Extreme Political Attitudes May Stem from an Illusion of Understanding
Apr. 29, 2013 — Having to explain how a political policy works leads people to express less extreme attitudes toward the policy, according to new research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
The research suggests that people may hold extreme policy positions because they are under an illusion of understanding — attempting to explain the nuts and bolts of how a policy works forces them to acknowledge that they don’t know as much about the policy as they initially thought.
Psychological scientist Philip Fernbach of the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado, Boulder and his co-authors were interested in exploring some of the factors that could contribute to what they see as increasing political polarization in the United States.
“We wanted to know how it’s possible that people can maintain such strong positions on issues that are so complex — such as macroeconomics, health care, foreign relations — and yet seem to be so ill-informed about those issues,” says Fernbach.
Drawing on previous research on the illusion of understanding, Fernbach and colleagues speculated that one reason for the apparent paradox may be that voters think they understand how policies work better than they actually do.
In their first study, the researchers asked participants taking an online survey to rate how well they understood six political policies, including raising the retirement age for Social Security, instituting a national flat tax, and implementing merit-based pay for teachers. The participants were randomly assigned to explain two of the policies and then asked to re-rate how well they understood the policies.
As the researchers predicted, people reported lower understanding of all six policies after they had to explain them, and their positions on the policies were less extreme. In fact, the data showed that the more people’s understanding decreased, the more uncertain they were about the position, and the less extreme their position was in the end.
The act of explaining also affected participants’ behavior. People who initially held a strong position softened their position after having to explain it, making them less likely to donate bonus money to a related organization when they were given the opportunity to do so.
Importantly, the results affected people along the whole political spectrum, from self-identified Democrats to Republicans to Independents.
According to the researchers, these findings shed light on a psychological process that may help people to open the lines of communication in the context of a heated debate or negotiation.
“This research is important because political polarization is hard to combat,” says Fernbach. “There are many psychological processes that act to create greater extremism and polarization, but this is a rare case where asking people to attempt to explain makes them back off their extreme positions.”
In addition to Fernbach, co-authors include Todd Rogers of the Harvard Kennedy School; Craig R. Fox of the University of California, Los Angeles; and Steven A. Sloman of Brown University.
Disarming the Jealousy Complex
The recent post Mad about You distinguished two different kinds of jealousy. The simple variety occurs in all relationships. Absent chronic resentment, this minor form of jealousy motivates the partners to reconnect. The current post describes how to regulate complex jealousy, before it destroys your relationships and drives you crazy.
Simple Jealousy Can Get Complicated
Relationship dynamics can complicate even simple jealousy, especially when the parties are insensitive to each other’s different personality traits and temperamental qualities. For instance, an introverted partner is likely to disagree with an extroverted partner’s interpretation of “appropriate” interactions with the opposite sex. What is honest “friendliness” for one can seem “flirtatious” to the other. What sincerely feels like “consideration” to one: “You should show me respect,” honestly feels like “control” or even “oppression” to the other – “You don’t want me to be friendly! You don’t want me to be who I am! You’re trying to keep me down!”
This is still simple jealousy, without the paranoid or obsessional nuances of its darker cousin. The introverted partner is neither accusing the other of infidelity nor obsessing about the friendliness of the more sociable partner. It is really a classic temperamental error that occurs in most relationships: judging your partner by how you would react, even though your partner has a different temperament, different experiences, and different developmental and emotional history. Though we’re all tempted to do this, it’s really a form of narcissism – the way I would react is the standard for all decent people; so you have to conform to what I think is appropriate.
Reconciling disputes born of temperamental differences is the subject of another post. In short, it requires binocular vision – the ability to see your partner’s perspective alongside your own, indeed, to see the world through his/her eyes at the same time you see it through your own. Binocular vision, perhaps the most important of relationship skills, makes the world seem richer and more dynamic. Failure of binocular vision creates a reactive narcissism (you’re incapable of seeing your loved one apart from how you feel about him/her) and, of course, more jealousy.
Disarming Complex Jealousy
1. Don’t trust obsessions. They greatly distort reality. If you can’t stop thinking about your partner flirting with someone else, you must distrust the thought process. The longer obsessive thinking goes on, the more certain you become and the more likely you are wrong.
2. Regulate core hurts. The primary component of complex jealousy is self-diminishment – you feel unlovable and inadequate as an intimate partner. These “core hurts” give rise to the obsessions. If, in my heart, I don’t believe that I am worthy of love, how can I believe someone who says she loves me? I will assume that she doesn’t know the real me, or she wants something else (my money, house, car, or socks), or she wants someone else. Because I cannot possibly be enough for her, I will look for “clues” that she is seeking fulfillment somewhere else. Many studies show that whatever the brain looks for, it will find.
