Political Extremism Is Supported by an Illusion of Understanding

If your following the recent conflict in Gaza and finding it hard to resist the urge to “pick a side”.  I recommend reading this paper it highlights the perils of the “illusion of understanding” politics and public policies. This reminds me of a very famous saying,

“Don’t be a show-off. Never be too proud to turn back. There are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots.” – E. Hamilton Lee, 1949.”

As we follow current events in the Middle East we need to keep those wise words in mind. We need to remain intellectually flexible and willing to reconsider our closest held beliefs.  We must acknowledge, encounter, and confront our ignorance. Clinging boldly to our ideas about groups of people thousands of miles away (who are living in radically different circumstances ) will only get in the way of solidarity, progress, and reconciliation.

Abstract – Philip M. Fernbach, Todd Rogers, Craig R. Fox, and Steven A. Sloman

People often hold extreme political attitudes about complex policies. We hypothesized that people typically know less about such policies than they think they do (the illusion of explanatory depth) and that polarized attitudes are enabled by simplistic causal models. Asking people to explain policies in detail both undermined the illusion of explanatory depth and led to attitudes that were more moderate (Experiments 1 and 2). Although these effects occurred when people were asked to generate a mechanistic explanation, they did not occur when people were instead asked to enumerate reasons for their policy preferences (Experiment 2). Finally, generating mechanistic explanations reduced donations to relevant political advocacy groups (Experiment 3). The evidence suggests that people’s mistaken sense that they understand the causal processes underlying policies contributes to political polarization.

Favorite Excerpts from the paper – Philip M. Fernbach, Todd Rogers, Craig R. Fox, and Steven A. Sloman

The Paradox

“Many of the most important issues facing society – from climate change to health care to poverty – require complex policy solutions about which citizens hold polarized political preferences. A central puzzle of modern American politics is how so many voters can maintain strong political views concerning complex policies yet remain relatively uninformed about how such policies would bring about desired outcomes. “

Potential Causes

“One possible cause of this apparent paradox is that voters believe that they understand how policies work better than they actually do.”

“Rozenblit and Keil have demonstrated that people tend to be overconfident in how well they understand how everyday objects, such as toilets and combination locks, work; asking people to generate a mechanistic explanation shatters this sense of understanding.”

“Moreover, people are more likely to change their attitudes about a policy when they have less confidence in their knowledge about it.”

Interesting Conclusions

“Attempting to generate a mechanistic explanation undermines this illusion of understanding and leads people to endorse more moderate positions.”

“Mechanistic explanation generation also influences political behavior making people less likely to donate to relevant advocacy groups.”

“We propose that generating mechanistic explanations leads people to endorse more moderate positions by forcing them to confront their ignorance.”

“More generally, the present results suggest that political debate might be more productive if partisans first engaged in a substantive and mechanistic discussion of policies before engaging in the more customary discussions of preferences and positions.” 

Click Here To Read: Political Extremism Is Supported by an Illusion of Understanding

About Miguel Barbosa

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01. August 2014 by Miguel Barbosa
Categories: Curated Readings, Current Affairs, Psychology & Sociology | Leave a comment

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