Showing posts with label Better Stories. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Better Stories. Show all posts

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Republican Brain Part Eight: Don't Get Defensive

The last time we looked inside Chris Mooney's insightful and amazing book, The Republican Brain, conservatives and how they respond to authority was viewed through the cognitive lens. After the results of the 2016 election, this has never been more important. In fact, all of Mooney's book should be read by Democrats who want to win in the midterms in 2018 and take back the presidency in 2020.

In the next section we will be looking at, "Don't Get Defensive," Mooney cautions that people tend to get defensive when we talk about psychology and neuroscience. Mental health is a very personal issue for most Americans and there is still a great stigma attached to it. Considering that conservatives brains are on display in this book, Mooney spends the next chapter considering the possible outrage over what he has said.

Mooney with an outline of the chapter and summary of what is to come. He wonders whether it's fair to lump all conservatives together. Certainly a libertarian is vastly different from a Christian conservative. And don't conservatives lump liberals together? Can liberals be just as close minded as conservatives? The answer, based on what we have seen so far, is no and it's, once again, because of neuroscience. But what about independents? There sure are plenty of them. Can someone also be converted from left to right or vice versa? Mooney states that the left-right conversion is fairly easy if one employs fear and distraction. So here is Mooney, poking holes into this own research.

Who's a conservative...really? The answers to this question certainly varies from country to country. England's conservatives are ideologically more akin to our moderate liberals. When people answer questions on surveys about their ideology, invariably it's in opposition to something. Given that the word "liberal" has been effectively demonized in the United States, many people claim to be more conservative than they actually are out of fear of being looked down upon. Yet, John Jost's research (here and here) shows that there is a consistency in terms of behavior and political conservatism, even across countries.

What do all conservatives share? This question can best be answered by looking at the common traits, psychologically speaking, that most conservatives share. They are not as open to the world as liberals and fear change. New experiences frighten them and they are resistant to progress. Recall William F Buckley when he declare that the National Review "stands athwart history yelling Stop!!" Mooney, in one has to be an epic foreshadowing, notes, "the change that conservatives seek is not progressive; rather it is in the direction of restoring something they perceive as prior and better."

Like making America great again? :)

Mooney goes on to correctly note that the earlier status quo may not be one that ever existed. As long as they think it did, that's what drives their policies and agenda.

Why aren't we psychoanalyzing liberals too? Well, we are. There are an equal number of studies that show that liberals are more prone to appeasement and indecision than are conservatives. Again, this is merely because of the way their brains are made. Like conservatives, liberals tend to allow emotions affect their decision making process and the result is indecision and appeasement. Mooney notes for us all to remember that belief systems address psychological needs, whatever the ideology may be.

What about the difference between economic and social conservatives? While there are some differences, it's important to note here that both employ the "work hard and you will get ahead" model. Most conservative Christians I know are also die hard capitalists. It doesn't matter that they accept Darwin's "Survival of the Fittest" economically but not spiritually. The root force is still there: pull yourself up by your bootstraps and don't rely on the government.

What about the cultural cognition model? Let's recall the basic traits of conservatives and liberals. Conservatives are generally hierarchical/individual types while liberals are egalitarian-communitarian types. Isn't there something in the liberal personality type that would lead them to reject the science of something like nuclear power or vaccines in the same way that conservatives reject climate change? Not quite, notes Mooney. Cultural cognition models do show us interesting things about liberal reaction to these issues but they still don't react in the same way as conservatives do. They may understate the research or spin it but they don't outright reject it.

What about leftist regimes? Well, they aren't really all that "left" when you think about it. Communist regimes say that they are egalitarian but they usually end up being authoritarian and thus share more in common with a conservative psychological framework.

What about left wing ideologues? Extremism is extremism, right? I hear this all the time. Both sides are just as bad, especially as you move out from the center. Yet the evidence does not support this assertion. Conservatives are far worse in terms of rigidity and inflexibility. Researcher John Jost conducted 13 separate studies and not a single one showed increased rigidity on the left. They ALL showed it on the right, however. In fact, when Jost run more studies, he found that the more extreme one was on the left hand side of the spectrum, the more open they were. Robert Altemeyer confirmed this when he went on a search for the Loch Ness Monster of political psychology-the left wing authoritarian. He found none but did find plenty of right wing authoritarians.

If you stop and think about it logically for a moment, all of this makes sense. Liberals' biggest fault is their penchant for being too flexible and changing their minds often. That is psychologically valid. So, how on earth could they be authoritarian?

Why not better distinguish conservatives from authoritarians? Consider the three basic groups of conservatives: libertarians, status quo folks, and out and out authoritarians. The reason Mooney doesn't distinguish between these three types are that each one still has that fear of uncertainty, rigidity and antipathy towards progress. This gibes with what I have always seen which is that even libertarians have closet authoritarians inside of them:)

What about centrists and independents? Let's take a look at the four types of independents.

Libertarians: Lean conservative.
Post Moderns: Young, hip, secular, pro-environment, not very liberal, in the classical sense, on economic issues
Disaffected: Financially stressed, hate politics (AKA Trump voters)
Bystanders: Young, not politically engaged

In looking at these four types, we can see that these folks aren't really centrist at all. Sure, they don't want to be labelled as a "Democrat" or a "Republican" but libertarians and disaffecteds are really conservatives and postmoderns are more liberal. Psychologically, Mooney's classification system still applies. The libertarians and the disaffecteds are less open to change with the post moderns more flexible and more open to new experiences.

