People With One Watch, Part I

One of my favorite sayings is “A man with one watch knows what time it is; a man with two watches is never sure.”

The point — other than no two wristwatches in your possession ever tell exactly the same time — is that the more knowledge you have of an issue, the more likely you are to see more than one side of it. But over the years I’ve run into an astonishing (to me, anyway) number of people who interpret the saying to mean that it’s better to have just one watch.

When people have limited perspectives because of limited knowledge, you might assume that giving people more knowledge would give them broader perspectives. But then there’s the phenomenon of elective ignorance. People practicing elective ignorance start with a point of view and then admit into evidence only those facts that support their point of view. Those with a really bad case of elective ignorance become incapable of acknowledging facts that contradict their opinions. You can present data to them all day long, and it won’t make a dent; “bad” facts are shoved off the edge of consciousness before they get a chance to complicate the E.I. sufferer’s worldview.

Please note that elective ignorance is not necessarily connected to an individual’s intelligence potential. A person can possess sufficient cerebral material to store and comprehend considerable knowledge but elect not to use it. High-I.Q. people with E.I. Syndrome will sometimes concoct elaborate and fantastical rationalizations to explain why some facts are “bad” and others are “good.” These rationalizations will make sense only to those who have elected the same worldview, of course, which leads us to the Dittohead Corollary — People whose opinions are shaped by E.I. pathologies cannot grasp why other people don’t understand issues as “clearly” as they do. Therefore, they assume something sinister stands between those other people and the elected reality; e.g., “liberals hate America.”

Ideologies can be understood as a form of codified elective ignorance, or a strategy to make the world easier to understand by limiting one’s cognitive choices. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Since we all have finite cognitive resources, adopting an ideology is one way to obtain a workable understanding of issues without devoting the time and brain work required to become an expert. As long as a person appreciates that his understand and knowledge are incomplete, and he remains capable of changing his view as he learns more, this doesn’t qualify as Elective Ignorance Syndrome. Further, it can be useful for people within a society to adopt similar worldviews. That way they can reach consensus on social issues without perpetually re-inventing the perspective wheel, so to speak.

We’re all conditioned from birth to understand ourselves and the world we live in a certain way. By the time we’re adults, we all live in a conceptual box — a complex of paradigms — made up of who we think we are and how we think our lives and the world are supposed to be. The way we understand most things may seem “self-evident” but is nearly always a matter of conditioning. Social psychologists say that what most of us call “reality” is a social construct, meaning that people who grow up in the same culture tend to live in very similar conceptual boxes. Put another way, living in the same culture predisposes people to develop similar paradigms.

People who grow up in different cultures live in different conceptual boxes, however, which is why “foreign” people and cultures often don’t make sense to us, and why we don’t make sense to them. “Open minded” people are those who have at least a vague notion that diverse social constructs of reality are possible and are not necessarily bad. “Closed minded” people, on the other hand, cannot fathom that any other social construct of reality than the one they possess is possible. These people find foreign cultures sinister and frightening; see the Dittohead Corollary, above.

People with extreme E.I Syndrome feel threatened by anything “different,” however, even when that “different” is the next-door neighbor with opposing political views. It’s vital to understand that E.I. people perceive threats to their worldview as threats to themselves, because their self-identities are integrated into their worldview. In other words, the conceptual box they live in is who they are. Any challenge to the integrity of the box must be fought by any means necessary.

That’s why you can’t win a pissing contest with a wingnut, for example. Oh, you can absolutely crush their every argument with facts and logic, but that won’t matter; they won’t back down. If you continue to try to “win” they’ll fall back on all manner of logical fallacies, rote talking points, circular reasoning, and sheer nastiness, until you finally decide the argument is eating too much of your time and energy and walk away. Then they declare victory — not because they’ve proven themselves to be correct, but because they’ve turned away a challenge to the box. Put another way, while you’re presenting data and explaining concepts, they’re guarding their cave. That’s why I don’t even bother to argue with wingnuts any more. It’s as futile as explaining rocket science to hyenas, and possibly as dangerous.