When attacked by the painful feeling of unworthiness, before it stimulates a cycle of obsessions and revenge motives, ask yourself out loud:
“What can I do to feel more lovable and adequate?”
Just uttering the words will make it clear that devaluing, belittling, hassling, or punishing your loved one is unlikely to make you feel like a lovable and adequate partner.
To feel worthy of love and adequate as an attachment figure, begin by trying as hard as you can to see the world through your partner’s eyes and to feel what it’s like in his/her shoes. Appreciate that he/she probably feels unlovable and inadequate as well. Think of what you can do to help the both of you feel more worthy of love.
3. Focus on compassion, not trust. If you have suffered from complex jealousy, you don’t have the confidence to trust. Focus instead on compassion for yourself and your loved one. Compassion, an important component of your core values, is sympathy for core hurts, with a motivation to heal, improve, appreciate, connect, or protect. Trust will eventually return, after a long period of self-compassion and compassion for loved ones. But it will fall apart almost immediately if you try to trust without a great deal of sustained compassion.
4. Follow the self-correcting motivation of simple jealousy. Be more compassionate, supportive, cooperative, and loving. Be mindful of the assets your partner brings to the relationship. Think of what you can do at this moment to make your relationship stronger.
Over time, this determined effort to strengthen your relationship will alleviate much of complex jealousy. But if it has become a habit, i.e., a conditioned response to feeling inadequate or unlovable, you may need a course in core value and emotional reconditioning (CompassionPower) or focused psychotherapy to make significant changes.
What Do You See?
A plainclothes cop walks into a diner and finds no less than five gun-wielding criminals holding up the crowded joint. “We’re not just going to let you walk out of here,” the cop says. “Who’s we, sucka?” says one of the criminals. “Smith and Wesson and me,” says the cop. He draws his Smith & Wesson and – in a crowded diner – shoots four of the criminals and advances on the last gunman, who’s holding a pistol to a hostage’s head. One itchy trigger finger and the hostage could be dead. The cop glares at the criminal. “Go ahead, make my day.” The cop is “Dirty Harry” Callahan, but really he could be any Hollywood hero. The movie is Sudden Impact, but really it could be any movie or book or manifestation of Western culture.
With a few modern updates, Western culture has been re-creating the same story over and over again since Homer collected The Odyssey more than two and a half thousand years ago. Since the Greeks, the ideal of the unique and strong individual has become so prevalent in Western culture that we have stopped realizing that it is even part of our culture. Often we mistake our perceptions of the world for how the world really is.
Psychologists have long known that North Americans overestimate their own distinctiveness, especially in comparison with East Asians. When asked to describe themselves, Americans and Canadians tend to talk about their individual personality and personal outlook more than Japanese do. North Americans tend to settle arguments in terms of right and wrong, whereas East Asians tend to seek compromises. Dirty Harry is an extreme and violent example, but he is emblematic of Western culture and he sums up our single-minded, goal-oriented behavior with aplomb. “When I see an adult male chasing a female with the intent to commit rape, I shoot the bastard. That’s my policy.”
New research shows that culture even affects our cognition. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology claims that Americans and Japanese intuit the emotions of others differently based on cultural training. “North Americans try to identify the single important thing that is key to making a decision,” explains Dr. Takahiko Masuda, the study’s author, over the phone from his office at the University of Alberta. “In East Asia they really care about the context.” He studied the eye movement of Americans and Japanese when analyzing a picture of a group of cartoon people. When asked to interpret the emotion of the person in the center, the Japanese looked at the person for about one second before moving on to the people in the background. They needed to know how the group was feeling before understanding the emotion of the individual. The Americans (and Canadians in subsequent studies) focused 95% of their attention on the person in the center. Only 5% of their attention was focused on the background, and this, Dr. Masuda points out, didn’t influence their interpretation of the central figure’s emotion. For North Americans the foreground is all-important.
Dr. Masuda is quick to point out that Americans and Japanese are physiologically the same. The difference in eye movement is tied to the roots of our respective cultures. When trying to explain the natural world, the Ancient Greeks – the founders of Western civilization – tended to focus on central objects and sought to explain their rules of behavior. Funnily enough, Aristotle thought a rock had the property of “gravity.” It didn’t occur to him that a system was working its powers on the rock. The Chinese on the other hand took a more holistic approach. They believed that everything occurred within a context, or a field of forces, and thus they unraveled the relationship between the moon and the tides.
