“I’m Joining a Cult!” (said nobody, ever)

October 14, 2017

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George Orwell famously defined the tribal mindset as extreme identification with one’s tribe, “placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests.” In today’s world, that sounds like what passes for normal. As George Johnson wrote in The New York Times: “Viewed from afar, the world seems almost on the brink of conceding that there are no truths, only competing ideologies — narratives fighting narratives. In this epistemological warfare, those with the most power are accused of imposing their version of reality — the ‘dominant paradigm’ — on the rest, leaving the weaker to fight back with formulations of their own. Everything becomes a version” – what Robin Ince calls a “reality tunnel.”1 As Andrew Sullivan has reminded us, tribalism is not just “one aspect of human experience. It’s the default human experience.”

The Berlin stationmaster and spy, Alec Leamas (played by the great Richard Burton in the movie, excepted below), is asked about his beliefs within the context of the Cold War – that great tribal conflict – in John le Carré’s classic novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. His reply is both sarcastic and poignant: “I reserve the right to be ignorant. That’s the Western way of life.”

Examples of tribalism run amok are ubiquitous throughout history and especially so today. War. The president versus the press. The Two Cultures. ISIS. Active versus passive investing. Tastes great/less filling. Syria. Republicans and Democrats. The Buddhas of Bamiyan. The American Civil War. Catholics and Protestants. Facebook groups. Nazism. Bridgewater Associates. Twitter wars. Communism versus capitalism. PC versus Mac. Racism. Factor investing. Segregation. Yankees and Red Sox. “Alternative facts.”  Abortion. Duke-Carolina. Red state/blue state. Urban versus rural. Segregation. Fox News versus MSNBC.2Sharks and Jets. Fake news. Believers and atheists. Nationalism. The Montagues and the Capulets.

Tribalism is everywhere and permeates everything. “Journalistic integrity is dead,” declares Breitbart News Washington editor Matt Boyle. “There is no such thing anymore. So everything is about weaponization of information.” In a recent column, former Wisconsin Democratic Senator Russ Feingold made clear what is usually only implied; he thinks Republicans are Nazis. To oppose his political agenda is an act of bigotry and hate. Eric Trump says his father’s critics are “not even people.” Hollywood heavily criticized Donald Trump over the Access Hollywood scandal but was largely silent about decades of sexual abuse by Harvey Weinstein, one of its own, while those who defended (or failed to criticize) the now-President over his own abuses couldn’t wait to attack Weinstein.

Brendan Eich was hounded out of Mozilla, a major company be founded, simply because he once opposed marriage equality. A CBS executive in the wake of the recent Las Vegas massacre that killed nearly 60 and wounded 500 said that she had no sympathy for the victims, since the shooting took place at a country music concert and the dead and wounded were most likely Republican Trump voters. Tribalism is turning Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, into an enabler of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. These tribal identities, terrifying though their outputs may be, offer us a powerful sense of belonging.3

“There’s a southern accent where I come from,” sang the newly and dearly departed Tom Petty, perhaps the best writer of opening lines in rock ‘n roll history. “The young ‘uns call it country; the Yankees call it dumb.”

There are good reasons for tribal loyalty, of course. As Jane Howard puts it, “Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family: Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.” A lone hunter could never hope to run down a kudu, a feat a cooperative group can readily accomplish.

In their new book, The Enigma of Reason, cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber make the case that humans’ biggest inherent advantage is their ability to cooperate. Accordingly, reason developed primarily to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups. “Reason is an adaptation to the hypersocial niche humans have evolved for themselves,” they write. Within one’s tribe, there is little advantage to reasoning clearly, especially when reason suggests that the group is in error in some way.

Benefits or not, we have all noticed a disturbing trend toward increasingly partisan polemic and cultural isolationism. Social media are awash in angry tribalism, even among (purported) friends. Relationships are fractured because of it. The divisiveness is pervasive. We all have a sense that lines are being drawn, and that we are expected to choose sides.

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The key element here is that most partisans see “their side” as not just true, but obviously true. It is a by-product of our general bias blindness, by which we tend to see bias in others but not in ourselves. Most people readily acknowledge that they make mistakes, but they cannot come up with current examples. Accordingly, we do not consider strongly held positions to be debatable because we view them as objectively and obviously true. After all, if we did not think our positions were true, we would not hold them. Therefore (our thinking goes), since they are objectively true, anyone who makes the effort to try should be able to ascertain that truth. Our opponents are without excuse. When our opponents disagree with us, they are denying reality. They are not just mistaken; they are stupid, delusional or evil. They are less than fully human. All of which makes cooperation all but impossible. Why would one cooperate with evil? Instead, we get perpetualoutrage pretty much across-the-board.

Different Games

Tribalism 03On November 24, 1951, Princeton defeated Dartmouth, 13-0, to win its 22nd consecutive football game and complete a second straight undefeated season for what legendary writer John McPhee called “Phi Beta Football.” It was the final game for Tiger tailback Dick Kazmaier, the “Maumee Menace,” a future College Football Hall of Fame inductee and McPhee’s roommate. “Kaz” had been pictured on the  cover of Time magazine that week (right) and would soon win the Heisman Trophy (the last Ivy League player to do so) in a landslide. However, the game that day is not primarily remembered as having capped off a stellar season and a brilliant career.

Instead, the legacy of that brisk late autumn afternoon contest rests upon two seemingly unrelated matters: allegations of intentionally dirty play by Dartmouth and the behavioral implications of how fans viewed and responded to the game. Based upon various sources, the primary narrative of the game is that an underdog Dartmouth team set out to injure Princeton players – particularly the brilliant Kazmaier. However, that was not the only proffered narrative.

By all accounts, the contest was an extremely physical one. At least 12 players were injured and had to be helped off the field, including a Dartmouth player who suffered a broken leg. Kazmaier was knocked out of the game in the second quarter with a broken nose and a concussion. His injury came on an apparent late hit after he had completed a pass to the three-yard line to set-up Princeton’s first touchdown. His teammates said he could remember nothing of the game. Princeton players alleged that Dartmouth had set out intentionally to injure Kazmaier and to knock him out of the game, a charge that Dartmouth’s coach and players all vehemently denied.

In one reporter’s words, “Throughout the often unpleasant afternoon, there was undeniable evidence that the losers’ tactics were the result of an intentional style of play….” The thrust of the allegation was, as one Princeton player put it, that “Dartmouth was out to get” Kazmaier. Another Tiger player added, “I am completely disgusted with the whole ball game and with the Dartmouth brand of football.” The situation became ugly enough that, even after winning, Princeton coach Charley Caldwell refused to shake hands with his Dartmouth counterpart. Moreover, the claim was not a new one. The New Yorker, the magazine that would later make McPhee famous, had referred to the Big Green that season as the “Eastern Boxing Champions,” and allowed that opposition stars regularly left the field under sudden and violent circumstances when playing the boys from Hanover.

Naturally, various partisans had dramatically different accounts of what transpired. The Daily Princetonian said, “It was a rough game — it was a brutal game. It was a game which left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth. It was the kind of football exhibition which discredits the game of football. For many persons the name Dartmouth sank to an all-time low — they just couldn’t stomach the Indians’ brand of football.” The student reporter was careful to claim reason as supporting his argument.

“This observer has never seen quite such a disgusting exhibition of so-called ‘sport.’ Both teams were guilty but the blame must be laid primarily on Dartmouth’s doorstep…. Princeton, obviously the better team, had no reason to rough up Dartmouth. Looking at the situation rationally, we don’t see why the Indians should make a deliberate attempt to cripple Dick Kazmaier or any other Princeton player. The Dartmouth psychology, however, is not rational itself.”

Not surprisingly, the Dartmouth student paper took a somewhat different viewpoint and maintained that rationality resided in New Hampshire rather than New Jersey, and was careful to cite supporting evidence from unnamed experts.

“Dick Kazmaier of Princeton admittedly is an unusually able football player. Many Dartmouth men traveled to Princeton, not expecting to win – only hoping to see an All-American in action. Dick Kazmaier was hurt in the second period, and played only a token part in the remainder of the game. For this, spectators were sorry…. Medical authorities have confirmed that as a relatively unprotected passing and running star in a contact sport, he is quite liable to injury. Also, his particular injuries – a broken nose and slight concussion – were no more serious than is experienced almost any day in any football practice, where there is no more serious stake than playing the following Saturday. Up to the Princeton game, Dartmouth players suffered about 10 known nose fractures and face injuries, not to mention several slight concussions.4

“Did Princeton players feel so badly about losing their star? They shouldn’t have. During the past undefeated campaign they stopped several individual stars by a concentrated effort, including such mainstays as Frank Hauff of Navy, Glenn Adams of Pennsylvania and Rocco Calvo of Cornell.

“In other words, the same brand of football condemned by the Prince – that of stopping the big man – is practiced quite successfully by the Tigers.”

Dartmouth coach Tuss McLaughrey offered his own counter: “We have never by word, inference, or innuendo ever made any plans to win a football game by illegal play or by an attempt to put a key player out of the game. The charges from Princeton that Dartmouth made a deliberate attempt to injure Kazmaier or any other member of the team are outrageous and almost too ridiculous to be commented upon.” Carefully parsed, however, McLaughrey’s rejoinder may be passionate, but it is not quite a denial.

The second part of that afternoon’s legacy comes from the work of psychologists Albert H. Hastorf (who had earned his Ph.D. at Princeton but taught at Dartmouth) and Hadley Cantril (who had done his undergraduate work at Dartmouth but taught at Princeton). Both were fascinated by the differing perceptions of the game and set out to explore them. Their subsequent paper is now a classic study in tribalism, selective perception and cognitive bias.

