Saturday, October 13, 2012

Letting the Light In

According to Wikipedia, the psychological phenomenon known as confirmation bias works thusly:
[it] is a tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs. For example, in reading about gun control, people usually prefer sources that affirm their existing attitudes. They also tend to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing position. Biased search, interpretation and memory have been invoked to explain attitude polarization (when a disagreement becomes more extreme even though the different parties are exposed to the same evidence), belief perseverance (when beliefs persist after the evidence for them is shown to be false), the irrational primacy effect (a greater reliance on information encountered early in a series) and illusory correlation (when people falsely perceive an association between two events or situations).
We see this both on the left and right, as especially partisan liberals and conservatives often seem immune to facts.  The stories they tell, their ideological narratives seem both lacking in nuance and introspection.  In the Bush administration, the president was evil incarnate, a racist xenophobe intent on establishing a Born-Again Christian Caliphate.  Today, the president is a Socialist Muslim.  In both cases, policy objections are based on legitimate political and social philosophies.  Yet these deeper convictions become buried in unserious, often outright untrue and tribal attacks.

So, where does this come from?  It seems to be a cognitive style, and one that can be consciously guarded against.  If my view on an issue is quite strong, confirmation bias theory would predict that I would be more accepting of facts that seem to support it, and less accepting of facts that seem to contradict it.  Positive facts will reinforce my pre-existing narrative, as I will remember and incorporate them into my story.  Negative facts, on the other hand, will be more likely to be dismissed and forgotten. 

No one wants to be biased.  They want to be thinking clearly, bravely adjusting their beliefs according to evidence and reality, not illusion.  Yet given the universal nature of biased thought, and its terribly insidious nature, we must all admit that it is an unavoidable part of being a thinking human.  Because of its unconscious nature, unless we are actively setting ourselves on guard against it, recognizing its patterns in our own cognitive habits, its work will go unnoticed.  Daniel Kahneman talks about fast and slow thinking, in which most of our thought - conscious as though it appears to be at first glance - is actually being prepared in a largely unconscious manner, cooked up in the hidden kitchens of our primal brain, our conscious perception of it only served up as a final product at the last second.  Studies have shown that these pre-conscious, pre-formed thoughts actually begin their creation up to multiple minutes before they reach consciousness.  Yet our awareness of them feels instantaneous. 

One of the remarkable feats of he human mind is its ability to simulate multiple orders of consciousness.  Not only can we self-reflect on our own person-hood, we can imagine in others a model of person-hood.  We can assume, for instance, that if a piece of sweets tastes good to us, another person would also find it delicious.  We can then take this further, and imagine that another person has the same capacity, and imagine in them an ability to anticipate the response of a third party.  In his book, Unconscious, Leonard Mlodinov describes how writers often do an amazing set of mental gymnastics in not only imagining their reader's perspective, but imagining their reader's imagining of the story's narrator's perspective, and in turn of the perspective of the characters in the book.  Quite a hall of mirrors.

This capacity for imagining the other, maybe loosely described as empathy, is generally a highly-valued human trait, begetting wisdom and fostering trust and authority.  What more do we often desire in others than their ability to understand, to "get" us? 

And it is difficult.  As similar as most humans are, our different cultures foster different experiences.  Our different personalities and temperaments find us emerging as often quite dissimilar.  This can make empathy hard to develop.  Imagining second, third and fourth order personhood is often utterly impossible.  If we cannot understand another, to get into his mind and imagine life from behind his eyes, how can we imagine how he might imagine what lies behind our own?  How strange we must seem to him?  How might the extrovert imagine the world of an introvert, and how might the extrovert imagine an introvert might perceive him?

In learning theory, new thoughts, ideas and facts are more likely to be retained if they are placed within context of one's prior knowledge.  New information is more readily incorporated into old if there is a context within which new connections can be made. If one is unable to develop even second order empathy with sufficient accuracy with another, how is one to incorporate their ideas into their own? 

If every one was the same, it would be rather easy to accomplish this task.  This explains why we so enjoy hanging around people who are similar to us, who see things the way we do.  All we have to do is imagine what we would think if we were them, and - presto! - we get a fairly accurate idea of what they might be thinking.  When we meet someone of sufficiently different personality, culture or temperament, our capacity for empathy is suddenly lost.  Climbing into the space behind their eyes, it is as if we are climbing into the abyss.  Their words come at us as if from the darkness, attached to nothing we can relate to in our own experience.

Politics is the process of sharing power.  When we engage in political thought we are not only developing our own responses to how we want to shape society, but at the same time developing our response to the desire of others to shape society as they see fit.  If we believe that truth and facts are essential to shaping a society that is good, fair and just, then we must seek the most honest accounting possible of whence our ideas come.  Because we have no alternative but to rely on second, third, etc. imaginings of person-hood, we must endeavor to develop empathy with constant vigilance.

