fbpx

How Politics Makes Us Stupid – Vox Edition

Recently, I have taken to reading the website Vox, started by Ezra Klein based on the view “that current news websites [do] not provide enough context to the stories they cover.”  I agree that Vox provides a lot of background, which makes it attractive.  I also read it because I like to have access to different political perspectives, and Klein’s is certainly that.

A recent article on Vox illustrates the benefits and costs of the website.  The piece “How Politics Makes Us Stupid,” written by Ezra Klein, discusses the work of Yale Law Professor Dan Kahan, which argues that people often reject evidence because of the social effects that accepting that evidence would produce.   Kahan’s theory is called Identity-Protective Cognition.  As Klein quotes Kahan, “as a way of avoiding dissonance and estrangement from valued groups, individuals subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values.”  The idea is that if someone suddenly accepted arguments from a different ideological perspective, their friends and support groups – which are organized ideologically – would criticize them and most people are unwilling to accept that.

The idea is quite interesting.  To my mind, it is not simply that one’s support groups would attack one for straying from the party line; it is also that those same groups praise us when we further their values.  When one adds these motivations to the ideological passions, the effect is very powerful.

What is funny is that Klein appears to recognize, at least implicitly, that “identity protective cognition” applies to both the left and the right, but the article is filled only with examples of right wing people rejecting evidence – whether it be Justice Scalia, Sean Hannity, or more generically people who reject climate change.  It is as if Klein wants to suggest that people on the left are not motivated by such considerations.  It would be funny if it weren’t so sad. 

It is true that in the long article Klein does have one line where he says, “How can I know that this article isn’t a form of identity protection?”  But that is just a throw away line never further developed.  One of the ways that one avoids the type of problems that Klein bemoans in the piece is for people to recognize that their side is sometime wrong.  But Klein is not having any of it.

So read Vox for the interesting stories, but be prepared for the unacknowledged bias.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on December 20, 2014 at 02:17:26 am

Yes and that "unacknowledged bias" you write of deludes Leftists into thinking that their ideology is somehow representative of The Center and that, because their views define The Center, their worldview is moderate and rational.

As you say, Dr Rappaport, "it would be funny if it weren't so sad."

read full comment
Image of Nodnarb the Nasty
Nodnarb the Nasty
on December 20, 2014 at 10:35:37 am

I call this the circuit-breaker effect. An idea is so threatening that the neurons just shut down. (George Orwell called it in "1984", when his characters were so programmed that thought crime became impossible.)

This in not solely a political phenomenon, though. A non-political example is provided by the recent NORK cyberattack on Sony, and by the possible effects of an EMP or cyberattack on the nation's electric grid. If the grid were to go down, 99% of us would die within a month. Serious people who know a lot regard this threat as real, and mortal. (See my Lights Out, at the AEI website.) DHS regards a grid-down scenario as plausible, as Bill Gertz recently wrote in Free Beacon, after prying out some documents via FOIA.

Despite all this, the national media pays almost no attention to the issue. A few stories have appeared in outlets like Forbes and National Geographic, but they do not get picked up by the echo chamber. Try introducing the topic into a general conversation, and the reaction is "this can't be true." The reaction is, to repeat, as if a circuit breaker is tripped, and the thought becomes unthinkable. Or perhaps it should be called the Cassandra effect, where the gods have decreed that the prophecies of disaster cannot be believed.

read full comment
Image of James V DeLong
James V DeLong
on December 22, 2014 at 05:24:28 am

In order to vote I neednt necessarily identify very much with what I vote for, I could just vote because I think they (or their candidate) are (is) less odd than the other party (s candidate).

A lot of partisans are a bit on the spectrum, and for them the spectre is the other who appears abject to him. Although they consider themselves as the pragmatic, evidence-based actors they act mainly out of very strong fears which are not sufficiently kept in check by cognitive empathy and a general "sense for the common" (as I would call it). In particular if resentment in the society as a whole is mounting, their anxiety issues can get very intense, and cause a lot of harm. It is important to understand this resentment-anxiety circle.

Something like what the allies did in Germany after WWII, i.e. multi-party system with a hurdle of 5% to limit the numbers of parties, a not so powerful chancellor whose fate is bound to the parliament and a strong federalism would help a lot to de-polarize the political system in the US and to make more reasonable politics possible again. Less stress in the society would keep ASD rates at a normal level in the longer run, and prevent people from getting paranoid in the shorter run; so less stress would be a big help, too.

It is the little steps that count, and to continuously promote (not necessarily to quickly realize) the right policies and the necessary change of the constitution.

read full comment
Image of Eva Martin
Eva Martin
on December 22, 2014 at 12:05:38 pm

"Identity-Protective Cognition. As Klein quotes Kahan, “'as a way of avoiding dissonance and estrangement from valued groups, individuals subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values.'”

One can say this certainly applies not only to the electorate but the elected (including those they appoint, e.g. certain judges), and across the entire political spectrum. Often elected officials will deny reality when non-reality supports their group's ideological perspective. And they go one step further, and because of this Identity-Protective Cognition reactiveness, harm the nation by the resulting decisions they make.

I would add one caveat. It seems more endemic on the left. If not, in terms of Kahan's theory, how else should one explain their readiness to accept the prevailing thought of the day; be it sociological, cultural, (supposed) scientific, and have it translate into widespread societal upheaval and change within a relatively short time span, i.e. the sexual revolution, abortion, contraception, gender self-identity, surreal marriage, global cooling turned into warming into climate change, etc.?

read full comment
Image of EJW
EJW
on January 02, 2015 at 12:30:16 pm

Spiral of silence is similar: http://masscommtheory.com/theory-overviews/spiral-of-silence/

read full comment
Image of Chris Harper
Chris Harper

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.