Browsing the blog archivesfor the day Wednesday, April 9th, 2014.


How We Think What We Think

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Obama Administration

Here are a couple more book suggestions. One is The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt (Pantheon Books, 2012). Haidt explains in detail the many ways people have been tested to reveal that reason plays only a supporting role in why we actually think as we do. Most of our decision- and opinion-making processes are taking place on subconscious levels.

Basically, our decisions, opinions and moral judgments are really being made by our emotions or intuition, and we use reason largely to explain to ourselves how we reached our decision or formed our opinion.

Haidt provides a very strong and copiously tested argument that we feel before we think. The moment we are confronted with a religious, political, moral or similar sort of question, something in our subconscious or intuitive mind churns up feelings that determine our position. Our rational mind then constructs a narrative that explains to us what we think and why we think it.

Another is The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science by Will Storr (Overlook Press, 2014). The book is framed as an exploration into the world of people who believe nutty things — creationism, UFO abductions, etc. But it turns into an introspective analysis of why anyone believes anything, which is much more interesting. Storr draws a lot on Haidt’s research and that of other psychologists and sociologists.

This is a genuinely engrossing book. As a journalist Storr’s “beat,” so to speak, is crazy people. He travels around interviewing people who embrace unorthodox views, including diagnosed schizophrenics who choose to live with their voices rather than take meds. But as he does so, the gap between “sane” and “crazy” gets narrower and narrower as he finds people on the “orthodox” side whose opinions are just as flimsily put together as that of the crazies.

See also Doug J at Balloon Juice:

One of my favorite twists on this is the Very Serious Person who dismisses all his critics as uninformed partisans, but then screams LIBERAL ELITISM when anyone points out, say, that ignorance of where the Crimea is located correlates with support for US military involvement there.

The whole Very Serious Person thing is based on the fantasy that there is a class of people whose understanding of everything is correct because they are Very Serious People, and everything they believe collectively (like, government austerity will boost the economy) is self-evidently the only serious view. And no amount of evidence shakes them, because they are Very Serious People. But really, they believe what they believe because it feels good.

Storr writes,

As Professor Leon Festinger and his co-researchers into confirmation bias found: when confronted by a new fact, we feel an instantaneous, emotional hunch that pulls us in the direction of an opinion. We then look for evidence that supports our hunch until we hit the ‘make sense stopping rule,’ and our thinking ceases. Our mind completes the process by fooling us into believing that we have made an objective survey of the arguments, then gives us a pleasurable neurochemical hit of feeling as a reward.

I think this is exactly true (heh), and we all do it, and maybe the only difference between wise and stupid is the degree to which we are aware that this is what we’re really doing when we form opinions.

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