The Most Depressing Discovery About the Brain, Ever

1 09 2014

Dan Kahan

Say goodnight to the dream that education, journalism, scientific evidence, or reason can provide the tools that people need in order to make good decisions. Originally published at Alternet, this article resonated with me, a lot, particularly following from the recent discussions on the viability of solar power.

Dan Kahan is the Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Law & Professor of Psychology at Yale Law School. His primary research interests are risk perception, science communication, and the application of decision science to law and policymaking.  His latest research paper is called “Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government,” but you may as well call it “Science Confirms: Politics Wrecks Your Ability to Do Math.”  You sometimes see this occurring in the comments on even this blog!

Marty Kaplan, the author of this piece, writes:

Kahan conducted some ingenious experiments about the impact of political passion on people’s ability to think clearly.  His conclusion, in Mooney’s words: partisanship “can even undermine our very basic reasoning skills…. [People] who are otherwise very good at math may totally flunk a problem that they would otherwise probably be able to solve, simply because giving the right answer goes against their political beliefs.” 

In other words, say goodnight to the dream that education, journalism, scientific evidence, media literacy or reason can provide the tools and information that people need in order to make good decisions.  It turns out that in the public realm, a lack of information isn’t the real problem.  The hurdle is how our minds work, no matter how smart we think we are.  We want to believe we’re rational, but reason turns out to be the ex post facto way we rationalize what our emotions already want to believe.  

It’s obvious, really;  after decades now of trying to get people to alter their behaviour on all sorts of issues, I have failed.  OK, I may have bent a few people, myself included mind you, but on the whole nobody will change their belief systems, no matter the evidence.  When people are misinformed, giving them all the facts in the world to correct the errors of their ways only makes them cling to their beliefs more tenaciously.  I have witnessed this so many times now, I even know when to stop talking and wasting my time.  Flat Earthers will always be Flat Earthers.

Quoting again from Alternet…  here’s some of what else was found:
  • People who thought WMDs were found in Iraq believed that misinformation even more strongly when they were shown a news story correcting it.
  • People who thought George W. Bush banned all stem cell research kept thinking he did that even after they were shown an article saying that only some federally funded stem cell work was stopped.
  • People who said the economy was the most important issue to them, and who disapproved of Obama’s economic record, were shown a graph of nonfarm employment over the prior year – a rising line, adding about a million jobs.  They were asked whether the number of people with jobs had gone up, down or stayed about the same.  Many, looking straight at the graph, said down.
  • But if, before they were shown the graph, they were asked to write a few sentences about an experience that made them feel good about themselves, a significant number of them changed their minds about the economy.  If you spend a few minutes affirming your self-worth, you’re more likely to say that the number of jobs increased.

The implications for contentious issues, like climate change and limits to growth are enormous.  If I hear one more time we have enough oil to last us another 500 years……  I may go berzerk!  Studies of how our minds work, such as this one, suggest that the political choices people make are impervious to facts that contradict us.  How else, for instance, can one even explain the election of our Prime Moronster?

Climate Change denialism implies a psychological disorder.  Denial can only be described as business-as-usual for our brains;  more and better facts don’t convert badly informed voters into better thinking citizens.  It just makes them more committed to their faith and beliefs.  In the entire history of the universe, no Murdoch Press readers ever changed their minds because of anything they might read here……  When there’s a conflict between faith and beliefs, and plain evidence, it’s the beliefs that win.  Once a believer in nuclear power, always a believer.  The power of emotion over reason isn’t a bug in our human operating systems, it’s a feature says Kaplan




8 responses

1 09 2014

a term already exists for this – confirmation bias.

1 09 2014
John Doyle

This is borne out also in a pod cast by John Michael Greer in “the Myth of Progress”
He posits that Growth has become a religion and resists all attempts to wake people up to reality about the state of our civilization.

1 09 2014

The Political Mind: A Cognitive Scientist’s Guide to Your Brain and Its Politics by George Lakoff

“Lakoff (Don’t Think of an Elephant) harnesses cognitive science to rally progressive politicians and voters by positing that conservatives have framed the debate on vital issues more effectively than liberals. According to his research, conservatives comprehend that most brain functioning is grounded not in logical reasoning but in emotionalism—as a result, huge portions of the citizenry accept the Republican framing of the war in Iraq and supporting the troops rather than liberal appeals and phrasing of the occupation in Iraq and squandering tax money. George W. Bush won the presidency by concocting a redemption narrative, persuading tens of millions of voters that his past moral and business shortcomings should be viewed as a prelude to pulling himself up, rather than as disqualifying behavior…”

1 09 2014
1 09 2014
richard nielsen

Yes but – we do have more knowledge now than ever before. We even know that passions rule our reason.

1 09 2014

I had arrived at the same conclusion, however, it is likely that I would not believe differently, were I human. It is only because of the absence of emotion within the Vulcan mind that I am provided with pristine and unbiased perception and logic.

2 09 2014

at last mike, all hype has failed, now lets get on new path and really make a difference, like Richard says, the knowledge is there for modest simplicity no high falluting science or egg heads, needed, the money saved not paying for their hair brained chicken little ideas could go to doing real action.

2 09 2014

This appears to support all previous research that suggests our emotions kick in well before our reasoning. We react emotionally in a mere fraction of a second, then back fill with “reasoning” and “logic” to deceive ourselves into believing our actions were based on rational, thoughtful consideration.

If purely rational thought governed out actions a large majority of the relationships – personal and professional — that we have today wouldn’t exist.

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