How We Think What We Think

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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  1. uncledad  •  Apr 9, 2014 @12:09 pm

    “people who believe nutty things — creationism, UFO abductions”

    If I want any science learnin I’ll open my bible!

  2. c u n d gulag  •  Apr 9, 2014 @12:22 pm

    Stupid, ignorant – and evil people – when they hear something new, go back to what they think they believe and know, for their justification(s).

    Smart people, take that new information, and see where it fits in what they believe is the “Real World,” and adapt their new “Real World,” to reflect that/those change(s).

    THAT’S the difference – at least IMnot-soHO!

    But in many people’s minds, The Bronze Age beliefs, RULE!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. joanr16  •  Apr 9, 2014 @12:24 pm

    Genesis 1:1-5:

    Boreded Ceiling Cat makinkgz Urf n stuffs

    1 Oh hai. In teh beginnin Ceiling Cat maded teh skiez An da Urfs, but he did not eated dem.

    2 Da Urfs no had shapez An haded dark face, An Ceiling Cat rode invisible bike over teh waterz.

    3 At start, no has lyte. An Ceiling Cat sayz, i can haz lite? An lite wuz.4 An Ceiling Cat sawed teh lite, to seez stuffs, An splitted teh lite from dark but taht wuz ok cuz kittehs can see in teh dark An not tripz over nethin.5 An Ceiling Cat sayed light Day An dark no Day. It were FURST!!!1

    Yea, verily. In your face, Neil Degrasse Tyson!

  4. goatherd  •  Apr 9, 2014 @12:52 pm

    I’ve been interested in this area for a while, mostly as a means of self diagnosis and trying to get a handle on why, and how people believe what they do. This is not to say that I know anything about it. I just like to observe humanity. I like these books:

“A MInd of its Own” by Cordelia Fine is probably a bit more recreational reading than the books you sight. But, I say that only because it is actually fun to read, despite being well documented.

    “The Drunkard’s Walk” by Leonard Mlodinow is also fun, especially if you enjoy the math behind his examples. He even explains the famous “Monty Hall” puzzler, which has been the subject of much controversy.

    People interested in rational discourse, with sufficient ability to question themselves and some other prerequisite personality traits were always rare birds. But, given the current level of animosity and misinformation in our society, they may well be headed for extinction. Rationality is something we are capable of only under the best of circumstances and self discipline. Right now, the circumstances seem to be worsening.

    It’s ironic that the “faith based community” is one that seems to me, solidly anchored in the mental trap. I use the word “ironic,” because entering the faith, almost any faith, requires “being born again.” In order to be truly born again, someone has to have the ability to question their own motives and beliefs, to see their errors, and then, to change. This is a very difficult thing to do. Unfortunately, some are motivated to change by dodgy things like late night telegrifter revivals and numerous mental illusions and malfunctions mistaken for epiphany. But then, we’ve all been tripped up by something.

    “Twas ever thus,” but, that doesn’t make it any less tragic.

  5. moonbat  •  Apr 9, 2014 @1:16 pm

    I love stuff like this, and it’s great that people are teasing out how our emotions drive everything, and how the rationalizations come later. And this is all due to our particular conditioning.

    A psychologist friend of mine would add: I can change the way you view things – your emotional conditioning – in about fifteen minutes of work.

    I would add that the myth of the Very Serious People is especially what conservativism is about. As Philip Agre wrote:

    ..the most central feature of conservatism is deference: a psychologically internalized attitude on the part of the common people that the aristocracy are better people than they are. Modern-day liberals often theorize that conservatives use “social issues” as a way to mask economic objectives, but this is almost backward: the true goal of conservatism is to establish an aristocracy, which is a social and psychological condition of inequality. Economic inequality and regressive taxation, while certainly welcomed by the aristocracy, are best understood as a means to their actual goal, which is simply to be aristocrats. More generally, it is crucial to conservatism that the people must literally love the order that dominates them…

  6. Stephen Stralka  •  Apr 9, 2014 @2:51 pm

    Interesting. I first heard of Haidt in a remarkably stupid column about the Hobby Lobby case that Booman linked to a couple of weeks ago. The columnist, Tim Carney, says he met Haidt at a “libertarian dinner,” which got me wondering if Haidt is a libertarian hack or a real scholar whose work has been misappropriated, and undoubtedly misrepresented, by the libertarians.

