Friday, April 27, 2007

Teaching Reason: Maybe It's Not Pointless After All

In going over an exam last week, I had reason to discuss with my critical thinking class the difference between logic and rhetoric. There is a difference between what we have good reason to believe given a set of premises and what people will in fact believe given those same propositions. Logical relations between sentences are the sort of thing philosophers play with; rhetorical strength, on the other hand, is an empirical matter, something for the psychologists. And there has been much interesting work in the area of figuring out what convinces people and when.

I've made the argument before that there are two steps to acting ethically. The first is a rational one -- deciding what is the morally right thing to do in the situation you face. The second is not rational, but a matter of character -- actually doing what it is you know you should. As someone who teaches critical thinking and ethical theory, I've argued that I can influence the first but not the second. I can help make you a better, more careful and thoughtful decision-maker, bu I cannot make you a better person.

But now I'm not so convinced. Confused, Maybe Not tipped me off to this very interesting survey article in Psychology Today setting out the landscape of psychological research connecting political views with personality type and experiential stimuli. Many of the results discussed are not earth shaking,

The most comprehensive review of personality and political orientation to date is a 2003 meta-analysis of 88 prior studies involving 22,000 participants. The researchers—John Jost of NYU, Arie Kruglanski of the University of Maryland, and Jack Glaser and Frank Sulloway of Berkeley—found that conservatives have a greater desire to reach a decision quickly and stick to it, and are higher on conscientiousness, which includes neatness, orderliness, duty, and rule-following. Liberals are higher on openness, which includes intellectual curiosity, excitement-seeking, novelty, creativity for its own sake, and a craving for stimulation like travel, color, art, music, and literature.

The claim that political affiliation is a function of personality type, however, is one of those scientific results that has to be modified with the rider, "all other things being equal." The wonderful thing about reality, of course, is that all other things are rarely ever equal. It turns out that when people are presented with stimuli that evoke fear, especially fear of death, people overwhelmingly become conservative. This conservatism is not necessarily political conservatism, but display a strong desire towards measures that ensure the stability of the status quo in a black and white fashion, whether it be American Republicanism or Chinese communism.
Jost believes it's more complex. After all, Cinnamon Stillwell and others in the 911 Neocons didn't become more liberal. Like so many other Democrats after 9/11, they made a hard right turn. The reason thoughts of death make people more conservative, Jost says, is that they awaken a deep desire to see the world as fair and just, to believe that people get what they deserve, and to accept the existing social order as valid, rather than in need of change. When these natural desires are primed by thoughts of death and a barrage of mortal fear, people gravitate toward conservatism because it's more certain about the answers it provides—right vs. wrong, good vs. evil, us vs. them—and because conservative leaders are more likely to advocate a return to traditional values, allowing people to stick with what's familiar and known. "Conservatism is a more black and white ideology than liberalism," explains Jost. "It emphasizes tradition and authority, which are reassuring during periods of threat."
At precisely those times when it is most important for us to think deeply and carefully about complex issues and the moral ramifications of our actions, our own psychology works against us trying to shut down nuance and subtlety in our approach to the world.

What to do? Is our reason then necessarily a slave to the gut? Is truth always to lose out to truthiness in times of fear? Fascinatingly, no.
If we are so suggestible that thoughts of death make us uncomfortable defaming the American flag and cause us to sit farther away from foreigners, is there any way we can overcome our easily manipulated fears and become the informed and rational thinkers democracy demands?

To test this, Solomon and his colleagues prompted two groups to think about death and then give opinions about a pro-American author and an anti-American one. As expected, the group that thought about death was more pro-American than the other. But the second time, one group was asked to make gut-level decisions about the two authors, while the other group was asked to consider carefully and be as rational as possible. The results were astonishing. In the rational group, the effects of mortality salience were entirely eliminated. Asking people to be rational was enough to neutralize the effects of reminders of death. Preliminary research shows that reminding people that as human beings, the things we have in common eclipse our differences—what psychologists call a "common humanity prime"—has the same effect.

"People have two modes of thought," concludes Solomon. "There's the intuitive gut-level mode, which is what most of us are in most of the time. And then there's a rational analytic mode, which takes effort and attention."

The solution, then, is remarkably simple. The effects of psychological terror on political decision making can be eliminated just by asking people to think rationally. Simply reminding us to use our heads, it turns out, can be enough to make us do it.
Maybe teaching philosophy does contribute to making this a better world. Who knew? Henceforth, I request that every conversation about politics begin with the sentence, "Please be as rational and careful as possible in thinking about this."