Let’s Discuss: How Politics Makes Us Stupid

There is a fascinating article up at Vox.com that I encourage all NCDD members and subscribers to our Transpartisan Listserv to give some thought to. My friend Jean Johnson at Public Agenda, one of NCDD’s organizational members, alerted me to it last week, and it ties directly into conversations that are going on in both the NCDD Discussion list and the Transpartisan list.

PoliticsStupidPost1The article by Ezra Klein, How Politics Makes Us Stupid, talks about research that shows that a more informed public has little effect on politics, polarization, and political opinions. Instead, “Cutting-edge research shows that the more information partisans get, the deeper their disagreements become.”

Researcher Dan Kahan’s findings were that people accepted some information without any problem — but in cases where their social standing and relationships were effected by their take on an issue, people dismissed information as faulty that didn’t line up with their group’s / tribe’s / community’s stances. This was true for partisans on both sides of the aisle.

Here’s an excerpt:

Kahan is quick to note that, most of the time, people are perfectly capable of being convinced by the best evidence. There’s a lot of disagreement about climate change and gun control, for instance, but almost none over whether antibiotics work, or whether the H1N1 flu is a problem, or whether heavy drinking impairs people’s ability to drive. Rather, our reasoning becomes rationalizing when we’re dealing with questions where the answers could threaten our tribe — or at least our social standing in our tribe. And in those cases, Kahan says, we’re being perfectly sensible when we fool ourselves.

And another:

Kahan calls this theory Identity-Protective Cognition: “As a way of avoiding dissonance and estrangement from valued groups, individuals subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values.” Elsewhere, he puts it even more pithily: “What we believe about the facts,” he writes, “tells us who we are.” And the most important psychological imperative most of us have in a given day is protecting our idea of who we are, and our relationships with the people we trust and love.

This has so many implications for dialogue and deliberation work — about the role of experts and the effectiveness of expert knowledge, for instance. It makes me wonder if we emphasize enough the SOCIAL aspects of dialogue and deliberation. Are we doing enough to help people feel affinity for each other before launching into high-level deliberative discussions, for instance? Are we doing enough to change the culture of our communities, or are we just engaging those who are already receptive to considering different viewpoints?

PoliticsStupidPost2The article goes on to talk about how Washington has become a machine for making identity-protective cognition easier. There is lots of thought-provoking stuff in this article for transpartisans to consider!

My big disappointment with this article is the conclusions at the end. Kahan has come up with “communications” solutions, like having the FDA think through what people’s rational position-based arguments will be against a new policy, and communicate their decisions in a way that provides a rational response to those arguments. The author, Ezra Klein, is dissatisfied with that solution and refers to it as “spin” at one point, and he concludes that “If American politics is going to improve, it will be better structures, not better arguments, that win the day.”

To me, the whole article pointed to the need for people to develop connections and relationships — strong ones — to those outside of their tribe. Of course I see dialogue and deliberation as being key to that shift. Engaging in meaningful conversations about tricky issues like gun safety, climate change, and abortion with people you don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye with is not just about thinking more deeply or more rationally about these issues than we tend to. It’s also about seeing those who are “outside of your tribe” (those from the other side of the aisle, or those from a different class, race or generation than you) in a different light.

Portland2010-cafetableThis is one of the reasons NCDD has always encouraged “dialogue” to happen before “deliberation” takes place. Thought these terms (and the practices they represent) often blur, dialogue centers around storytelling, relationship-building and a focus on building understanding before any kind of decision or action is on the table. Deliberation tends to focus more on understanding issues, options and trade-offs to set the stage for better decisions and judgments. (Dig in a little deeper on our What Are Dialogue & Deliberation? page.)

We are in dire need of both dialogue and deliberation today, but combined, I believe these practices can work to counteract this “Identity-Protective Cognition” — or at least help people begin to broaden their ideas about who is in their tribe.

What do you think? Do you agree that “D&D” can counteract our tendency to only be effected by the evidence that leaves us unchanged and feeling safe with our social group? And if so, what are our shining examples of where this is happening? Where are you making inroads on this? And perhaps most importantly, what can be done to encourage your good work to become more widespread?

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