    Sounds like it’s the latter. Carney starts off saying, “Haidt inspired me to try to understand the mindset of religious liberty’s enemies,” so he’s already off to a bad start. Religious liberty’s enemies? And here’s the conclusion he reaches:

    The Pill is not just a pill to them. It has become something holy. And they won’t tolerate any burden between them and their Blessed Sacrament.

    I also can’t resist quoting this, also from Carney’s column, because it’s so thoroughly amazing.

    For one thing, many liberals have a different idea of liberty. Liberals often don’t distinguish between government power and non-government power. They note that employers have real power over employees. Because liberals don’t see employment as a fully voluntary arrangement in which both parties are free to set the terms, they don’t value employers’ pleas for “liberty.”

  7. maha  •  Apr 9, 2014 @8:51 pm

    Haidt appears to have been a mainstream liberal most of his life, although he says in his book he doesn’t trust his own opinions any more. Carney has no clue what Haidt is about, obviously.

  8. joanr16  •  Apr 9, 2014 @3:34 pm

    employment as a fully voluntary arrangement in which both parties are free to set the terms

    Whoa, I guess then I am a liberal, because I sure call BS on that gibberish. “Voluntary” when the only alternative is living in the street and starving to death, and “free to set the terms” on what planet, again?

    You sure can tell when someone hasn’t worked a day for someone else in his entire life.

  9. Doug  •  Apr 9, 2014 @4:25 pm

    I am wrestling with the difference(s) between the axioms –

    Let’s define the term – axiom: a self-evident truth that requires no proof.

    Liberals and Conservatives and all logical proofs (goes to the geometry you hated in school) start with axioms. Everything is built on that foundation. So what’s the fundamental divergence in thinking?

    I think the Conservative assumes people are subject to institutions – and Liberals assume institutions are subject to people. So ‘they’ look like fascists to us and we look like anarchists to them.

    The thing is (to me) all institutions are the creation of people, so they have to be mailable to people. The arguments of conservatives are that

    1) institutions are either the creation of God (churches and the bible) or

    2) institutions are the property of the ‘right people’ and should not be affected by the whims of commoners.

    These ‘axioms’ are the source of the values we apply. They also make it hard for us to communicate with conservatives because we operate from opposing fundamental assumptions.

  10. Swami  •  Apr 9, 2014 @8:56 pm

    joanr16….Is ceiling cat like a feline type cat, or like a far out dude who’s a hip type cat? Does he play the bongos?

  11. Doug  •  Apr 9, 2014 @10:07 pm

    As far as I know, the origins of ‘ceiling cat’ are to be found on the captioned cat pictures web site ‘’ They have branched out considerably to other animals and video but a search of ‘ceiling cat’ brings up almost 8000 hits on that site alone. I wish I could imbed but I will refer you to..

  12. Swami  •  Apr 10, 2014 @12:25 am

    Thanks, Doug.. Now I know about Ceiling Cat.. I never heard of ceiling cat before, but now it’s in my compendium of knowledge. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? And speaking of dogs…

  13. Doug  •  Apr 10, 2014 @12:30 am

    An old doug??? I represent that remark.

  14. Swami  •  Apr 10, 2014 @2:08 am

    moonbat.. Great link to Philip Agre. I’m going to bookmark it for a comprehensive read. It’s funny that thoughts of Paul Ryan popped into my head when I started reading it. Something to do with deference and fraud. I guess Paulie is the most prominent example of the conservatives foisting a bag of shit on the American public and trying to bill him as something of substance. To my mind he’s a dunce who by nature could never rise above the level of a cub scout leader.

