity-protective cognition easier. There is lots of thought-provoking stuff in this article for transpartisans to consider!

My big disappointment with this article is the conclusions at the end.  Kahan has come up with “communications” solutions, like having the FDA think through what people’s rational position-based arguments will be against a new policy, and communicate their decisions in a way that provides a rational response to those arguments.  The author, Ezra Klein, is dissatisfied with that solution and refers to it as “spin” at one point, and he concludes that “If American politics is going to improve, it will be better structures, not better arguments, that win the day.”

To me, the whole article pointed to the need for people to develop connections and relationships — strong ones — to those outside of their tribe.  Of course I see dialogue and deliberation as being key to that shift. Engaging in meaningful conversations about tricky issues like gun safety, climate change, and abortion with people you don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye with is not just about thinking more deeply or more rationally about these issues than we tend to. It’s also about seeing those who are “outside of your tribe” (those from the other side of the aisle, or those from a different class, race or generation than you) in a different light.

Portland2010-cafetableThis is one of the reasons NCDD has always encouraged “dialogue” to happen before “deliberation” takes place. Thought these terms (and the practices they represent) often blur, dialogue centers around storytelling, relationship-building and a focus on building understanding before any kind of decision or action is on the table. Deliberation tends to focus more on understanding issues, options and trade-offs to set the stage for better decisions and judgments. (Dig in a little deeper on our What Are Dialogue & Deliberation? page.)

We are in dire need of both dialogue and deliberation today, but combined, I believe these practices can work to counteract this “Identity-Protective Cognition” — or at least help people begin to broaden their ideas about who is in their tribe.

What do you think? Do you agree that “D&D” can counteract our tendency to only be effected by the evidence that leaves us unchanged and feeling safe with our social group? And if so, what are our shining examples of where this is happening? Where are you making inroads on this? And perhaps most importantly, what can be done to encourage your good work to become more widespread?

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Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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  1. Don Ellis says:

    I’m still reading the Ezra Klein article so not prepared to say too much specifically yet. But I felt compelled to quickly chime in on the basic assumptions that we resist factual information that threatens our values is just the problem. It’s not the factual conclusion of the research study meaning it has been established and we should move on. It is the problem. It is what I said in my post that we have drifted into a state of thinking where we defend our ideologies and values more than we do work on the value of information. There is such a thing as “quality” thinking and reasoning. It’s not perfect or absolute were always correct but there are a set of criteria that can be brought to a situation that maximize the chances for evidentiary reasoning. It makes little sense to say we don’t reason well so let’s throw up our arms and say forget about it; that will just guarantee that we will continue to reason poorly. How could it do otherwise?

  2. “… I am persuaded myself that the good sense of the people will always be found to be the best army. They may be led astray for a moment, but will soon correct themselves. The people are the only censors of their governors: and even their errors will tend to keep these to the true principles of their institution. To punish these errors too severely would be to suppress the only safeguard of the public liberty. The way to prevent these irregular interpositions of the people is to give them full information of their affairs thro’ the channel of the public papers, and to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people.

    The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them. I am convinced that those societies (as the Indians) which live without government enjoy in their general mass an infinitely greater degree of happiness than those who live under European governments. Among the former, public opinion is in the place of law, and restrains morals as powerfully as laws ever did any where. Among the latter, under pretense of governing they have divided their nations into two classes, wolves and sheep. I do not exaggerate. This is a true picture of Europe.

    Cherish therefore the spirit of our people, and keep alive their attention. Do not be too severe upon their errors, but reclaim them by enlightening them. If once they become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress, and Assemblies, judges and governors shall all become wolves. It seems to be the law of our general nature, in spite of individual exceptions; and experience declares that man is the only animal which devours his own kind, for I can apply no milder term to the governments of Europe, and to the general prey of the rich on the poor.—”

    Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, from Paris, January 16, 1787
    Portrait by Charles Wilson Peale (1791)

  3. Carolyn Caywood says:

    “Engaging in meaningful conversations about tricky issues like gun safety, climate change, and abortion with people you don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye with is not just about thinking more deeply or more rationally about these issues than we tend to. It’s also about seeing those who are “outside of your tribe” (those from the other side of the aisle, or those from a different class, race or generation than you) in a different light.”
    I would say rather, it’s about enlarging your perception of your tribe to include those people. D&D can help people coalesce into a bigger, more diverse tribe.

  4. Dan Kaufman says:

    There’s a developmental aspect to this discussion that I believe needs to be considered. Whether in the context of moral development (Kohlberg), orders of consciousness (Kegan) or reflective judgment (Kitchener & King) individuals at different stages of development are seeing the world from their perspective rather than being cantankerous, stubborn or idealouges. In this context, those who are at self referential stages tend to look to religion or those with whom they identify for “right” answers. As they move into different stages their reliance on right answers begins to shift as they come to realize that language, models etc. are flawed and it makes good sense to consider other ideas and recognize that we may not have the whole picture.

    In our culture today we do not educate our young people in a way that allows them to explore multiple perspectives and certainly our political system as it is right now does not support the encouragement of that kind of learning or thinking because (IMHO) those with the most power (for the most part) believe themselves to be right. I constantly fight my belief that they are wrong and my way is right. In other posts it has been noted that it’s important to focus on metacognition or forms of reasoning that allow for more reflective thinking and flexibility. Minus our beliefs about those in power it is, I believe, important that we don’t make people wrong but rather continue to provide opportunities for people to struggle with difficult concepts and beliefs through the use of strategies like D&D which can help them to struggle to new levels of reasoning. Change comes from that struggle not through debate or anger. FYI, I don’t think anyone here is suggesting the latter as answers to the issue.