What about political conversions? In the final section of this chapter, Mooney takes a look at the psychological triggers that cause these shifts. Too much authoritarianism may cause some conservatives to shy away from populous shifts within the GOP. Fear invariably causes liberals to become more conservative.

Linda Skitka of the University of Illinois in Chicago set up a study in which both liberals and conservatives were asked to stop and think about what they were proposing to check on fear as a motivating factor. Participants were asked to consider different groups of people who have AIDS and whether or not they should receive government assisted help for their disease. Some of the AIDS victims got through no fault of their own and others got it just because they were careless. Both liberals and conservatives said that the latter group should not get government help but after some considering, liberals' natural psychological tendencies kicked in and they said they should. Conservatives did not waiver. Yet, if liberals were asked to do another task, like listening to music while considering this decision, they behaved just like conservatives.

Mooney also notes a University of Arkansas study in which alcohol and political ideology were studies. Scott Eidelman and his team of researchers literally set up shop outside of a campus bar and found that when people drink, they become more conservative. This makes sense because booze disrupts cognitive reasoning and more emotional responses take over. In looking at the states that went for Trump last November, one can see higher incidences of alcohol, particularly in the Rust Belt, and drug abuse.  I'll have more on this later as I think it directly relates to how Democrats have to connect with disaffected voters who left them and went for Trump.

So, in looking at all these question, research shows we came back with the same answers. The conservative brain responds much differently than the liberal brain despite a critical look. The peer reviewed evidence holds up under scrutiny. But what about the actual physical makeup of the brain? Can we see actual differences between conservative brains and liberal brains? That's the topic of the next chapter. Are conservatives from the amygdala?

Sunday, July 03, 2016

The Republican Brain Part Seven: For God And Tribe

The last time we looked inside Chris Mooney's insightful and amazing book, The Republican Brain, we saw that conservatives are dogmatic, intolerant of ambiguity and uncertainty, fear death, less open to new experiences, less "integrative complexity" in thinking and have more need for closure...all backed up by peer reviewed science. The next section in Mooney's book, "For God and Tribe," examines the moral system created by this type of political personality.

Consider the trolley dilemma. You are on a trolley that is about to have an accident. Everyone on board will be killed unless you push off one person in which case everyone will be saved. Do you do it? The cognitive processes of most people reason that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one so the sacrifice is made. But what if that person is named Jerome Williams and the other people on the trolley are all Nazis? Or the one person is named Chip Anderson and the rest of the people on the trolley are all Muslims? Or what if the person you are pushing off is fat?

In the next section of Mooney's book, he takes a look at motivated reasoning and the emotional impulses that drive it. A UC Irvine study showed that when liberals were presented with the either/or of saving a white guy or black guy, invariably they chose to save the black guy...even though they were explicitly told that race was not to be factored in to their answer. Liberals were intellectually more inconsistent conservatives. Perhaps race doesn't really matter to conservatives after all. At least it didn't in this scenario.

Yet when conservatives were presented with an alternate that involved a military leader in Iraq trying to decide to kill opposition leaders...conservatives gave the thumbs up if Iraqi civilians were going to be killed but the thumbs down if American civilians were going to be killed. So. the same inconsistency was present. Further, they accepted either civilian casualty as being a part of war.

So, why does this happen? Recall that Mooney discussed how liberals and conservatives tend to have classification types in terms of their ideological bend. Liberals are more egalitarian-communitarian whereas conservatives are hierarchical-individualists. Thus, we see why conservatives and liberals fall into this cognitive trap. Liberals have an bias towards making sure that everyone is equal so they feel bad for Jerome who is about to get pushed off the trolley. Conservatives trust that authority figure of the military leader and tend to want to protect their tribe more than the other tribe.

Closely related to this study of cognition is the work of George Lakoff and how all of us tend to think in metaphors. We understand what it means for stock markets to rise and fall because we are familiar with those descriptors in everyday life. Yet the word "family" means something entirely different to a conservative than it does to a liberal. When conservatives think of family, they think of a strong father figure. Liberals tend to think of a more caring and nurturing parent that is gender neutral. So, the way each political ideology views authority is different and this extends to science. Conservatives have no problem with nuclear energy, for example, because it fits in with the strong father figure that goes out and provides for his family in the free market of energy. Liberals, conversely, have no problem with climate science because it show the necessity of nurturing one's planet. It's not surprising that the science is denied is the one that goes against neurological type.

I was pretty amused when I read this because I simply accept the science of both. The cool thing about science is that it's true whether you believe in it or not. Why try to buck reality? Besides, I don't have any emotion invested in nuclear energy or climate science. My rational mind accepts the science of both. They are what they are.

The takeaway from all of this is that the leaders of the conservative base know exactly what kind of authority their people respond to and they use that to manipulate them. If an authority on climate science comes out and talks about how it is settled science, they will throw a competing authority that matches conservatives' God and tribe out there and all is well. The need for this becomes more stark as Mooney notes in the closing pages of this chapter how science, and, indeed, academia in general has people that are more liberal in ideology. Why? As previously noted by Mooney, liberals tend to psychological be more open to new experiences, novel ideas and want to use science to improve society. In short, they are progressive whereas conservatives are not.