    Yeah, Paulie is a wonk alright.. the dangling kind.

  15. goatherd  •  Apr 10, 2014 @7:20 am

    Re Ceiling Cat: Wow! We had an orange manx that used to do the same thing when I moved a light fixture and took my sweet time about patching the hole.

    There are ways of coercing the mind into a certain way of thinking. I mentioned my neighbor, who has a very difficult life and a long arrest record. He sees himself as part of the Biblical struggle of Good vs. Evil. Simply put, the Devil tricks him into being arrested and God keeps him out of jail. He never has to consider that he is doing something wrong and he gets to be part of the army of God, instead of just some poor, unfortunate and unremarkable guy. He’s not, stupid or malicious, but he is a product of the southern rural culture. He’s comfortable with his lot in life.

    I can’t remember who did the study, but, a while back on NPR there was an article about how people often accept palatable lies when their confirmation bias agrees and actually hold the belief more firmly when presented with proof, a day or so later, that it is indeed a lie. Once something is lodged in the network of belief, it’s nearly impossible to be free of it.

    It seems like a miracle that we ever got this far.

  16. c u n d gulag  •  Apr 10, 2014 @7:23 am

    The timeless classic:
    John Stuart Mill – “Conservatives are not necessarily stupid, but most stupid people are conservatives.”

  17. goatherd  •  Apr 10, 2014 @8:27 am

    Just as an aside to the topic: If your purpose is to demonstrate that you are right and someone else is wrong, and to have them recognize that as the case, your chance of success is vanishingly close to zero. If you aim to help someone towards a reassessment, so that they might get a more real and workable approximation of reality, you have some modest hope of accomplishing your goal.

    I have about as much talent for Zen as my horse does for playing the piano. But, I read Suzuki’s “Zen and Japanese Culture” many years back and I like to think that I got something from it.

    He wrote about the “Zen man” who acts and causes an effect, but remains unseen, unnoticed. I was managing a residential program primarily for people with severe disabilities due to traumatic injury. They were just waking from a very bad dream and looking around at their lives, ambitions and identities as so much wreckage. Some were actively looking for the “miracle worker,” but, were very likely to be deeply disappointed when their paraclete failed to lead them back to being who they once were.

    I found the most workable solution, was to help them to discover the physical and mental skills that they needed to start a new life. They had to learn these things, I couldn’t “teach” them. If I did my job well, they would see me as a mere bystander, sometimes, even an impediment. Years later, they might call up thankfully, late at night, during an apparent epiphany. But, by then, we’d both have moved on.

    There are times for a good old fashioned intellectual brawl, especially in our day and age. But, most of the time, if you make a zero sum game out of a political “discussion” you’ll come up with bopkis. If you want someone to say, “I was wrong and you were right,” good luck with that. If you can sow a few questions and some doubt, something might come of it.

    Sorry for being so long winded.

  18. joanr16  •  Apr 10, 2014 @8:46 am

    Ceiling Cat is the deity of the “lolcat bible.” A typical feline what thinks it is god.

  19. Monty  •  Apr 10, 2014 @3:15 pm

    Try these…
    Why We Believe What We Believe
    On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not
    The Belief Instinct

    Somewhat further afield…
    Moral Minds
    The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty

  20. erinyes  •  Apr 10, 2014 @4:16 pm

    Having a sand which at arby’s in ocala today, I was treated to a lecture on how the government is setting up FEMA camps, confiscating weapons, crashing the economy, and will soon enslave the middle class, and it’s all in the bible.. I just said “buddy, you live in a very dark and scary fantasy world”. He said ” thank you ” his friend laughed. I also listened to Limbaugh and ingraham on the way home. They say Obama and holder are racists. This place is a friggin freak show.