Can a thing be both banal and profound? I imagine most people, if they thought about it long enough, would say, “Of course.”
Things may seem banal to us because we’re accustomed to them, and rarely have to think about them. But that need not make them any less profound.
So it seems to be with a major discovery made by a team of British researchers during the U.S. 2016 presidential election. They studied 900 voters who were split as to the candidates they preferred – Clinton or Trump – and were split as to whether they thought their preferred candidate was likely to win. Some Trump supporters thought he would win; some didn’t. Same for Clinton.
The researchers observed the voters’ reactions to polling information that seemed to confirm or “disconfirm” their opinions about whether the candidates would win. And what they discovered was that desirability bias was a much stronger motive for the voters’ reactions than confirmation bias.
In other words, a Clinton supporter might think Hillary was going to lose. That was the individual’s operational expectation. But the person was still more likely to take onboard positive polling information about Clinton’s prospects than to take onboard – internalize, accept, agree with – negative information about her prospects.
The same was true for the Trump supporters. And, as the researchers found, there was no difference in this pattern on either side of the political divide. The bottom line was that people more readily made good news about their desired outcomes part of their thinking – even when the good news conflicted with their baseline expectation.
This seems to have surprised the researchers. For me, it’s a big “duh.” Of course people don’t go through life incentivized mainly by short-term, contingent operational expectations (which the researchers call “beliefs”). You can’t just condition people to live that way. People live fundamentally by what they want. No matter how we’re trained, no matter what you do, what drives people is what they want. Taking onboard new information and ideas is a function of what people want.
This is obvious to everyone who has ever had children, lived with a spouse, managed employees – whatever, you name it. When information fits the mental paradigm that goes with what someone wants, the person absorbs it eagerly. When information seems useless or like a contraindication in terms of what a person wants, he or she is bored, resistant, or apathetic. Holler the information at the person often enough, and the relationship itself is likely to sour.
Of course, both wants and beliefs can be trained into us, and mostly are. What we want isn’t disembodied from what we believe, or vice versa. What we want and what we believe are an interlocking network.
And the important connecting piece is this. We have conceptual ideas about why what we believe makes us want certain things, and why what we want is tied up in the things we believe.
We want personal freedom, for example; therefore we believe in personal responsibility, personal discipline, and limited government. We believe personal freedom is good because it minimizes the patterns of power abuse and corruption that come with excessive human rule. Freedom makes us better people. It makes us more likely to give others space and respect. Freedom empowers people, unleashing initiative and synergy and creativity, promoting productivity and diverse forms of prosperity and satisfaction, that cannot be replicated in unfree conditions. We are willing to pay the price of tolerating people who disagree with us, because the benefits of freedom outweigh that price many times over.
In fact, freedom is the condition in which we have the space and confidence to consider what other people are saying – including the people who disagree with us – and sift and filter their ideas with ours to potentially produce new ideas in common. This cannot happen under conditions of unfree compulsion. Compulsion serves only to corrupt and distort our thinking, and our social relationships.
That, at least, would be a statement of important elements in the conservative right’s belief-want framework.
The interesting thing to me about the study done by the British researchers is that it seemed so focused on the wrong aspect of the whole topic. The title of the New York Times write-up is “You’re Not Going to Change Your Mind.” And here’s the final paragraph, to me a stunning combination of banality and accidental profundity:
Our study suggests that political belief polarization may emerge because of peoples’ conflicting desires, not their conflicting beliefs per se. This is rather troubling, as it implies that even if we were to escape from our political echo chambers, it wouldn’t help much. Short of changing what people want to believe, we must find other ways to unify our perceptions of reality.
Well, that’s one way of looking at it. But why, exactly, do we need to unify our perceptions of reality? That’s actually one of those belief-want factors the left and right don’t have a common perspective on. I have no interest in unifying my perceptions of reality just for the sake of unity. There’s no end to the falsehoods I’d be signing up for, if unity were the priority for me.
For me, perceptions of reality must first and foremost be based on, well, reality. We don’t always know for sure what reality is. That’s what we have our powers of observation, intellect, analysis, and judgment for.
It’s a very useful thing to consult with other people in our ponderings on reality. But nothing good has ever come of trying to make people forfeit their right to interpret things differently, and live by judgments that happen to dissent from yours or mine. Consensus is actually the antithesis of empirical science.
This principle has been consistent for many centuries with overriding priorities like teaching kids not to play with fire, and acknowledging that gravity is always at work, and some things will inevitably kill you. It isn’t a brilliant riposte to bring up such points as objections to freedom of dissent; it’s just sophomoric – a childish assumption that people who disagree with you haven’t thought of the obvious.
The cost of disunity, and the importance of the disagreement, must always be considered. But people are actually doing that all the time. It’s what human social life consists of. Unity, for its own sake, is rarely the highest priority. And that’s a good thing. If unity mattered above all else, we’d still believe – against all reason – a lot of patently false things about our physical universe.
People would know they were false, too; it would be obvious. What we would have missed is the indispensable opportunity to figure out – through dissent and processes of proof – what is true.
Unity has to have contextual meaning and purpose. And in some contexts, and for some purposes, the price of it is too high.
The difference between the right and the left on this is a deep one, and frankly, it is probably unbridgeable. Ultimately, the deal is exactly what the British researchers are surprised and uncomfortable about uncovering. People do want different things. Their wants and beliefs are organized according to different ideas of desirability and motivation.
The deepest difference we have between us is the one that has produced the left-right divide of today. The right cannot bear the demand of the left to control everyone’s options; the left cannot bear the demand of the right to be free of such control.
And none of this is a matter of grazing along like a herd of goats from one random confirmation-bias event to the next. It goes much deeper than that. People aren’t goats. We believe and want things for great complexes of reasons. To prioritize unity of perception over the dignity of the individual spirit is to see man as merely a fractious, unaccountably disagreeable animal, one that resists being husbanded uniformly like a cow or a chicken.
Seeking unity without consideration of what people are disagreeing on is the motive of a belief system alien to both our Western cultural heritage, and the minds of millions of people walking around today. Of course the people cannot agree to seek unity at the expense of reality. Of course they can’t.