These differences in philosophy can be explained, at least in part, by the environments that spawned them. “We are surrounded by socially created information, which affects our perception,” Masuda explains. And perception affects our culture. Research shows that North American cities are less cluttered than East Asian cities, which means that North Americans can spend more time considering salient objects. When Americans or Canadians visit East Asia, they are often overwhelmed by the amount of information they have to process. I have experienced this phenomenon personally. The first time I bused from Incheon Airport into Seoul, South Korea, I was dumbfounded by the number of buildings, advertisements, lights, cars and people and had to turn away from the window to stop my head from spinning. Dr. Masuda first arrived in North America when he was 26. Compared to Japan, which was crowded with people and objects and “complex pieces of information,” he felt North American cities to be lonely places.
Masuda stresses that no way of perceiving the world is better than another and refuses to interpret his studies too broadly. He has yet to conduct his tests in Africa or South America. But it seems to me that Masuda’s study is important: It reminds us that there is more than one way of seeing the world.
North Americans have a tendency toward isolating singular goals and working doggedly towards them. And we have achieved some remarkable accomplishments. We put a man on the moon, invented the telephone and the airplane and achieved a thousand more seemingly impossible tasks. We congratulate ourselves on our individualism in our movies, our art, our personal relationships and, of course, our politics. But as we do so, we perpetuate this trait – perception informs culture, culture informs perception – until we mistake the way we see the world for the only way to see the world.
As alluring as the Dirty Harry approach may be, is it time to put away our Smith & Wesson and start considering the other customers in the diner? The problems we face today – the environmental degradation of our planet, global recession, religious fundamentalism – don’t fit inside borders or simple categories. Context is unavoidable. We need to start looking for it.
Ecology of the Mind
For thousands of generations we humans grew up in nature. Our teachers were flora and fauna and our textbooks thunderstorms and stars in the night sky. Our minds were like the forests, oases and deltas around which our cultures germinated: chaotic, wild, fecund.
But in the last couple generations, we have largely abandoned the natural world, immersing ourselves in virtual realms. Today the synthetic environment rivals nature as a driving force in our lives, and the mental environment has become the terrain where our fate as humans will be decided. By emigrating from nature we’ve done something more than just move domiciles – we have fundamentally altered the context in which we live our lives.
Along with this transition to a new psychic realm, we have also seen the exponential rise of mental illnesses. Globally, humanity is now suffering from an epidemic of uncontrollable anxieties, mood disorders and depression. The United Nations predicts that mental disease will be bigger than heart disease by 2020.
Why is this happening? Why are we breaking down mentally?
If you ask psychologists what increases the general loading of psychopathology on the human animal, they will list a lot of things: the breakdown of community, the insecurity of social roles, the stresses of modernity and globalization and maybe even the chemicals in the air, water and food that may be affecting our brains in unknown ways. Others blame the thousands of aggressive, erotically charged marketing messages our brains absorb every day as the culprit. And still others say that heavy internet use leads to addictions and depression and that the digital revolution may be rewiring our brains in unhealthy ways. Nobody knows for sure.
But it’s tantalizing to guess.
What follows is just a beginning, an introduction to some of the mental pollutants, information viruses and psychic shocks we have to deal with daily – a survey of the threats to our “ecology of mind.”
For countless generations the ambient noise was rain and wind and people talking. Now the soundtrack is full-spectrum, undecodable. From the dull roar of rush-hour traffic to the drone of your fridge and the buzz of your monitor, various kinds of noise (blue, white, pink, black) are continuously seeping into our brains. And the volume is constantly being cranked up. Two, perhaps three generations have already become stimulation-addicted. Can’t work without background music. Can’t jog without earphones. Can’t sleep without an iPhone tucked under the pillow. The essence of our postmodern age may be found in this kind of incessant brain buzz. Trying to make sense of the world above the din is like living next to a freeway – you get used to it, but at a severely diminished level of mindfulness and well-being.
Quiet feels foreign now, but quiet could be just what we need. Silence may be to a healthy mind what clean air and water are to a healthy body. In a cleaner, quieter mental environment, we may find our mood calming and depression lifting.
From the moment your radio alarm sounds in the morning to the wee hours of late-night TV, micro-jolts of commercial pollution flow into your brain at the rate of about 3,000 marketing messages per day. Every day, an estimated 12 billion display ads, three million radio commercials, more than 200,000 TV commercials and an unknown number of online ads and spam emails are dumped into our collective unconscious. Corporate advertising is the single largest psychological experiment ever carried out on the human race. Yet, its impact on us remains unstudied and largely unknown.
The first time we saw a starving child on a late-night TV ad, we were appalled. Maybe we sent money. But as these images became more familiar, our capacity for compassion waned. Eventually these ads started to annoy us, even repulse us. And now we feel nothing when we see another starving kid.