Mooney uses the example of Galileo and Darwin. Even though they were separated by hundreds of years, each man was confronted with the same problem: instransigent, conservative ideology rooted in emotion, not logic and rationality. Each man had to buck the powers that were deeply entrenched in God and tribe. At this point, Mooney interestingly notes that even conservative intellectuals are aware of this. Yuval Levin, conservative science and policy writer, notes that conservatives have a problem with science when it directly threatens the imperatives of their cultural continuity. Again, God and tribe...

Mooney concludes this section by noting that the ol' conservative meme of academia creates liberals no longer applies when considering the research in this section. More liberals are in academia because of how the brains work to begin with and they are naturally drawn to places where openness to new experiences are the order of the day. All of the information in this chapter reinforces the overall thrust of this book so far. The conservative brain is, by nature, far different from the liberal brain.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Republican Brain Part Six: Political Personalities

Getting back to Chris Mooney's book, The Republican Brain, we now turn to "Political Personalities." Recall that Mooney has now firmly established that when people, especially conservatives, here something that causes cognitive dissonance, they feel like they are being physically attacked. So, they experience dis-confirmation bias and furiously hunt for "evidence" that proves that what is causing them physical discomfort simply can't be true. In short, they tell themselves a nice story.

There are many studies to back this up and they are detailed extensively in the first 50+ pages of the book. Now, however, Mooney details the study that blew it all open: The American Psychological Association's study from 2003 that found links between political ideology and personality traits. The psychologists sought patterns among 88 samples, involving 22,818 participants, taken from journal articles, books and conference papers. The material originating from 12 countries included speeches and interviews given by politicians, opinions and verdicts rendered by judges, as well as experimental, field and survey studies.

So what did they find?

Conservatives are dogmatic, intolerant of ambiguity and uncertainty, fear death, less open to new experiences, less "integrative complexity" in thinking and have more need for closure. Essentially, everything I have been saying on here for backed up by peer reviewed science.

The reaction from conservatives was not surprising. The denounced and condemned the study as "left wing rhetoric." They deluged lead researcher, Stanford's John Jost, with emails that were "incredibly aggressive, obnoxious and threatening." Jost remarked, "Ironically, they epitomized all the things they were trying to deny."

Since their report was released over a decade ago, there have been a myriad of studies which have affirmed the report. So, this report, which was  based on 88 different peer reviewed studies, now has just about as many studies, according to Jost. His study has been cited over 800 times since its publication. The science is solid: conservatives have different brains than liberals. It's not merely a matter of philosophy or environment. The way their brains are wired lead them to be dogmatic, intolerant of ambiguity and uncertainty, fear death, less open to new experiences, less "integrative complexity" in thinking and have more need for closure.

In a great number of ways, this explains why we have so much trouble progressing in this country. We certainly have made great strides since Barack Obama took office but we could be so much farther if it weren't for this brain type holding us back. Perhaps we could start by helping conservatives deal with uncertainty and ambiguity in a better fashion. As Mooney notes, dealing with the grays of reality depends on how you fall in the "Big Five" traits of human personality.

He goes on to describe how open minded people (mostly liberals) tend to congregate together. Close minded people (mostly conservatives) do the same thing. So, what tends to happen is that patterns are reinforced that strengthen a person's resistance to objective reality. And the places where each group hangs out is also different with open minded people and close minded people with the latter going to the same, comfortable places all the time. Open minded people tend to try new places to go and are more open to new experiences. It's no wonder conservatives react like they are being physically attacked when they are confronted by new facts. They are likely also in some sort of new environment that makes their cognitive dissonance even worse.

In putting all of this stuff together, it's easy to see that conservatives are in a great need for cognitive closure whereas liberals have a need for cognition. We want more complex problems and don't necessarily see open ended and ongoing issues as the end of the fucking universe. As I tell my teenagers (children and students), that's life. Deal with it. Money offers the example of abortion as a great example of this dichotomy between liberals and conservatives. Conservatives see this issue as very black and white. It's a child life and it's murder. They don't take into the complexity of child birth from an evolutionary standpoint nor do they consider the rights of the mother. Liberals, however, see that there are many factors to consider and the ultimate conclusion, while most definitely not perfect, is that abortion should be safe and legal.

Near the end of the chapter Mooney states

Authoritarians are very intolerant of ambiguity, are very inclined toward group think and are distrustful of outsiders. They have a need for order.

This really sums up today's conservative. They look at our changing culture and are completely horrified. In five years, white people will not be in the majority. Gay marriage is legal in all fifty states. A black man has served as president for the last two terms and a woman is likely to win the next term.

Their entire world is falling apart.

Thank God.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

The Republican Brain Part Five: Smart Idiots

The next section of Chris Mooney's book, The Republican Brain, is called "Smart Idiots" and it's honestly one of the most depressing sections of the book. It begins with a study of why motivated reasoning, which we talked about last time, occurs in individuals. Dan Kahan, a law professor at Yale, has a classification system based on how people reason with their moral and political values. Imagine a Cartesian plane like this one:

Now, imagine that the X Axis is a measure of individualism on the right and communitarians on the left. With the Y Axis, imagine egalitarians on the bottom and hierarchicals on the top. Broadly speaking, Kahan discovered that US conservatives are in Quadrant 1 (individual, hierarchical) and US liberals are in Quadrant 3 (communitarian, egalitarian). It's important to note here that individuals are really scattered all over the place and we're just talking about general groups.

