BEND LIKE THE WILLOW

Last month’s blog, in an effort to bridge the chasm between left “truth” and right “truthiness,” introduced the recent social intuitionist model of cognition that maintains that logic is actually a faithful servant of the emotions instead of their master, and that this is the best arrangement for productive and successful decision making. Three scenarios in which deployment of pure logic would lead to disaster were offered as springboards into the murky depths of what social intuitionists call “motivated reasoning.” This month, we take a closer look at motivated reasoning and how an understanding of it might empower progressives to help save the world from the short-sighted, panic-induced policies and thinking being championed by the far-right. What follows is based largely on an article published in Psychological Review in 2001 by Jonathan Haidt entitled “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment.”

Haidt’s article opens with a scenario in which a brother and sister decide to make love. (Take note of your reaction.) Nobody else knows about it, both are consenting adults using protection, neither has regrets and no psychological backlash is evident. In fact, even though they agree not to do it again, they are glad they did it and they cherish what they shared. Was their action wrong?

Let’s say you are reading this with someone you respect. (It isn’t necessary to like them.) Chances are your first reaction is to recoil at the incestuous image. When your companion asks if you feel it is wrong you answer, without even having to think, that it is. “But how can you say that when no one was hurt? I think it was sweet.” What??!! How could they possibly believe…?! That’s crazy! Danger, Will Robinson! Your brain goes into overdrive to construct a logical argument to support your judgment (the “wag-the-dog illusion”). Your companion counters with their own logical argument, and that just makes you more determined to get them to see the truth before it’s too late.

Too late for what exactly?

Your reaction is immediate and strong. You do not spontaneously generate a list of logical pros and cons from which to make a reasoned choice, you go straight to judgment. Only afterward does your logic kick in to support that judgment. This, says social intuitionists, is how motivated reasoning works. You make an immediate judgment based on “intuition” or “instinct” or your “gut feeling” and provide logical reasons later. They have even identified the areas of the brain that handle each function. And here’s the kicker – unless you are very self-aware and somewhat trained in philosophy/logic, you are likely to hunker down into your post hoc “logical” interpretation even if a disinterested observer from Alpha Centauri Bb awards the rationality prize to your companion. Your companion/opponent is likely to do the same. Nobody’s mind will be changed and y’all might conveniently forget each other’s birthday that year. There is a better way.

First of all, understand that you are in good company with your nasty motivated reasoning and all – all other humans do it. In fact, Rationality Golden Boy and Founding Father Thomas Jefferson immortalized motivated reasoning in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Notice that Jefferson did not bother to construct a logical platform for these “self-evident truths.” He just stated them…as a priori premises… and then used them as a platform to brilliantly build a case for revolution against the English king.

So the first step in dealing with truthiness is to forgive yourself and your opponent for motivated reasoning and, like an intellectual Judo master, bend like the willow. Use motivated reasoning to your advantage. Use your knowledge of this invisible power, and your logic, to couch your explanations and arguments in the emotional terms of the cultural constructs that engender far right motivated reasoning and you are likely to encounter far less mindlessness. To change the course of a raging river of opinion, in other words, don’t try to build a dam in defiance of its torrent, go with it and gradually redirect the channel.

What are the right’s cultural constructs? What are the left’s cultural constructs? More to the point, what are the a priori premises upon which they each build their cultural constructs? Many of these premises are shared, and this provides lots of options for communication across the chasm. On the other hand, there are, arguably, two premises on each side that appear to be non-negotiable, that will probably require compromise. Stay tuned next month for that discussion. Fascinating stuff!

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