Arnold Kling  

Political Beliefs and Self-Deception

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Tyler Cowen wrote,


Just about everyone thinks that their political views are better than the views of smarter or better trained others. On economic issues, few voters defer to the opinions of economists. Nor does this appear to be a well-grounded suspicion of experts. Many citizens are deliberately dismissive, stubborn and irrational. At the same time these individuals maintain a passionate self-righteousness. They are keener to talk than to listen, the opposite of what an information-gathering model would suggest. Individuals tend to believe that their private self-interest coincides with the national self-interest. Debates and exchange of information tend to polarize opinion rather than producing convergence.

He argued that these observations can be explained by the hypothesis that we have a strong preference for self-deception, or confirmation bias. We throw out information that disconfirms our beliefs, while keeping information that supports our beliefs.

The paper is from 2003, but I just read it after following a link from Alex Tabarrok. Also, let me put in another plug for Overcoming Bias as the deepest intellectual blog that I have found. And also for Critical Review, which has a current "triple issue" on the implications of the public policy ignorance of both masses and elites. I have just started to work through the book-length issue.


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



TRACKBACKS (3 to date)
TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/621
The author at Muck and Mystery in a related article titled Political Failure writes:
    Perhaps I should go netless more often. Reading a lot of material in a short time in order to catch up, rather than in drips and drabs as it is produced, allows cross blog and media discussions to be more easily followed as a thought thread. Maybe. It... [Tracked on December 30, 2006 3:12 PM]
COMMENTS (11 to date)
Lord writes:

Good reason, not to ignore, but to consider and reject others opinions.

English Professor writes:

Tyler Cowen's complaint consists of the basic complaint against democracy. But in a democracy, everyone has the right to believe that his political views are better than those of other people--this is a fundamental part of democracy itself. Also, the divide between knowledge and belief is never as clear cut as many "experts" want us to believe. Even experts make their policy recommendations based on their beliefs: their beliefs may be more informed than those of the average person, but they are by no means "objective." If they were, you wouldn't have Paul Krugman and Gregory Mankiw looking at the same evidence but coming up with very different policy recommendations. In the end, the public lurches clumsily in one direction, then back in the other, and when things begin to look really bad, their elected representatives pay attention to experts who can supposedly help them fix things. And I still agree with William Buckley that I'd rather be governed by the first 500 names from the Cambridge telephone directory than by the faculty of Harvard.

And by the way, I suffer greatly from confirmation bias.

eric writes:

I remember reading somewhere that more intelligent people have a harder time digesting disagreeing views, in part because they are better able to rationalize dismissing them, in part because they tend to profitably digest these views less. Reminds me of any good lawyer I know, all very articulate and totally sure of themselves due to their rhetorical skills.

Lord writes:

Reason for any presumed expert to reexamine their beliefs in the face of presumed ignorance of the masses anyway.

aaron writes:

I noticed this with the Gerald Ford tapes. I think it is common in our "analysis as news" media. It seems to me Gerald Ford's position on the war in Iraq is being misrepresented.

In a Steve Benen post on Kevin Drum's blog, I wrote:

He didn't say Iraq was a mistake. He said he wouldn't have gone in as quickly as Bush did. He didn't say the war wasn't justified, he said that selling the WMD threat as the justification was a mistake. Just to be clear. He didn't say what you think he said.

In our attempts to find meaning in a world that is mostly random and chaotic and very complex, we are quick to abandon context to draw conclusions that don't fit the reality [A great example is this post, , where John Quiggin is taken in by the Guardian's hatcheting of comments made by Brigadier General Ed Butler. While it can't be confirmed, the Brigadier's follow-up letter to the Guardian gives weight to my hypothesis that the Brig. meant to insult the reporter.].

This is very important considering, as Steve Benen also notes, that people who would ordinarily find common cause with each other are quick to smear and dismiss persons for beliefs wrongly attributed to them.

Steve Sailer writes:

It's pretty funny to hear Tyler and Alex on this subject, since they sell themselves as experts on immigration policy, despite a striking lack of factual knowledge of the subject, as their commenters have pointed out on their blog on numerous occasions.

Perhaps economists are self-interested? I realize that violates the first law of economics -- "The laws of economics don't apply to economists" -- but, strange as it may sound, it just might be true.

Ray G writes:

Wow, is that arrogant.

Does Tyler really believe that enough formal training can overcome a person's natural tendency towards self-deception?

Did he personally start out as the rest of mortal mankind, and cross some intellectual rubicon? Or is he just so intelligent, that he was beyond such flaws of human nature to begin with?

If he started out as a normal human being, then he would be saying that that formal training overcame his tendency towards normal human flaws. But this would fail overall because for every economist that is truly "right" there are two more who are wrong.

If he was just so smart that he never wrestled with those human flaws, then that discredits the need for formal training to qualify as an expert. Not to mention a lot of very smart people with really bad ideas out there.

Hei Lun Chan writes:

I don't believe Cowen has ever stated that he was above the self-delusion that he describes.

And I look forward to future posts here and at MR about random topics leading to certain commenters talking about their pet issues even when they have nothing to do with the topic for discussion.

Martin writes:

"On economic issues, few voters defer to the opinions of economists."

Trust us, we know what we're doing.

Ray G writes:

I don't believe Cowen has ever stated that he was above the self-delusion that he describes.

And I look forward to future posts here and at MR about random topics leading to certain commenters talking about their pet issues even when they have nothing to do with the topic for discussion.

Chan is correct, I assumed a certain amount of arrogance on Tyler's part that I have since backed off of after reading more of the paper.

The second part of his comment actually makes him guilty of something he seems to be annoyed by however.

Snark writes:

What Mr. Cowen is describing is the False Consensus Effect. Conversely, many individuals believe that their private self-interests supercede the national self-interest, which, by definition, is non-consensual.

And while it may be accurate to say that we’re prone to confirmation bias in initially forming our opinions, most of us overcome this bias when repeatedly confronted with the truth (to the extent that the truth can be ascertained). Conflict resolution becomes increasingly problematic when we engage in political or religious debate, where differences of opinion are much more subjective.

That economists have failed to produce a predictive model without an accurate understanding of human cognition can be explained by the hypothesis that economics is a subjective science.

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