Still, this explains so much to me personally. I've always wondered how a group of people who are so obsessed with individual rights are also so authoritarian. Now we know. They believe that a chief organizing principle for society is hierarchies, with the "right" people at the top. With so many US conservatives from the South, this clearly goes back to the Antebellum and all of its mythical structures.

So, how do these classifications apply to the issues of the day? One of Kahan's studies took groups of people and had them imagine helping a friend make a decision about three important topics: whether global warming is caused by human beings, whether nuclear wasted can be stored safely underground, and whether letting people carry guns either deters violent crime or worsens it.  The study subjects were then shown fake excerpts from a variety of "experts" on each topic.

The results were very telling. Only 23% of individual-hierarchicals agreed that any of the experts knew what they were talking about while 88% of communitarian-egalitarians accepted the experts as being knowledgeable and trustworthy. Right here is that instant and most adolescent reaction to people who are in authority and knowledgeable of which I always speak. Why? I simply don't get it. Are they that insecure about themselves?

What tends to happen in examinations of these issues is what Mooney calls the "My Expert v Your Expert" battle. Even worse....

When they deny global warming, then, conservatives think the best minds are actually on their side. They think THEY'RE the champions of truth and reality; and they're deeply attached to this view. That is why head-on attempts to persuade them usually fail. Indeed, factual counterarguments sometimes even trigger what has been termed the backfire effect: Those with the most strongly held but clearly incorrect beliefs not only fail to change their minds, but hold their wrong views more tenaciously after being shown contradictory evidence or a refutation.

This is very key information to have when having a discussion with a conservative these days. Remember, they feel like they are under physical attack. If they have very strongly held views, it will be worse due to the backfire effect.

Now, what's interesting about the backfire effect is that applies to conservatives only. Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth and Jason Reifler of Georgia State found that when conservatives were shown more and more evidence that Saddam Hussein did not have WMDs and that tax cuts do not increase revenue, they were MORE likely to believe the claim than before. I can personally attest to tax cut-revenue BS sadly being valid. Yet, when liberals were shown evidence in the same study that refuted claims that George W Bush "banned" embryonic stem cell research (he never did), liberals didn't backfire. They weren't more likely to believe the claim and, in fact, wavered more given the new information.

What this tells us quite simply is that liberals are generally more reflective and tend to be more open to new information. Consider the basic definitions of each word in objective reality

liberal: not opposed to new ideas or ways of behaving that are not traditional or widely accepted

conservative: not liking or accepting changes or new ideas

I'm always willing to accept valid, unbiased and verifiable data regardless of whether or not it supports my ideology. I am speaking of information that the cold and rational part of the brain can analyze. I haven't seen any such data from conservatives on most of the issues I discuss and quite honestly dismiss nearly all of it as wacky, ideological nonsense. Speaking of which...

The split over whether Iraq had the touted

 "WMD," and whether Saddam and Osama were frat buddies, represented a true turning point in the relationship between our politics and objective reality. In case you missed it: Reality lost badly. Conservatives and Republicans were powerfully and persistently wrong, following a cherished leader into a war based on false premises-and then, according to these studies, finding themselves unable to escape the quagmire of unreality even after several years had passed.

The "cherished leader" line echoes what I have said previously about President Bush and conservatives. He was their savior...their white knight... yet, on his watch, we suffered the worst attack on our home soil in history, a city fell into the sea, and the economy collapsed. By any metric in objective reality, he was a colossal failure. Much of the anger toward Barack Obama comes from the massive cognitive dissonance occurring within their brains.

At this point, we come to the most depressing part of the chapter and the origin of its title. Mooney posits that there is a "smart idiots" effect when it comes to many of these issues. One would think that the more educated a person is, the easier it is for them to accept objective reality. In fact, the opposite is true. It is because they are extremely intelligent that they can come up with intricate counter arguments and employ confirmation bias to convince themselves that their belief system is solid. Never was this more true than with global warming.

Humans, since the industrial revolution, have been burning more and more fossil fuels to power their societies, and this has led to a steady accumulation of greenhouse gases, and especially carbon dioxide, in the atmosphere. At this point, very simple physics takes over, and you are pretty much doomed, by what scientists refer to as the "radiative" properties of carbon dioxide molecules (which trap infrared heat radiation would otherwise escape into space), to have a warming planet. Since about 1995, scientists have not only confirmed that this warming is taking place,  but have also grown confident that it has, like the gun in a murder mystery, our fingerprint on it. Natural fluctuations, although they exist, can't explain what we are seeing. The only reasonable verdict is that humans did it, in the atmosphere, with their cars and smokestacks.

This is a great example of objective reality and thankfully one that is more reliable than people, especially the educated ones. Pew polls over the years have shown that Democrats accept this objective reality and Republicans do not. Worse, the more educated a Republican is, the more likely he is to reject the theory of man caused global warming. Astonishing...

Mooney offers further explanation of why this is the case. Even smart conservatives, for example, chiefly consume conservative news sources like Fox News. So, like anyone else, they are being conditioned. The more intelligent they are, the more resistant which does hold some good news for the rest of us in objective reality. We can, at least, attempt to persuade the less intelligent conservatives because the studies and the data show that they are easier to persuade.