I should add that E.I. Syndrome can be found on the extreme leftie fringe as well — International A.N.S.W.E.R. comes to mind. And E.I. Syndrome explains why extremist political ideologies, either Left or Right, lead to totalitarianism. But at the moment the leftie fringe in America is so marginalized and powerless it’s easy to ignore. The Right, on the other hand, has to be dealt with, like it or not.

I bring this up because, IMO, most of our political conflicts — both international and intra-national — are being stirred up by people with one watch. From here I could launch into a discussion of just about anything in the news — the Middle East is an obvious choice — but what got me going today was the stem cell research ban. President Bush’s “boys and girls” comment from yesterday was an expression of paradigm. And (I’m sure you realize) Fetus People are flaming One Watch types. I want to elaborate on this, but as I’ve gone on for a while already I’ll bump the elaboration to another post.

29 thoughts on “People With One Watch, Part I

  1. This is wonderfully put, and I’m all too familiar with the many points you made, on an extremely personal (and painful) level. For the last 20 or so years I and nearly everybody on the left have been struggling with people who embody this phenomenon.

    What I wonder about, and am saddened by, is how this pathological condition rose to such prominence in our country? How did the cancer grow? What were the collective decision points that, were they managed correctly instead of ignored, could have turned back this pathology early on when it was small, instead of it getting so large now, that only a catastrophe can check it?

    You’re right about IQ making little difference. And yet, I think one of the factors is the very complexity of the world we find ourselves in. I tend to believe the quality of people running things in this country has declined over the last generation. And so where this complexity was at least acknowledged and met appropriately a generation ago, today we find powerful people believing and acting out simple-minded nonsense because they lack the sophisticated understanding needed to be effective.

  2. This is a wonderful post. I’ve used the term ‘cognitive inertia’ before, but I love ‘elective ignorance’. I think elective ignorance is morally no better than outright mendacity; choosing not to know is as bad as knowing and lying about it.

  3. Maha, what a wonderful post.

    My most optimistic take on all this follows the principle of ‘the way out is through’. What I mean by that is simply that a system-wide problem that has grown ‘in the dark’ or in the less conscious places needs to be held up and observed and felt in all its aspects before the systemic malaise can be addressed creatively and lifted out fully..
    This is a corollary of Pregogine’s theory of systems change. To paraphrase Pregogine, a system will experience small perturbations and dampen them to maintain itself. But when those perturbations keep happening and the system reaches a certain level of disturbance, the entire system will ‘escape into a higher order’.

    I think the perturbations affecting the whole world right now have to do with the absence of new frontiers, which frontiers once served to sort of alleviate fighting over territory and resources. We live in a new world situation and something new needs to evolve. Some cope with increased perturbation by retreating into their conceptual boxes and others cope by trying to understand different cultural boxes with a view to learning to share in new ways.

    Your post is probably a ‘helpful perturbation’ to all who’ve become so weary of staving off those ‘different ones’ that they are finally open to trying out a new thoughtfulness.

  4. Great post,Maha..I enjoy the way you explain things. I also enjoyed how you encapsuled the complexity of a syndrone with Bush’s “boys and girls” comment. My terminology for elective ignorance is called mindlessness. When my mother-in-law engages in conversation of who are ‘saved”, of those who have passed on, I experience that same numbing void of reason that Bush expressed in his boys and girls comment. I just can’t grasp the concept of attaching morality to a cell. It surely is elective ignorance..!

  5. Yeah Maha…

    I practiced yor “Elective Ignorance” for more than 40 years…Right up until she died and was burried…

    It’s a Pisser when it all hits home…

  6. Very well put.

    The fact that Bush approval numbers have been hovering between 30 and 35 percent leads me to believe that extreme E.I Syndrome is limited to roughly one-third of the American population. I’ve found that the remaining two-thirds of us can avoid the onset of extreme E. I. Syndrome by making sure we receive our Recommended Daily Allowance of reality-based facts.

    When I learned that a typical Mainstream Media diet failed to provide me with all the reality-based facts I needed, I began a daily regimen that includes a “liberal” dose of web-based reality supplements. Works for me.