  5. Susan Clark says:

    What a fascinating topic! I was also disappointed that the Ezra Klein article didn’t take the conversation about Dan Kahan’s work further down the dialogue/deliberation path, but it’s important to note that Kahan has worked with people who have. Take a look at “Ending Polarization: The Good News About the Culture Wars,” a piece that Kahan co-authored with NCDD member John Gastil http://www.bostonreview.net/ending-polarization-culture-wars-gastil-kahan-braman It’s very readable and in many ways they are making the same hopeful case for D&D that you do, Sandy. In the book “Slow Democracy” http://slowdemocracy.org we profile the work Kahan, Gastil and others have done in Cultural Cognition, and thanks to their work, offer specific advice for bringing a variety of world views into a D&D process. John Gastil and I will hope to offer a workshop on this at the October NCDD conference — it would be great to see you all there!

  6. Tom Atlee says:

    So many articles like Klein’s/Kahan’s are rooted in the citizen as an individual person and citizenship as the personal exercise of an individual’s agency in the political arena. Thus they focus on how individuals react to the information they are given.

    All too often, discussions of D&D fall into that same paradigm. I would like to suggest that the heart of D&D lies, in fact, in a totally different area: Interaction. Due to synergy (“the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”), the interaction among diverse entities has different characteristics than those entities possess individually. Information plays a different role in diverse interactive situations than it does in individual or homogenous situations. Evolution happens when diverse entities interact in supportive and/or challenging contexts (this is a principle Peggy Holman and I came to when researching evolutionary dynamics that can be used to transform social systems). And the quality of the interaction can be judged by how much productive evolution and emergence are manifested in the process of that interaction (a definition which I realize favors “emergent processes” like Open Space, World Cafe, Dynamic Facilitation, Appreciative Inquiry, etc.)

    So any research demonstrating how people use or respond to information when by themselves or when embedded in contexts of like-minded people or homogenous information sources may have only tangential relevance to how people use or respond to information when they are embedded in an interactive context with diverse others with a shared challenge of coming up with shared conclusions (as in Citizens Juries, Wisdom Councils, Citizen Initiative Reviews, the 1991 Maclean’s initiative I’m always talking about, etc.). The informational and psychological dynamics in such groups are radically different from those that occur in more isolated environments or individual minds.

    I think we need to get beyond the individual citizen as the foundation of democracy. It is a booby-trapped conceptual framework and radically inadequate to meet the complex and changing challenges of the 21st Century.

    • Carolyn, what you wrote here is key: “the emotion-based functions of our brains (limbic system, fight or flight response, need to belong) trump our cognitive functions so that we are, indeed, predictably irrational…”

      I would only add, “predictably irrational, WITHIN CONTEXTS where interpersonal safety is NOT supported.
      Most of our culture is based on competitive models that PROMOTE fight-or-flight, or else encourage group-think around dominant leaders as an (ultimately unsustainable) attempt to create safety within a “dog-eat-dog” society.

      However, like fish swimming in the ocean, we are not just blind to our distortion of data — we are also blind to the larger context that surrounds us and influences our behavior. Hence the value of Tom’s post pointing to a different paradigm where we are attending to interaction rather than just to individuals.

      Context really does matter… too much of what passes for rationality in our society is still based on the pervasive “argument as battle” metaphor that George Lakoff pointed out in one of his earliest works, and which may be one of his most significant contributions.

      WITHIN THAT CONTEXT, yes, very little changes…yet within other contexts, we encounter a very different experience of “human nature”… instead of fight-or-flight and group think, we experience human being’s innate curiosity, creativity, and meaning-making, along with the inherent drives toward fairness and caring about others’ well-being…

  7. John Backman says:

    My goodness…provocative article and outstanding comments here. To build on Carolyn’s observation, perhaps one solution would be to identify and promote tribes whose common cultural bond is openness and curiosity rather than adherence to a specific worldview. The D&D community is an obvious example of that. So, I suspect (and I hope Barb Simonetti will chime in here), are Unitarian-Universalists, for whom open-hearted inquiry is a cherished cornerstone of faith. Tribes like these could not only make it safe for individuals to be open-hearted, but also (riffing loosely on Tom’s comment above) interact and form ties with other tribes in a way that might help them cross divides.

  8. Carolyn Penny says:

    Thank you for the provocative article, Sandy. I would recommend a foray into the fascinating field of behavioral economics to understand further the implications for dialogue and deliberation. The work of Dan Ariely such as Predictably Irrational is particularly useful. Another great resource for information on our thinking shortcuts is Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. The emotion-based functions of our brains (limbic system, fight or flight response, need to belong) trump our cognitive functions so that we are, indeed, predictably irrational. I think one important aspect of Klein’s article and Kahan’s research is that we are blind to our distortion of data. Awareness of our own mental shortcuts is a great first step. Perhaps we can normalize and address these normal and human mental shortcuts by acknowledging them in our ground rules.

  9. I agree that the “emotion-based functions of our brains” trump our cognitive functions…

    Yet while the emotion-based functions may be “irrational”, I don’t see them as random nor incomprehensible.
    My sense is that a wise application of attachment theory in how we understand and practice our roles as facilitators, is foundational, and a strong complement to whatever ground rules we may work with…

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