What's even more vexing about this is that Kahan's studies sprinkled in other questions that were scientifically based but not very political. Nearly all respondents, despite their cultural background, answered the question with their colder and more rational System 2 brain. In fact, those who scored higher on the non political scientific questions but were individual-hierarchical distrusted climate science in greater numbers. Stunning!!

One big takeaway from all of this is the liberal line of "educate more people" needs to be retired. Becoming more knowledgeable will actually make it worse so the old idea about converting people with more education needs to go away forever. It won't work. They will just get worse.

In wrapping up this first section of the book, "Politics, Facts, and Brains,"  Mooney warns...

Motivated reasoning poses a deep challenge to the ideal of Jeffersonian democracy, which assumes that voters will be informed about the issues-not deeply wedded to misinformation. We're divided enough about politics as it is, without adding irreconcilable views about the nature of reality on top of that. 

Add in all of the new media of the last two decades and it truly exacerbates the problem.

The next section of the book is called "The Nature Hypothesis: Dangerous Certainty." It looks to be an even deeper explanation of the problem which is sort of a drag. At this point, I'd like to get to some solutions on how to go forward!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Republican Brain Part Four: Denying Minds

The next section in Chris Mooney's book, The Republican Brain, is called "Denying Minds." Recall my last post on this subject in which we examined the Marquis de Condorcet and his failing to recognize that having more factual information available doesn't always mean that reason will win. More avenues of data does not equal greater acceptance. Clear refutations of false claims does not mean they will be discredited and prevented from hanging around like zombie lies (e.g. supply side economics, tax cuts increase revenue etc). Why?

To understand exactly how the human brain denies facts, Mooney turns to the example of the Seekers. The Seekers were a UFO cult that were studied by a social psychologist named Leon Festinger in the 1950s. They believed that on a specific date, a UFO was going to come rescue them and take them away. When that day came and they weren't taken away, Festinger took great pains to note how all members of the group were able to change their story, even in the face of overwhelming evidence, so their belief system continued unabated. He dubbed what they experienced cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values. Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance focuses on how humans strive for internal consistency. An individual who experiences inconsistency (dissonance) tends to become psychologically uncomfortable, and is motivated to try to reduce this dissonance—as well as actively avoid situations and information likely to increase it.

This is exactly what happens to conservatives when they are confronted with information that is psychologically uncomfortable. They avoid situations and information that makes this sense of discomfort continue. Like the Seekers, they goalpost shift when their now completely refuted claims meet their demise. All too often, the goalpost shift takes the form of a personal attack against the person who refuted their claim. This makes complete sense because they feel themselves feel like they are under attack.

Worse, they table turn and, in typical adolescent fashion, they accuse liberals of having cognitive dissonance and goal post shifting. I've always seen this as simple and rudimentary reaction-a dodge to avoid responsibility. On certain issues, liberals do experience cognitive dissonance on certain issues (corporations, nuclear power, GMOS etc) but not to the degree that right wing bloggers and commenters claim they do. Conservatives have such a large collection of prior beliefs and commitments that cognitive dissonance is much more acute with them. So, when facts disrupt their lives, they seek to achieve consistency as a protection mechanism. This is what Festinger discovered that the Seekers did when their prophecy failed to come true.

Mooney notes that similar things happen with smokers who rationalize their habit. "It keeps me thin" or "I'll quit when my looks don't matter so much." I think this type of denial occurs every day within the Gun Cult. "Accidents won't happen to me. I'm responsible. So are all my gun buddies." "We aren't responsible for other people's stupidity." And so on...

Mooney notes...

Neuroscientists now know that the vast majority of the brain's actions occur subconsciously and automatically. We are only aware of a very small fraction of what the brain is up to-some estimates suggest about 2 percent. In other words, not only do we feel before we think-but most of the time, we don't even reach the second step. And even when we get there, our emotions are often guiding our reasoning.

That's why I've always been amused by conservatives who caterwaul about "feeling" liberals and "rational, thinking" consservatives." Once again, they head off at the pass, table turn, and redirect any attention away from what is really going on with emotional reaction driven by cognitive dissonance. In essence, we are talking about motivated reasoning. People tend to believe information that fits within their psychological make up (nature AND nurture...physiology and environment and there is scientific evidence that proves that they do this.

So why do people behave like this? Why do conservatives do it more often? Mooney notes that what is really going on here is a response by our primitive brain (subcortex, the limbic regions) that ends up overwhelming our more evolved, rational brain. These are the areas that deal with emotional and automatic responses whose purpose has been to keep us safe from danger for so many millenia. The newer parts of the brain (prefrontal cortex) that controls abstract reasoning never really kicks into gear because of the rapid response of the primitive brain. Frustratingly, these newer parts of the brain are responsible for mankind's greatest innovations yet they rarely "drive the show," as Mooney puts it. Perhaps it's simply a matter of convenience or we have become too lazy but we don't stop to really think things out.

System 1, the older system, governs our rapid fire emotions; System 2 refers to our slower moving, thoughtful, and conscious processing of information. It's operations, however, aren't necessarily free of emotion or bias. Quite the contrary: System 1 can drive System 2. Before you are even aware you are reasoning, your emotions may have set you on a course of thinking that is highly skewed, especially on a topic you care a great deal about.

So, the spreading activation occurs after the emotional response and reason is often overwhelmed. Again, the example of the Gun Cult applies here. Their primitive brain is driving the show and they are not taking the time to think rationally about the fallout from their ideology. They worry about piles of dead bodies in a gun free zone and completely fail to recognize the mounting piles of dead bodies every year with out of date gun laws...completely irrational and highly rooted in just such a spreading activation.

Here's another example of how this plays out.

Consider a conservative Christian who has just heard about a new scientific discovery-a new hominid finding, say, confirming our evolutionary origins-that deeply challenges something he or she believes ("human beings were created by God;" "the book of Genesis is literally true"). What happens next, explains Stony Brook University political scientific Charles Taber, is a subconscious negative (or "affective") response to the threatening new information-and that response, in turn, guides the type of memories and associations that are called into the conscious mind based on a network of emotionally laden associations and concepts. "They retrieve thoughts that are consistent with their previous beliefs" says Taber, "and that will lead them to construct or build an argument and challenge what they are hearing."

We see this on a daily basis with the president's policies. Every time he succeeds at something, the motivated reasoning wheels start to click into place for conservatives. Suddenly, an improving economy becomes the fucking apocalypse with their primitive brain driving the whole thing.

What this means is that conservative aren't reasoning, they are rationalizing. They aren't being scientists, they are being lawyers. They are winning the case within themselves by giving in to confirmation bias, offering greater weight to information (Fox News, right wing blogs etc) that bolsters our beliefs. They also give in to disconfirmation bias by hungrily trying to debunk any other information that interferes with their belief system.

So when good arguments threaten core belief systems. something very different happens as opposed to the reaction to the statement "2+2=5." The primitive brain doesn't come into play because there is no emotional response. We logically conclude error. We don't suffer from Francis Bacon's "idols of the mind." We are indeed capable of "cold" reasoning but all too often, this doesn't happen.

Mooney notes how this develops over one's lifetime. We are driven personally in how our brains were made (nature) and how we were brought up. We are driven beyond our own identity to hang out with people who think the same way we do. For conservatives, this is very deeply true. The beliefs that come out of this are physical, mind you, and not some floating entity next to their bodies. When they are attacked, it's no different than a physical assault. This is a very key point that everyone must understand when debating conservatives these days. It's no different than if someone invaded their home and threatened them.

And it explains so much. Now we can begin to understand why they take the positions they do. They favor loose gun regulation because they want to protect themselves. They favor tough immigration laws because they want to protect themselves. They want less government because they want to protect themselves. Consider every position they hold and ask this question...are they simply trying to protect themselves? Is that why they are being so irrational? The answer is yes. Now, I truly understand the motivation behind all the personal attacks I've experienced over the years. I am fucking up their shit and they view me (and all other liberals, really) as an invader threatening their way of life.

More importantly, we can understand, through scientific evidence, why this occurs more often with conservatives than with liberals. At the end of the chapter, Mooney notes Drew Westen's of Emory University's study on strong political personalities and their reaction to information that directly challenges their views. Westen presented respondents with an example of Bush flip flopping on something and Kerry flip flopping on something. Conservatives bent overbackwards to excuse the former and filet the later. Liberals did the reverse. Yet, Westen noted that Democrats were more likely to see hypocrisy in their own candidate and Republicans were less likely to see it in their candidate. The authors conclusion?

A small but significant tendency to reason more biased conclusions regarding Bush than Democrats did towards Kerry.

And while all of this was happening, respondents were having their brains scanned. None of them were using parts of the brain associated with cold and logical thinking. All of them were using the regions associated with emotional processing and psychological defense. As Mooney notes,

These people weren't solving math problems. They were committing the emotional equivalent of beating their chests.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

The Republican Brain Part Three: A Dream Ever Failing

In the prelude to the first section of his book, The Republican Brain, Chris Mooney laments a lost dream.

The dream was that the power of human reason would eventually stamp out lies, prejudices, and falsehoods, delivering a truly enlightened society. It would be a society in which ideologically driven misinformation would gradually decline or disappear, vanquished and chased from the public sphere by rational arguments (like mine). It would be a society in which everybody could agree on the core facts about the world, especially those that matter to public policy and the future.

Truly, a fantasy world today given how fiercely conservatives avoid core facts and rational arguments. In fact, their rallying principle is to fight against them with their own version of reality and far too many people follow along. Worse, they "turn the tables" and say that it's the Democrats who aren't rational, truly killing this dream or a rational world.

But this dead dream didn't just recently die. It has been dying all along human history. Mooney cites the example of Marquis de Condorcet as an excellent illustration of this idealism. Condorcet was a passionate philosopher during the Age of Enlightenment. He hung out with Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Like all the great thinkers of this time, he championed the science of society and a society of social mathematics. He predicted a world that where reason and facts win out. He saw the villains of this world as dictators and priests and the heroes were the scientists and the innovators.

As Mooney notes... inquiry and critical thinking-"that spirit of doubt which submits facts and proofs to severe rational scrutiny"-must prove unstoppable. It's virtually a law of nature. In the long run, our better faculties will enable not only the expression of human reason, but the creation of political system based upon universal human rights, social contracts, majority rule, and so on-precisely the sort of constitution Condorcet tried to establish in France as the terror descended. 

The terror, of course, being the French Revolution. As Condorcet vainly tried to instill this philosophy in the new constitution, angry and hateful men (the Jacobins) rebelled against this rationality. Of course, Condorcet believed that if he got the word out about his type of society, through widespread dissemination via the printing press, rationality would "stamp out" wacky, ideological nonsense. Imagine what Condorcet would have thought about the internet and social media!