Unfortunately, this process is not only difficult when attempted with conscious purpose, it is hard to remember to attempt in the first place.  Therefore we must develop it as a cognitive habit.  In order to truly see the world as others see it, our minds must be as open as possible.

A number of obstacles stand in the way of developing an empathetic imagination.  As we saw earlier, confirmation bias makes empathy difficult from the outset, keeping us from being open to new ideas.  The more rigid we are, the more prone to reinforcement of preconceptions, even if the preconceptions are wrong.  If we surround ourselves only with those who think like us, we may feel more comfortable emotionally, and feel less taxed by the process of having to constantly negotiate unfamiliar personhoods.  Engaging with those who have very different and contradictory sets of values and beliefs can often leave one feeling numerous negative emotions such as frustration, confusion, anger and even sadness.

So it makes sense for us to choose to spend our time with those with whom we feel a kinship.  Yet what then to do when we are faced with political thought that has direct bearing on the society we all share?  If we cannot bear to actually be friends with others who see the world so differently, how are we ever to understand them well enough to experience their truth?

I think much of the answer lies in developing a cognitive style that is able to both and give and to receive political thought that is purposefully open-minded and attune to natural proclivities towards bias, not just in others but in ourselves.  We must in a sense develop our own second-order person-hood that resides within ourselves and exists in constant dialogue with new thought.  Much like an objective moderator of a debate, this "person" acts as an impartial arbiter of truth not by pronouncing on the accuracy of a given thought, but rather as a referee who's job it is to be on the look out for bias and other forms of mental laziness.

In order to develop such a cognitive style, however, one must expend extra time and mental energy.  This type of thinking is necessarily "slow" - it requires not just thinking the first-order thought, but performing the calculations for the second-order construct, and then in turn processing it and incorporating it into the original ideation.  In much of daily life it simply isn't practical; decisions and responses must occur more rapidly than time for sufficient second-order processing might allow. 

Fortunately, through sustained development, this type of slow-thinking cognition becomes more adept and itself becomes a piece of first-order thinking.  That is, it becomes less and less conscious.  New ideas are sent directly to this kind of "quality control" for processing as matter of course.  As we age and develop, we all become wiser; children have limited capacity for second-order thinking (however this is an important skill that can be fostered to a great degree in the earliest years).  When we think of "wisdom", what we generally envision is both an incorporation of slow thought processing such that it is nearly automatic, but at the same time a patient vigilance towards steady observation of nuance.  The more you know, the wise phrase goes, the less you know.

But how much of a role does ideology play a role in one's development of cognitive style?  As mentioned previously, both the left and the right have their share of fast-thinkers, both with a subsequent array of embarrassingly retarded ideas.  Yet the two ideologies seem to directly engender different levels of cognitive processing.  The left seems in many ways to be almost designed for slow-thinking, while the right does not.  One would think that this would not be something to be proud of, however the right actually promotes itself, and denigrates the left, as being just so. 

Right-wing critiques of the left are often that it is too open-minded, "relativist", or tolerant.  These are seen as weaknesses.  The left is seen as being too compassionate, too forgiving, too willing to cooperate with others, to let down its defenses and accept others.  These are all critiques that, at their core, are about empathy, or second and third-order thinking.  When Supreme Court Justice Sotomeyer was in the nomination process, Obama's publicly stated desire for a judge with "empathy" was pounced on by conservative critics as emblematic of everything wrong with liberalism. 

There is a reason religious fundamentalists are right-wing, not left-wing.  They are enormously rigid.  They see the world in black and white.  They abhor nuance and embrace literalism.  Their main cause is protecting what is traditional, preserving what is known and familiar. 

Progressivism is anathema to this state of mind.  It seeks to challenge existing dogmas and the concept of "common sense".  It promotes the new, the process of change, the deconstruction of old ideas and the concept of reinvention.  It embraces nuance and reinterpretation.  It abhors literalism and revels in the unknown and unfamiliar.

Of course, these are two poles, and most of us are somewhere between them.  But the driving impulses are real enough, and inform both ideological perspectives.  And both have serious implications for one's cognitive style.  The degree to which one embraces nuance, relativism, change and challenges to existing paradigms, one will be more comfortable with slow thinking.  The degree to which one embraces rigidity, literalism, tradition and conformity, one will be less comfortable with slow-thinking.

In this sense, one's degree of bias is built-in to their political ideology.  Liberals will indeed be more biased to the degree to which they, whether consciously or not, adopt the right-wing principles of rigidity and conformity.  Conservatives will be less biased to the degree to which they adopt left-wing principles of change, nuance and relativity.

All of us, if we agree that knowing truth is dependent on seeing reality - and seeing our own seeing of reality - from as many angles as possible, will endeavor to be vigilant against mental laziness and cognitive bias, to open our minds and let the light in.

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