Cognitive Misers and Democracy

Cognitive misers are people who do not like to exert the effort involved in thinking.   In addition to entering “cognitive misers” into the healtymemory search block, you can also enter “System 1” or “Kahneman.”  Cognitive misers like to believe in things because questioning beliefs or principles or learning new things involves cognitive effort and thinking.

A short while back I read a poll that I found extremely discouraging.  The question asked what was more important to voters, a politician’s willingness to compromise or to  principles.
Here is a breakdown of the responses by political party.  Note that they do not add up to 100% as some respondents refused to answer.

Group                   Principles        Willing to Compromise
All Voters             40%                  50%
Republicans        54%                   36%
Independents     40%                  47%
Democrats           23%                  68%

I guess that the good news is that with the exception of one group, the remaining groups a larger percentage indicated a Willingness to Compromise.  In only one group did this percentage reach 50% and only one other group indicated a slightly greater than a two to one preference.  If the results are representative, then I argue that these beliefs present a far greater existential threat to the Democracy in the United States than does ISIS.

Before addressing cognitive miserliness per se, let me remind readers what a democracy is supposed to be..  A democracy is a system in which people vote for candidates and the candidates try to vote for what they think are the correct policies, but negotiate when the need to get the most palatable policy that they can accept.  There will be times when the vote goes against them, but they accept the result.  They do not threaten to shut down the government or actually shut down the government.  As you know this has already happened at least twice.

It is unfortunate that “politician” has negative connotations.  Using “politician” in a pejorative sense, “he’s a politician,” or he is doing this for “political reasons” is both unfair and wrong.  The first requirement of a politician is to make the political system work.  Sometimes that might correspond to political beliefs, sometimes it will not.  But beliefs or principals should not be the driving factor.

The advancement of mankind has been in direct proportion to the advancement of science.  Key to science is thinking.  Cognitive miserliness is anathema to effective science.  Whatever beliefs science has are beliefs that are subject to change.  It that is not the case, then the enterprise is not science.  There have been enormous changes in science during my lifetime.  There is not a single subject matter that has not changed.  Until fairly recently science believed that humans could not generate new neurons.  In other words there was no such think as neurogenesis.  Had I argued to the contrary as a graduate student I would have quickly been booted out of graduate school.  It was not until close to the end of the 20th century that neurogenesis was accepted and the notion of neuroplasticity  was advanced.

I become particularly annoyed when I hear reporters accuse politicians of flip flopping.  It seems like this is the stock in trade for many reporters.  This reminds me of the response the eminent economist John Maynard Keynes gave when he was accused of a statement that was in conflict with previous comments.  He responded,”when the facts change, I change my mind.  What do you do, sir.”  An argument can be made that opinions are not being changed by facts, but by political considerations.  Here I would refer you to the remedial exposition on democracy I offered above.

I also argue that cognitive miserliness is a problem for the Supreme Court of the United States.  There are two views of the Constitution.  One is that it is supposed to be a dynamic document that has been written that is expected to change with the times.  The other, originalism, is that the Constitution needs to be interpreted in terms of what the authors intended.  We need to remember that when the Constitution was written, slavery existed, black people were counted as three-fifths of a human being, and women could not vote.  It should also be remembered that one of the most advanced scientists of the time, Benjamin Franklin, did not know what current high school physics students know.  Moreover, I am virtually certain that if the framers of the constitution knew what we do today, they would have written a different constitution.  I am upset when the Supreme Court Justice who recently passed away is described as having a brilliant mind.  He was an originalist.  He believed that what the framers of the constitution believed at that time should provide the basis of judicial decisions.  I regard such individuals as intellectual runts.

The results of cognitive miserliness are readily apparent in the United States.  Realize that the United States is the only advanced country that does not have a system of national health insurance.  What we do have is the country with the most expensive medical costs with results comparable to third world countries.  We are the only advanced country that has no control over the cost of prescription medications.  And we are the only country that has a major political party that refuses to believe in global warming.  We also have a major TV network that insists on always having a denier of global warming on a show where a scientist is presenting data bearing on global warming and its ramifications.  This is in spite of the fact that this is a small minority of scientists, some of whom are paid scientific guns to counter the overwhelming evidence.

The reason that is often presented is one of American Exceptionalism.  This exceptionalism is a product of cognitive miserliness.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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