Why the Right Lost Its Mind

“How the Right Lost Its Mind” is an important book by the conservative, Charles J. Sykes. He reviews the history of the political right from the John Birch Society through William F. Buckley up to Breitbart and Donald Trump. At one time Sykes was a respected conservative. No longer. George Will resigned from the Republican Party, and Ronald Reagan is probably thrashing about in his grave. Sykes reviews the history of the reasons for this change that includes the key individuals, organizations, and the revolutionary changes in technology. He provides a compelling account of the reasons for the insanity in which we are living. The purpose of this post is to provide some key parts of cognitive psychology to explain why such chaos has resulted.

To Sykes credit, he includes these concepts in the book. They are especially important here because they are also examples of what makes memories unhealthy. One is the Dunning-Kruger effect, which has been written about in this blog previously. Research has found that “people tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. And this is because people who are unskilled in the domain suffer a dual burden: not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.” Here is how Dunning explained in “Politico” why so many people seemed untroubled by Trump’s ignorance or gaffes. “Many voters, “especially those facing significant distress in their life, might like some of what they hear from Trump, but they do not know enough to hold him accountable for the serious gaffes he makes. They fail to recognize those gaffes as missteps.” He noted that the problem was not simply that voters were ignorant, “it is that they are often misinformed—their heads filled with false data, facts and theories that can lead to misguided conclusions held with tenacious confidence and extreme partisanship…”

Much has been written in this blog about Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s Two Process Theory of Cognition. This theory was expanded upon in Kahneman’s best selling book, “Thinking Fast and Slow.”  System 1 is fast and is called intuition.  System 1 needs to be fast so we can process language and make the fast decisions we need to make everyday.  System 1 is also the seat of our emotions.  System 2 is called reasoning and corresponds loosely to what we mean by thinking.  System 2 requires mental effort and our attentional processes.

For new information, our default is accept. We would advance very slowly if we questioned everything we heard, everything we encountered. However, it is the role of System 2 processes to monitor System 1 to correct any errors. This can be illustrated by presenting statements to a participant and monitoring responses recorded from the brain. If the statement accords with the person’s beliefs, there is little activity. However, if the statement does not accord with a the person’s beliefs, there is a noticeable signal in the brain. At this point the person can either ignore the information or decide to think about it further. Remember that System 2 is called reasoning and corresponds loosely to what we mean by thinking. And remember that System 2 requires mental effort and our attentional processes.

So the answer to why are so many people willing to believe is that they believe fake news because they wanted to and because it was easy. Ideally we might assume that people want to seek out information that is true, but this is a basic misunderstanding of the human psyche, which feels more comfortable with familiar information or stories that confirm their biases. Kahneman refers to this as “cognitive ease,” the process by which we avoid and resist inconvenient facts that might make us have to think harder. It is much, much easier to bask in a flow of information that tells that we have been right all along and confirmed our view of the world. So many of these facts are so outlandish that it is hard to understand how they can possibly be believed. Cognitive ease is further confounded by the Dunning-Krueger Effect, as more and more false information simply increases the feeling that one truly knows and this can and does build into the construction of alternative (false) realities.

Social psychology also plays an important role here. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes the power of tribalism in shaping our ideas. He wrote in “The Righteous Mind,” Once people join a political team they get ensnared in its moral matrix. They see confirmation of their grand narrative everywhere, and it’s difficult—perhaps impossible—to convince them that they are wrong if you argue with them outside the matrix. Political Scientist Don Kinder writes that political opinions become “badges of social membership.”

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: