Posts Tagged ‘George Will’

Disturbing Data on What We Believe and Trust

April 27, 2018

This post is based on information in the book “Belief: What It Means to Believe and Why Our Convictions are So Compelling” by psychologist James E. Alcock. A 2017 Pew Research Poll carried out in the United States reported that 85% of Republicans and Republican leaners, compared to 46% of Democrats, believe that the reports of the traditional news media are having a negative effect on the country. The same research poll found that while 72% of Democrats in their sample consider colleges and universities to be an “overwhelming positive force,” only 36 % of Republicans share that belief, and more than half of Republicans view colleges and universities as having a negative effect on the nation. It is frightening to think that more than half of the people in a major political party regard higher education as having a negative effect.

Dr. Alcock writes, “The core beliefs of dogmatic political or religious fundamentalists are unlikely to change no matter what we do, for those beliefs are well entrenched. Even Marcel Proust observed about the facts of life, “do not penetrate to the sphere in which our beliefs are cherished; they did not engender those beliefs, and they are powerless to change them.”

In terms of Nobel Winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s Two Process Theory of Cognition, these people are for all intents and purposes System 1 processors. System 1 is termed intuition and refers to our usual mode of thinking fast based on our learning and emotional feelings. To question and reevaluate thoughts, System 2 processing, called reasoning, or more commonly thinking, requires us to use attention. Virtually all learning involves System 2 processing, and System 2 processing is essential for critical thinking.

Republicans having negative views about the news and higher education characterized them as primarily System 1 processors. The world is changing rapidly and the news reports the changes. To understand the news requires System 2 processing, something these Republicans do not want to do. Similarly colleges, at least good colleges, need to advance with the thinking of the times. They need to be critical, but nevertheless there are topics that need to be studied and evaluated. One of the worst deeds these parents can do is to not send their children to college or to send them to colleges with a parochial (in the narrow sense, not necessarily the religious sense view). It is also harmful to the country.

It is important that not all Republicans be painted with the same brush. Republicans who have recognized that Trump is no Republican and have either left the party, as George Will did, or have refused to support Trump are clearly System 2 processors Their System 2 processing clearly indicated that not only is Trump not a true Republican, but that he also is a risk to the country and the world.

However, Dr. Alcock has some hope for people whose beliefs are not so dogmatically anchored that they are beyond influence. Even so, this is an arduous process. University courses that encourage critical thinking to help students distinguish science from pseudoscience have had mixed results. Psychologist Tom Gray assessed the effects of a one-semester university course that both emphasized critical thinking in the evaluation of evidence and offered natural explanations for various supposed paranormal phenomena. He found that, while belief in ESP, alien spacecraft, and reincarnation fell from 85% to 50%, over the course of the term many students simply did not change their beliefs at all. In other research, he found that university-level research methods and statistics courses, which might be expected to stimulate critical acumen, do not on their own enhance general critical thinking ability.

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Why the Right Lost Its Mind

October 31, 2017

“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.”