gravity's robot

Rationalizers

This is worth repeating. Your worldview, my worldview, is not rational. As Jonah Lehrer puts it:

The problem, as political scientist Larry Bartels notes, is that people aren’t rational: we’re rationalizers. Our brain prefers a certain candidate or party for a really complicated set of subterranean reasons and then, after the preference has been unconsciously established, we invent rational sounding reasons to justify our preferences. (Some voters, of course, probably do chose their candidate for “rational” reasons, but I have yet to meet very many of them.) This is why the average voter is such a partisan hack and rarely bothers to revise their political preferences.

It’s not a problem really, just a fact. All of these grand arguments about war, ethics, politics, religion, evolution, etc., are not in fact real arguments. They are attempts to rationalize the attitudes and opinions that we already have fixed quite firmly in our minds. The number of times we actually change our minds are so rare that they may be accidents, or may demonstrate that we actually already held a differing opinion without realizing it.

Which is why the only way to really energize an argument is to shift away from the realm of the Mind and Fixed Attitudes (as it’s called in Dramatica1), and start attacking people’s motives (Psychology, Manipulation) or their actions (Physics, Activity).

In other words, you can argue policy until you’re blue in the face, but nothing really changes until you move away from rational argument and start attacking someone’s personality or their accomplishments. So what do you do? In politics, you question your opponents patriotism, or hope you can catch him with an intern. Pure gold. But you aren’t going to break your opponent by trying to out-think him. More importantly, no one will care. Just ask Al Gore.

For instance, McCain and Obama have different policy positions on the Iraq War and the Surge. But McCain can’t argue that Obama’s position is wrong, so he says that Obama is just playing politics at the expense of winning the war. He shifts from a disagreement over methodologies (since even the Iraqi government has endorsed Obama’s position) to an attack on Obama’s motives (he’s a traitor, he’s un-American).

We move from the rational to the emotional.

That’s why most of these arguments on blogs and on talk radio take on an echo chamber effect. There is, in fact, almost nothing to say to persuade people or change their minds. It’s all about reinforcement through repetition. Tell me what I believe in.

This is where all the trouble starts. This is how we end up with Bush for two-terms. This is how we end up with a mortgage crisis and an energy crisis and consumer debt and endless war. Because every step of the way our leaders have told us not to worry, and every step of the way we’ve shrugged our shoulders and said, OK. As Milch says, “we cannot think our way to right action, we can only act our way to right thinking.”

An Al Gore slide show will not save the environment. Too much talk, too many lofty ideas. But if people actually force themselves to change their behavior, we might save it through our actions.

Similarly, when you see Obama traveling the world, meeting with world leaders, learning how to take the world stage, he’s embracing the philosophy that you have to fake it to make it. Dress for the job you want, not the job you have. Actions speak louder than words. And I agree with him. The only way to learn something is to do it.

McCain in the meantime is trying to argue his way into the White House by rationalizing his decisions (the surge is working! the surge worked before it was a surge!) and by trying to undermine Obama through the repetition of non-rational attacks.

As for my support of Obama, that’s a rationalization as well. I’m just trying to justify my middle-class upbringing, my high-level of education, my liberal values, my white collar job, my Subaru Forester, my weekly trip to the farmer’s market, etc., etc. Y’know, stuff white people like to do. And that’s fine with me.

But, if you support McCain. Well, you’re trying to rationalize the fact that you’re a racist dead-ender with nothing to contribute. Good luck with that. Better get a shovel.



1. I mention Dramatica because it is part of their theory that a story is a model of the human mind struggling with a problem. More importantly, the way that the human mind deals with problems is to rationalize them either by accepting an inequity or by justifying the actions required to balance things out.