  7. “Elective Ignorance” (great phrase, maha) is related but distinct from “Confirmation Bias”. Confirmation bias is the unconscious difficulty almost everyone has in accepting data contradicting preconceived ideas. It is the natural human bias towards data confirming already-held beliefs. C.B. is an unconscious process; it can be reversed by conscious attention. Elective ignorance is a conscious choice. C.B. is wrong by default, E.I. is wrong on purpose. Both are about hiding one’s mind from the facts; but while CB is a weakness of reason, EI is a crime against reason.

  8. Talk Origins had a post of the month in 2002 that talked about this in the context of creationism, taking off from Maxwell’s Demon (an early physics concept) called Morton’s Demon. You see lots and lots of the practice of pseudoscience in the rightwing — much of their beliefs are pseudoscience (creationism and ID, for instance) and so it’s not surprising to see them use the same tactics in politics and the rest of their lives that they bring to their beliefs. Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World talked a lot about this problem of not understanding how to reason being bad for both science and democracy. Part of what we see is the result of the rightwing’s deliberate attacks on science and reasoning for decades now; the degree to which ordinary people’s lack of reasoning power can be boosted has been cut substantially by people who really don’t want people to be able to reason their way out of the big wet paper bag they find themselves in.

  9. Elective ignorance is a conscious choice.

    Well, it is, and it isn’t. I think people fall back into elective ignorance for non-conscious reasons; mostly out of fear. It’s a learned (or conditioned) response to discomfort.

  10. Completely on target, maha. I ‘m looking forward to part II. I especially appreciated your recognition that questions about narrow worldviews are different from questions about intelligence. On the right-wing Christian talk radio show I often listen to (I can’t stop myself – it’s like eating sour candy, initially repulsive but it somehow makes me want to have another piece) I heard them talk about a “Worldview Weekend” for incoming college students. The students spend a weekend at this camp to get their heads straight before knowledge and facts breeds all sorts of doubts for them outside the protection of their parents and guardians. The guy running the workshop has a book divided into chapters that “explain” each of the worldviews floating around out there (e.g. “The Feminist Worldview,” “The Marxist Worldview,” “The Humanist Worldview,” etc.). He then explains how to process information from, say, the “feminist worldview” into the master worldview (their one watch) – the infallible “Christian Worldview” which trumps everything else. I think this is further proof that the mindset you critiqued in your post is, to a considerable degree, rooted in willful ignorance.

  11. Funny you should mention this Maha…I was thinking along the same lines as I thought about the comments that debbie person made regarding Americans stuck in Lebanon earlier in the week.Nothing anyone could have told her about those stuck in the middle would have gotten thru her thick skull…not the faces of innocent children.

    I once heard a simple line in a song that stuck with me: “The man that knows something knows that he knows nothing at all” ….Our world brings up children who are EXPECTED to have all the answers, rather than raising children who ask questions…kids are programmed to know “the correct answer” thus we close their minds to the fact that there may be others answers.It is easy not to consider other views in a society that conditions children there is but one right answer.

    Most E.I. that I have witnessed (including my own) has come from a lack of understanding.

    I can’t explain why, but some people just lack the ability to grasp any situation they themselves have not been in.Unless they experience it themselves they are clueless.They can’t put themselves in the place of a mother who’s last hope for her childs future was stem cell research.

    The thought that even if I was the smartest person on earth(as if) I wouldn’t have a fraction of the knowledge that there is to have ,keeps me asking questions rather than assuming I know the answers…….bush should give it a try.

  12. There are so many ‘watches’ in the mid-east conflict it’s stagering. It’s not only the nations, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Iran, United States, and Iraq. There are the ideologies: Suni, Shiite, Kurds, Judiasm (in it’s various forms). The survival of FORMS is at stake; fundamentalist thocracy (like Iran), Kingdoms (such as Saudi Arabia) amd ‘democracy’ such as Bush envisions. The UN will be pivotal in a solution (IMO), but in a condition that’s the inverse elective ignorance, they have NO idea what time it is.

    Little wonder is it that people cling desparately to simplistic solutions, when reality is so intimidating.

