Dealing With Political Blind Spots
December 1, 2010

Ezra Klein had a great rundown yesterday on a psychological phenomenon called motivated skepticism:

 On the simplest level, American politics presents us with an incentives problem: McConnell — like most minority leaders — is an avowedly reflexive opponent of the president’s reelection. The president’s reelection campaign depends on an improved economy. That a rational actor working inside the system’s rules might prefer — and even be able to bring about — a weak economy should scare us, even if we don’t believe they’ll purposefully try and do it.

In part, that’s because the word “purposefully” doesn’t offer as much protection as we might wish. Humans have a funny way of following their incentives even when they don’t realize that’s what they’re doing. McConnell doesn’t have to believe he’s hurting the economy in order to hurt the economy. Rather, if the incentives and distortions of heated partisanship leave powerful actors like McConnell unable to partner with the White House to help the economy recover, that in itself could do damage to the economy, particularly amid divided government (indeed, there’s some evidence that the economy performs better under unified government). And McConnell could easily do that while believing everything he’s doing is meant to help the economy.

Psychologists call the mechanism behind this “motivated skepticism.” When we’re faced with information or ideas that accord with our preexisting beliefs about the world, we accept them easily. When the ideas and information cut against our beliefs, however, we interrogate them harshly, subjecting them to endless scrutiny and a long search for contrary evidence which, when found, we accept uncritically.

 This concept seems pretty fundamental to understanding why people hold and advocate the beliefs they do. Yet so often our speculation about the motives of partisans and advocates gets reduced to who really believes what they’re saying and who’s a pure snake oil salesman. The reality is a whole lot messier than that: I don’t think Glenn Beck is trying to pull one over on his audience when he tells them to invest in gold, but Goldline advertising dollars wouldn’t exactly incline anyone to be more skeptical of gold’s value. Similarly, those on the left who expressed outrage at the Bush administration’s civil liberties abuses yet remain silent through Obama’s aren’t opportunists indifferent to the horrors of torture and indefinite detention. It’s just significantly harder to accuse someone whose success you feel invested in a war criminal.

Understanding how motivated skepticism affects your opponents’ positions is important. But I’d argue it’s even more important to be aware of how it affects your own positions. For example: Much of the time I’m a fairly predictable orthodox liberal. (You might have noticed.) My career path and social milieu, among other things, are both very strong incentives to adhere to orthodox liberalism as much as possible. Knowing that, I try as best I can to factor it into my understanding of policy matters. That means reconstructing conservative arguments own my own as best I can to make sure that I’m representing them to myself accurately, and treating liberal arguments with just as much skepticism, if not more.

At least, that’s the standard I try to hold myself to. We’re not really built to do that, but it seems to me like making the attempt to compensate for these cognitive biases is often the definition of good faith engagement.

Semi-related: You know what’s a great blog? You Are Not So Smart.

Crossposted at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen.

Decision Points
November 22, 2010

DALLAS - NOVEMBER 09:  Former U.S. President G...
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In his review of Decision Points, George Packer writes that former President Bush “has no toleration for ambiguity”

he can’t revere his father and, on occasion, want to defy him, or lose charge of his White House for a minute, or allow himself to wonder if Iraq might ultimately fail. The structure of “Decision Points,” with each chapter centered on a key issue—stem-cell research, interrogation and wiretapping, the invasion of Iraq, the fight against AIDS in Africa, the surge, the “freedom agenda,” the financial crisis—reveals the essential qualities of the Decider. There are hardly any decision points at all. The path to each decision is so short and irresistible, more like an electric pulse than like a weighing of options, that the reader is hard-pressed to explain what happened. Suddenly, it’s over, and there’s no looking back.

No wonder, then, that Fox News continues to function as his in-house PR firm. The whole right-wing noise machine is oriented towards one thing: the promise of a wholly unambiguous world, with the evil elites on one side and the salt-of-the-earth forces of good on the other. Why, in a world like that, would historic decisions ever be difficult?


July 14, 2010

President Barack Obama talks with White House ...
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Steve Clemons is one of my favorite commentators on matters of foreign policy, but, as with many brilliant IR wonks, I often find his thoughts on domestic politics to be rather lacking. Case in point, his scolding of White House press secretary Robert Gibbs for conceding the obvious: that the Democrats might very well lose the House in November.

Clemons fails to acknowledge that by ratcheting down expectations, Gibbs is trying to head off the PR catastrophe for the Democrats if the GOP does seize the House. If Democrats can honestly claim that this is something they anticipated, and is not, in fact, some kind of enormous, unexpected coup, then it will soften the blow a little bit, and potentially blunt some of the Republican momentum.

More to the point, the White House needs the liberal base of the Democratic Party to realize just how likely a possibility Republican control of the House actually is. If that happens, then the left’s legislative agenda could conceivably come to a dead stop for the next two years. Right now, quite a few liberal activists are disappointed with what Obama has been able to accomplish, and as a result they’ve been less than totally onboard with this election. Gibbs is telling them: Get to work, or else this could get a whole lot worse.

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