Minority Blindness to the Extent of Egotism


I hope the following is not a confabulation,  but I think I recall reading last spring that a couple of political scientists published a study suggesting that 17% of voters say they shape their votes based on warrants, i.e. reasons and evidence. For purposes of this post, it matters little if the correct number is 34%.

George Lakoff has repeatedly failed to convince Democratic politicians to focus their campaigns on idealized family values and an awareness of the power of cognitive biases. See his Moral Politics.  This failure is entirely understandable when we think of the emphasis by educators on building and respecting  rational structures. Whether out of ignorance for the way most people think or wishful thinking about how educators hope most people will evolve, educators tend to teach as if their efforts are part of a necessary and successful project to enhance appreciation for the essential role of reasons and evidence in human thought. Entire disciplines assume that humans are naturally rational or at least on the way to a deep respect for an epistemology reliant on relevant and dependable warrants.  In other words, the process of acquiring the architecture of rationality in school may have the effect of creating loyalty to that epistemology that damages the ability to realize how few people–a distinct minority–decide votes based on analysis of the logic, narrative, and systematic perceptions propping up particular policy preferences.

Thus when Lakoff’s counsel is rejected, it may be because those receiving the advice refuse to think that most voters are responding to core metaphors, cultural analogies, fuzzy abstractions, and tone of the candidates.  (I leave to someone else to explain why right wing candidates often appear to appreciate the power of the visceral and the symbolic in moving voters.) Then when he starts talking about cognitive biases, he is thereby denigrating the ideals of Jeffersonian democracy, and that denigration is so replete with ugly implications about typical voters that Lakoff has lost his audience.

Imagine the impact on our educational system and political strategizing were we to come to grips with the minds of most voters. Let’s look at a single cognitive bias as an illustration. Elizabeth Kolbot in a 2-27-17 article in the New Yorker tries to answer the question “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds?”. (In what follows I do not want to fall victim to exaggerating the meaning of a cognitive bias. The biases are proclivities, not always-and-ever explanations for our behavior.)

I want to summarize her argument with a story. I asked one of my students to make a huge list of putative  cognitive biases.  I recall his asking me after compiling an enormous list, “Should I coalesce all of the many biases that seem to fall under the rubric of ‘Egotism’?” I think the more evocative categorization would be “Egotism Run Amuck.”

Many of us are very familiar with the power and frequency of confirmation bias. Then there are its close cousins:

  1. “myside bias” which prevents me from applying the same intellectual standards to my arguments that I have learned to deploy when encountering the arguments of others, should they have the audacity to differ from mine and
  2. “the illusion of explanatory depth” See the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

To coin a term, our thinking suffers often from a “Self-fascination Effect.” Sloman and Fernbach in The Knowledge Illusion provide many illustrations of experimental scenarios in which our egotism pushes us to claim that we possess knowledge that vastly exceeds what we actually possess. The example that stood out for me was their demonstration that even some of the more simple things in our world are little understood.  We think we know about zippers and toilets, but when asked to describe how they work, our knowledge typically does not exceed that of the neighborhood 7-year old.

As a teacher, I  interpret their work as saying that until the knowledge illusion is disrupted, the learner feels little inclination to engage with lifelong learning in any form. My own experience trying to teach critical thinking is that I must spend a distressing amount of time showing my students that their knowledge  of careful thinking is puny. They do not want to hear such a thing, and I get no thrill in conveying that awareness. But I do not have much hope of enhancing their method of thinking in the absence of that prefatory intervention.

To finish as I began, I have no idea what a politician is supposed to do if the knowledge illusion is rampant among voters. But politicians must work with the voters they have, not the voters we wish they were. Consequently, seeking their votes probably requires successful candidates to engage the passions and fears of those they wish to represent. Doing so may be inconsistent with the assumptions of many of their teachers. But then how many of that cohort do you see as electable outside of California?


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