  13. Wonderful post. I’ve been wrestling with this concept for years because of my republican sister in law, a wonderful woman in every way but her politics–a smart woman in every way but her politics. I’ve talked about it with my young daughters in terms of “choosing not to know” things. I’ve said that my SIL “chooses not to know” that gays are regular people and that she “chooses not to know” the consequences or details of the bush administrations war plans because “choosing not to know” makes it easier for her to do what she was going to do anyway which was NOT PROTEST. I’ve also had this very conversation with another republican I know. when I bring up issues of serious importance she would look at me and say “but those are not my issues” meaning that she could simply leave thinking and acting about those issues to other people–even if they conflict with “her issues” she has chosen not to worry about it.

    Elective Ignorance is *exactly* the term I’ve been searching for.

    I’d also like to point out that we must all do this, to some degree, in order to function and that is we must all decide to hive off the information bearing function onto trusted intermediaries. That is part of our elective ignorance when we turn on the tV or listen to radio (and that goes for both parties, by the way). To the extent we really give over that function to another person we all risk remaining truly ignorant or being fooled. But we can live no other way in this complex world.


  14. You can get an idea of the psychology underneath this all by Googling “Borderline Personality Disorder” Also “Narcissistic Personality Disorder”
    Both are characterized by their rigidity.
    They are difficult to treat clinically and require a great deal of empathy before confrontation.
    e.g. I would say to someone whose pension was in jeapardy.
    “It must be difficult to vote Republican since they have stood by while your pension might be taken away.”
    Or…”I know your father has Alzheimers so the President’s opposition to stem cell research must be painful to you.”
    The most popular treatment specialist is Marsh Linehan.
    I’m from the psychoanalytic school since they place great emphasis on setting up a strong alliance with patients.
    Otto Kernberg and Heinz Kohut are our most famous theoreticians.

  15. American students who study or spend some time living in other countries acquire a cultural education that I wish all americans had. It is very odd that our prez was never taken on daddy’s trips abroad. People who work so hard to be insulated & isolated from anything that rubs up against their comfort level belief bubble are a pretty scared bunch. If a person’s beliefs are that easily altered just by being exposed to “liberal” teachers, schools, newspapers, etc. how solid are those beliefs or opinions?
    D R Marvel…so what happens when it all hits home?

  16. “Four researchers who culled through 50 years of research literature about the psychology of conservatism report that at the core of political conservatism is the resistance to change and a tolerance for inequality, and that some of the common psychological factors linked to political conservatism include:
    Fear and aggression
    Dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity
    Uncertainty avoidance
    Need for cognitive closure

    Terror management . . .”

  17. Maha, I love you, as many of my posts will show.

    However, I have a technological and philosophical nutcruncher for you: What if both watches are atomic, and therefore exactly the same?

    I haven’t worn a watch in 15 years, but if I get a new one, it will be set to the correct time. I’m funny that way.

    Great post, as always.


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  20. Great read! I can’t get over the similarities between this perspective and that of John Dean in his book “Conservatives Without Conscience” about authoritarianism in American politics.

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  23. This makes a lot of sense. It also plugs in well with the concept of Truthiness (what you want to be true despite any facts the contrary). IE people are addicted to the truthiness, the actual truth is discarded. Why do people fall into this trap? Emotional payoff. Truthiness is more emotionally satisfing, and easier to understand. The actual truth is confusing, containing shades of gray, may require introspection, admission that you were wrong about some things, etc.

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  26. Great post–Very eloquent!


    Conservatives are the way they are because they’re fearful,
    vulnerable souls who seek certainty and “rightness” at all costs, even if they have to tell constant fibs to themselves and others. to maintain their sanity and self-respect.

    Gosh, and I thought it was just because Conservatives were
    dishonest, hateful, prejudiced, ignorant, greedy, immoral SCUM.

    Maha’s explanation was very sensitive and deep.

    But, still…

    I think my explanation has a lot of merit to it.

  27. nikto — No one is intrinsically anything; there are causes and conditions that give rise to other causes and conditions. Name calling can be very gratifying — in indulge in it myself from time to time — but it has no practical application.

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