The average North American witnesses half a dozen acts of violence (killings, gunshots, assaults, car chases, rapes) per hour of prime-time TV watched. As for sex in the media and porn on the internet, we all know what catches our attention and stops us from zapping the channels: pouting lips, pert breasts, buns of steel, buoyant superyouth. Growing up in a violent, erotically charged media environment alters our psyches at a bedrock level. It distorts our sexuality – the way you feel when someone suddenly puts a hand on your shoulder or hugs you or flirts with you – how we think about ourselves as sexual beings. And the constant flow of commercially scripted, violence-laced, pseudo-sex makes us more voyeuristic, insatiable and aggressive. Then, somewhere along the line, nothing – not even rape, torture, genocide, or war porn – shocks us anymore.
The commercial media are to the mental environment what factories are to the physical environment. A factory dumps pollution into the water or air because that’s the most efficient way to produce plastic or wood pulp or steel. A TV station or website pollutes the cultural environment because that’s the most efficient way to produce audiences. It pays to pollute. The psychic fallout is just the cost of putting on the show.
The information we consume is increasingly flat and homogenized. Designed to reach millions, it often lacks nuance, complexity and context. Reading the same factoids on Wikipedia and watching the same viral video on YouTube, we experience a flattening of culture.
Cultural homogenization has graver consequences than the same hairstyles, catchphrases, action-hero antics and video clips propagated ad nauseam around the world. In all systems, homogenization is poison. Lack of diversity leads to inefficiency and failure. Infodiversity is as critical to our long-term survival as biodiversity. Both are bedrocks of human existence.
At first all that information was pleasurable. It felt as if the sum of all knowledge was only a hyperlink away and we skipped joyously down the infotrail, sending emails to our friends, adding bookmarks and hopping from site to site late into the night. But as the initial glow wore off, we were left in a state of digital daze: unable to concentrate, feeling foggy, anxious and fatigued.
For many of us, what began as an exhilarating romp has become a daily compulsion. Our smart phones, netbooks and computers now keep us constantly online. While waiting in line at the supermarket or enjoying an evening walk or reading a book or even sitting at a concert, we keep texting our friends and receiving quick Twitter updates. We are drowning in an endless stream of connectivity. And future generations may be even more wired. A Pew Research Center study found that American teenagers send 50 or more text messages a day and one-third send more than 100 a day. Another study by the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that American children between the ages of 8 and 18 spend an average of 7 ½ hours a day using some sort of electronic device.
Our online lives may now be impairing our ability to follow a sustained line of thought, to think deeply about something and maybe even to reach “the heights of ecstasy and the depths of tragedy” in our creative lives. We may be suffering from the infodisease that Nicholas Carr first diagnosed in himself. “Over the past few years,” he writes, “I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory… what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”
In the race for economic expansion we depleted oil reserves, pulped ancient forests and pumped water until the wells ran dry. Now we’re depleting the “old growth culture” – sucking dry the history, mythology, music, art and ideas that previous generations have bequeathed to us. All of our past is being picked over, recycled, remixed, regurgitated and repurposed.
Jaron Lanier, the father of “virtual reality,” is perhaps the most respected and outspoken technologist to identify a troubling deficiency in our cultural health. In You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, Lanier writes that our culture has become one of nostalgic remixing where authentic “first-order expression” is chopped up and mashed into a derivative piece of “second-order expression.” And although Lanier shies away from proposing an infallible metric for distinguishing between the two, he does suggest that what distinguishes first-order expression is that it contributes something “genuinely new [to] the world” whereas derivative works recycle, repeat and fail to innovate.
The result is a society that treats our cultural heritage as a resource for exploitation. Instead of producing new works of genuine art that replenish our mental environment, we celebrate the amateur whose mash-ups may be hilarious but contribute nothing of value to the cultural conversation. This situation becomes especially distressing when we consider that just as there is a finite amount of nutrients in our soil, there is a finite amount of creativity that the past can yield. Great art is rare, and only so many mash-ups can be released before the original power of a truly artistic creation is lost. And without the production of an authentic culture, our mental environment is in danger of becoming a clear-cut wasteland, overfarmed and depleted.
In Lanier’s words, “we face a situation in which culture is effectively eating its own seed stock.”
We are on the brink of a synergistic catastrophe. Financial, ecological and ethical collapse loom on the horizon even as the rate of mental illness continues to climb. The world has literally gone mad.
But as more people trace their anxieties, mood disorders and depressions back to the toxins in our mental world, the first murmurs of insurrection can be faintly heard. From blackspotted billboards to breakaway attempts-at-downshifting, to revolutionary provocations in failing states, we are witnessing the birth pangs of the quintessential uprising of the 21st century. What will come is a rewilding of our souls, a riot against the production of fake corporate and commercial meaning. What begins here today will be known as the environmental movement of the mind.
Kalle Lasn is cofounder and editor in chief of Adbusters. Micah White is a contributing editor at Adbusters and is writing a book about the future of activism.