Arnold Kling  

This is Your Mind on Politics

Britain in the 1840s... Gains from Exchange...

Will Wilkinson writes,

It turns out politics not only makes us stupid. It also makes us callous.

He cites a study showing that we are less likely to project our own feelings on those with whom we have political disagreements. It's actually hard to summarize, so read the whole post.

I am definitely not a fan of partisanship after reading Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind. In Kansas City, I said that when one side calls intellectual fouls on the other side, this has a value of zero at most. The problems with calling the other side's fouls, as opposed to your side's fouls:

--you may be misjudging. Often, one makes the most uncharitable interpretation possible of what the person on the other side really meant.

--even if you are calling that foul correctly, the other side may be correct over all, and you are blinding yourself to that

--even if you are completely right, the net effect of pointing out the foul may be to make the other side angrier; rather than conceding, they will look for fouls they can call on you.

If your goal is to accumulate a fan base and fire them up, then of course calling intellectual fouls on the other side is the way to go. However, I claim that if your goal is to contribute to a discussion in which fair-minded people will consider changing their minds, then calling the other side's intellectual fouls does not get you very far.

I should emphasize that I have come to this view only recently, after reading Haidt's book.

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COMMENTS (11 to date)
Radford Neal writes:

But what would be the effect if everyone stopped pointing out egregious errors in the "other side's" arguments? I think one could expect an increase in the number of egregious errors...

Andy writes:

Good to hear you came to that view. I did too a few years ago after reading a lot of research on cognition and cognitive biases.

You may have read this Brink Lindsay essay already, but I think it goes well with your post here.

John S writes:

@Radford Neal,

1. Given human nature, it is much, much more likely that we're all being irrationally critical of our opponents than that we're giving our opponents too much slack. No matter how many people read Kling's blog post, I doubt this will change anytime soon.

2. Even if this were a legitimate concern, if you wanted to be rational, it'd still make sense to free-ride on the criticisms of others without participating yourself. That way everyone's kept "honest," but you avoid the IQ point penalty of joining your side in condemning those evil/idiotic Others.

joeftansey writes:


It doesn't matter if calling fouls leaves foulers unphased. Third parties still evaluate the foul and reduce their support/identification.

Communism would probably be a much larger movement if every layman didn't already know that communism "works in theory but not in practice".

Jeff writes:

This is all fairly reasonable and logical, but the problem I see is this: how many fair-minded people are you realistically going to be able to convince, even if you're a brilliant debater? Likewise, how do you keep people honest in a contentious debate if you refuse to call them out for their fouls? How do you plan to keep from getting pulverized, electorally, if you refrain from the messy, often-unpleasant task of building and energizing a political base?

The views put forward in this post, while noble, strike me as a wonderful recipe for political irrelevancy. You might create a highly stimulating and enjoyable atmosphere, full of lively debate among the relatively small subset of people that finds such debates appealing. If so, great. And if you work at it, someday you might even persuade Ezra Klein on some particular public policy question, like the merits of school vouchers or limits on collective bargaining rights for public employees or whatever. Meanwhile, the less scrupulous will be eating your lunch at the polls.

D writes:

Ironic coming from WW, who is quite nasty in describing people who ideologically differ.

Jim Glass writes:

Brain science has found that partisans get an endorphin high not from attacking the other side's falsehoods but from suppressing realization of their own.

That is, in simplest terms, political partisans get a chemical high from believing their own lies. Quote:

Once partisans had found a way to reason to false conclusions, not only did neural circuits involved in negative emotions turn off, but circuits involved in positive emotions turned on. The partisan brain didn’t seem satisfied in just feeling better. It worked overtime to feel good, activating reward circuits that give partisans a jolt of positive reinforcement for their biased reasoning.
These reward circuits overlap substantially with those activated when drug addicts get their “fix,” giving new meaning to the term "political junkie"...
Partisans get an addictive endorphin rush from denying their own side's deceits and faults. Does this suggest where wars come from?

BTW, I've mentioned this to acquaintances a couple times and gotten the response: "Yes! That makes perfect sense. Republicans are exactly like that!".

As I said in another comment here recently, IMHO if one becomes a political partisan one *will* become intellectually (at least) corrupted. It is in our genes. If it's for a good cause, it may be worth it -- but don't fool yourself about it. Well, you *will* fool yourself about it, that's the point.

To keep one's honest wits one must stay non-partisan (really, not faux non-partisan). But then one can't dedicate oneself to what seem worthy causes. And we all want the feeling of righteousness that comes with that. Tough choice.

John S writes:

For those concerned that increasing our rationality will make us politically irrelevant: we are all politically irrelevant.

The odds that our efforts (voting, mobilization, organization, etc.) will lead to some electoral outcome that would not have otherwise occurred is so miniscule that it can safely be ignored. That's true whether we're median voters or anarchists.

The only way to actually make your environment fit your political views? Change your environment. Join, build, and/or maintain communities that share and reflect your values.

Joey Donuts writes:

This little cartoon captures the argument well.

Wright Brothers

Jim Glass writes:

the problem I see is this: how many fair-minded people are you realistically going to be able to convince, even if you're a brilliant debater? Likewise, how do you keep people honest in a contentious debate if you refuse to call them out for their fouls?

Remember the fundamental principle of Public Choice: Almost everybody is ignorant of everything outside their immediate personal experience, and absolutely everybody is ignorant of almost everything outside their immediate personal experience.

This translates into a fundamental rule of debate: Never try to defeat the other debater, force him to concede to your side -- you have zero chance of doing that anyhow. Instead address the audience, which is 90% ignorant of what you both are arguing over, and work to win them over to your side. This entails entirely different tactics.

Ben Franklin famously totally schooled John Adams on this during their time in Paris (a story well worth reading for both fun and education). If he hadn't we'd still be speaking English today instead of American.

BTW, Milton Friedman was particularly good at this, and it was no accident, he practiced it.

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