What he didn't realize was that the wider nets of communication allowed many other messages to mix in with the rational ones. Further, he neglected to understand that the human mind, in capturing these irrational messages, might be affected by them. The human mind had indeed progressed but, at its base, it was still primitive. So, the question does this happen?

More importantly, what are the facts regarding why we deny facts? Science doesn't always persuade us let alone mere facts. Education doesn't really help either. Even having more information means that there are many more instances to twist reality and skew the facts. Why? What is the science about why we deny science?

This is what Mooney will be exploring in the next section of the book and the topic of my next post in this series.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Republican Brain Part Two: Liberal Denial and A New Framework

A few weeks ago, I was talking with a guy I know from the club the other day about the military. He served in Vietnam and we always like to discuss history as we pump iron. I mentioned to him that the Pentagon these days has their eyes on the larger threat of climate change and the implications it presents for destabilization around the world.

He instantly became enraged and began to caterwaul about how it was all made up, a hoax etc....the usual response that comes from a plethora of right wing propaganda. I tried to explain to him that the science was solid but he would have none of it. I walked away in frustration, as I invariably do when I try to let facts pierce the bubble, and wondered what I could have said differently to change his mind. Since that time, I have been reading Chris Mooney's book, The Republican Brain and, as the rest of the introduction shows us, I failed to recognize key traits of the conservative brain,.

In short, I was a liberal in denial.

As seen in my first post about Mooney's book, the distribution of falsehoods is not equal or symmetrical across the political spectrum. As Mooney puts it, "It's not that liberals are never wrong or's that political wrongness is clustered among Republicans, conservatives, and especially Tea Partiers." Worse,

Insanity has been defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome and that's precisely where our country stands now with regard to conservative denial of reality.

Sadly, we have been trained to "equivocate" by the media and, indeed, our culture at large. In order for us to move forward, non conservatives have to end this behavior immediately. Why?

The cost of this assault on reality is dramatic. Many of these falsehoods affect lives and have had-or will have-world changing consequences. And more dangerous than any of them is the utter erosion of a shared sense of what's true-which they both generate and perpetuate.

No doubt. The falsehoods regarding guns, detailed on this site, are directly responsible for thousands of deaths from gun violence every year. What are some other patently wrong ideas? Here are a few from pages 4-5 of the book.

1. The Affordable Care Act-government takeover, death panels, increase federal budget deficit, cut Medicare benefits, subsidize abortions, health care for illegal immigrants.

2. Abortion increases risk of breast cancer and mental disorders

3. The Iraq War-Saddam had WMDs.

4. Economics-Tax cuts increase government revenue 

5. Science-Climate change is a hoax, evolution not accepted by 43 percent of conservatives

As Bill Maher would put it, these are all Zombie Lies. They keep coming back...again and again, and as they do, Mooney warns...

Errors and misconceptions like these can have momentous consequences. They can ruin lives, economies, countries, and planets. And today, it is clearly conservatives-much more than liberals-who reject what is true about war and peace, health and safety, history and money, science and government.

In other words, political conservatives have placed themselves in direct conflict with modern scientific knowledge, which shows beyond serious question that global warming is real and caused by humans, and evolution is real and the cause of humans. If you don't expect either claim, you cannot possibly understand the world or our place in it.

Now that we have established that this is the case with today's conservative, we have to understand why the believe what they do. This is the road map to where Mooney will be going with the rest of the book. Half of the explanation lies with what Mooney calls the environmental reason or the "nurture" aspect of conservative development. In a nutshell, the GOP did what it had to do to get ahead. They embraced the religious right and corporate interests that directly conflict with the obvious solutions to the list above. Conservative culture arose out of these interests and this is how they are weened as they develop.

Further, they reacted to the 1960s counter culture movement in classic fashion, deriding "too much change, too much pushing of equality, and too many attacks on traditional values-all occurring too fast." If you put baby in a corner, a right wing authoritarian emerges:)

Of course, this doesn't account for the psychological side of the equation which is the other half of the explanation for why conservatives believe as they do. The conservative platform offers a solution to this way too fast change that hits people on a deeply psychological level. As Mooney puts it, "it's something certain in a changing world; wanting to preserve one's own ways in uncertain times, and one's one group in the face of difference." Ideology is, after all, deeply personal and emotional so, naturally, it's directly tied to psychology.

I've written about this many times. This need arises from fear as one ages. Personal, physical failings stoke the fires of blame for the outside world. This, in turn, leads to that adolescent behavior and a desire to live life like we used to "back in the day." I always chuckle about this when some of my conservative friends wax nostalgic about eating what they want, not wearing a helmet, and being gone all day playing when they were kids. This is a direct response to fear of getting old and dying. There's a reason we don't do these things anymore....because we have progressed and evolved to live a higher quality of life!

Mooney then explains how this path will not be one of reductionism (conservatives are like this because their psychology...blah blah blah). The path will be one of determinism, encompassing all of the aspects that human beings deal with on a daily basis in their interactions with an emphasis on psychological reactions. This path must explore all the variables that lead to why conservatives are more closed, fixed and certain in their views and why liberals tend to be more open, flexible, curious and nuanced. On page 12, he issues the following warning...

[Conservatives]...won't like hearing that they're often wrong and dogmatic about it, so they may dogmatically resist this conclusion. They may also try to turn the tables and pretend liberals are the close minded ones, ignoring volumes of science in the process.

Turn the tables? Conservatives? Nah....:)

With the foundation now more or less set, the core reason for that path we are about to take is then revealed by Mooney. Regarding liberals,

On the one hand, we're absolutely outraged by partisan misinformation. Lies about death panels. Obama is a Muslim. Climate change denial. Debt ceiling denial. These things drive us crazy, in large part because we can't comprehend how such intellectual abominations could possibly exist. I can't tell you how many times I've heard a fellow liberal say, "I can't believe the Republicans are so stupid they can believe X!"

And not only are we enraged by lies and misinformation; we want to refute them-to argue, argue, argue about why we are right and Republicans are wrong. Indeed, we often act as though right wing misinformation's defeat is nigh, if we could just make people wise and more educated (just like us) and get them the medicine that is correct information. 

In this, we both underestimate conservatives, and we fail to understand them.

Stunning. Remind you of anyone?:)

These passages led me to serious reflection. Eventually, the facts will win but how long will that take simply because liberals are in denial about the nature/nurture of conservatives? How many more people will suffer simply because liberals are stuck thinking that facts alone will change things..that we fail to note "how people work," as Mooney puts it? I've started down this path somewhat, I suppose, when I talk about gun violence. The Gun Cult won't change until they are personally affected very deeply by tragedy. But this isn't enough.

So what are the basics of how conservatives work?

So it's not that Schlafly, or other conservatives are stupid or can't make an argument. Rather, the problem is that when Schafly makes an argument, it's hard to believe that it has anything to do with real intellectual give and take. He's not arguing out of an openness to changing his mind. He's arguing to reaffirm what he already thinks (his "faith"), to defend the authorities he trusts, and to bolster the beliefs of his compatriots, his tribe, his team.

This paragraph pretty much sums up every blog discussion with conservative commenters for fucking ever!! This is exactly the motivation behind conservatives' arguments and why they behave and think the way they do. This is how they work. By denying this reality, liberals are helping to perpetuate the erosion of country. We must understand this is the place from where they define themselves.

We need a new strategy and the rest of Mooney's book details such a new strategy. I'm looking forward to the answers that he's going to offer because, while I'm please with the progress we have made since the president took office, we obviously have a much longer way to go. We can get there if we have a deeper understanding of how the conservative really operates and functions.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Republican Brain, Part One: Two Levels of Frustration

As we enter the 2016 elections, I think that every single citizen of the United States should the book, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science- and Reality by Chris Mooney. Over the course of the next several weeks, I'm going to be examining the book in detail and my hope is that I can ameliorate my two levels of frustration that I have with conservatives. What are those two levels of frustration, one might ask?

It begins with the simple fact that conservatives deny reality. In their world, our economy is awful, the Affordable Care Act is a failure, and climate change is a liberal hoax. In reality, our economy has improved dramatically since the Great Recession and is quite robust at present. The ACA is quite literally saving lives. And the threat of climate change has risen to such a high degree that the Pentagon is treating it as one of the gravest security risks of the future. So, this is the first level of my frustration.

The second level is even more confounding and awful. Conservatives think that the rest of us are the ones that are actually brainwashed and live in a different reality. They use their perceptual framework and fop it off on everyone else. What Mooney's book does so eloquently is illustrate how the conservative brain is vastly different from the liberal brain or even the independent brain. Conservatives don't think like anyone else because that's how their brains were made from a physiological perspective. Thus, when they push their perceptual framework on liberals and independents, they are committing a massive error in judgement.

Liberals and independents don't strive to shut out new information. That's what conservatives do. Mooney opens up his book with an introduction called "Equations to Refute Einstein." In this section is a quote from Andrew Schlafly, founder of Conservapedia, AKA the alternative to reality. I've heard of the site before but have never explored it until I started reading Mooney's book. After reading a few entries, I was completely horrified. As an instructor of history, there hasn't been such a collection of propaganda and out and out lying since the Age of Totalitarianism. It is further proof of Sorkin's American Taliban theory.

Take a look at the entry on homosexuality. Kind sounds like the same garbage we see from (ahem) other religious extremists in the world....who could they be, again?:)

Here's the one on climate change.

Check out this one on "liberal denial". Oh, the irony!

This one made me fall over in laughter.

Mystery:Why Do Non-Conservatives Exist?

Mooney offers a quote from Schlafly in this first part of his book to explain why Conservapedia was created.

It strengthened my faith. I don't have to live with what's printed in the newspaper. I don't have to take what's put out there by Wikipedia. We've got our own way to express knowledge, and the more that we can clear out the liberal bias that erodes our faith, the better.

This statement confirms several assertions I have made on here over the years. Conservatives believe that reality has a liberal bias and if they don't like something, they bury their heads in the ground like ostriches. The "I don't have to live with" remark may has well have come with a long stomp down the hallway and a "Fuck you, Dad!"

More importantly, this quote is an excellent illustration of my two levels of frustration with conservatives. They willfully deny reality and erroneously think, in a massive way, that liberals are the ones doing so. But why do they do this?

It's because conservative leaders tell a better story. Think about it for a minute. You don't have to hear about things you don't like anymore. Only good things. Wholesome things. The way America used to be before freedom died and the fucking commies took over. Things are all normal and good without pesky reality intruding in to the mix.

And you don't have to eat your vegetables neither!!!