To perform their research, Hastorf and Cantril administered a questionnaire to groups of students at each school a week after the game that was, according to the study, “designed to get reactions to the game and to learn something of the climate of opinion in each institution.” They then showed a film of the game to undergraduates from each school and had the students record on a second questionnaire, as they watched the game, whenever they thought there had been rules infractions by the teams and whether these infractions were “mild” or “flagrant.” As it turned out, the surveyed students were as divided about the game as their newspapers had been.

Nearly all the Princeton students characterized the game as “rough and dirty,” one of the response options provided by the psychologists. None of the Princeton students characterized it as “clean and fair” and nearly 90 percent of them viewed Dartmouth as the instigator of the dirty play. Princeton students further thought that Dartmouth had committed twice as many penalties as did the Dartmouth students, who thought both teams had committed about the same number of infractions.

Although a plurality of Dartmouth students thought the game had been “rough and dirty,” more than 10 percent characterized it as “clean and fair” and more than one-third inserted their own terminology into the mix, seeing the game as having been “rough and fair.” As to blame, over half of the Dartmouth students saw both sides as being in the wrong while only about one-third of them put the blame primarily on their team. These variations in perception were so large that Hastorf and Cantril insightfully described the students from each school as having seen a “different” game.

In a fascinating bit of detail, the psychologists reported that after the Dartmouth alumni office sent a copy of that day’s game film for showing at an alumni function in the Midwest that winter, one of the organizers previewed the film and sent an alarmed telegram back to Dartmouth for additional film. He couldn’t see what all the fuss in the press had been about. He didn’t see where the Dartmouth players had done anything wrong at all. He was certain that much of the film had to be missing.

“Preview of Princeton movies indicates considerable cutting of important part please wire explanation and possibly air mail missing part before showing scheduled for January 25 we have splicing equipment.”

Tribalism 04History changes depending upon who is telling it or observing it. In that sense, it cannot be trusted. As Hastorf and Cantril noted, “We behave according to what we bring to the occasion, and what each of us brings to the occasion is more or less unique.” What partisans noticed and remembered was largely based upon which school they were affiliated with and which team they wanted to win. Accordingly, “the data here indicate that there is no such ‘thing’ as a ‘game’ existing ‘out there’ in its own right which people merely ‘observe.’ The game ‘exists’ for a person and is experienced by him only insofar as certain happenings have significances in terms of his purpose.” Relative to dispassionate reporting and objective analysis, therefore, rationality resided neither at Princeton or Dartmouth.

Behavioral finance – the conjunction of academic finance and behavioral science – is a relatively new field of formal study. Its founding is usually marked by the great Kahneman and Tversky Prospect Theory paper in 1979. Its adoption as a full academic discipline dates back only to the 1990s. But its antecedents go back to the 1950s and psychological research like that of Hastorf and Cantril. Behavioral science has since uncovered an enormous list of behavioral biases, cognitive errors and heuristics that greatly impact our decision-making and belief-formation processes, rarely for the better. However, nobody who has avidly supported a sports team, attended one of the team’s games and then “discussed” it with supporters wearing different colors afterwards doubts that the two sides see very different games. “Bias” does not begin to cover it. We are biased, sure, and badly so. But we are also innately tribal.

As with the Princeton and Dartmouth reporters, “myside” is seen as a matter of basic rationality. However, few partisans accept that their opponents are generally people of goodwill who simply disagree. They are deemed as necessarily being engaged in denialism. Because the assumption — steeped in bias blindness — is that the “other side” is not generally acting in good faith, the necessary conclusion is that they must be stupid, delusional or evil to take the positions they do. Such opponents are thus less than fully human, making it all that much easier to ignore them, discriminate against them, hate them, or mistreat them.

If we are to have any hope of seeing leaders with different viewpoints working together to solve problems, or of simply getting along with people with whom we do not always agree, we ought to start with the idea that those who disagree are generally people of goodwill acting in good faith. In other words, they may be wrong, but they are not necessarily (or even likely to be) stupid, delusional or evil. Recognition of the reality and the power of our tribalism would provide a good start toward making some progress in that direction.

That sort of progress is really, really hard to accomplish, of course. As Oxford’s Brian Earp has noted, it is far easier to put forward ill-informed and nonsensical views than it is systematically to refute them, meaning that even the most logical rebuttal can fail to defeat a bad idea. The essence of tribalism is shared values formed into beliefs. But when the tribe demands it (or seems to demand it), those beliefs – whether expressed as policy, ethics or morals – readily yield to the changing needs of the tribe. We are ideological through-and-through. We are tribal through-and-through.

Are some more equal than others?

Tribalism 05There is a wide body of research on what has come to be known as “motivated reasoning” and – more recognizably for those of us in the investment world – its “flip-side,” confirmation bias. While confirmation bias is our tendency to notice and accept  that which fits within our preconceived notions and beliefs, motivated reasoning is the complementary tendency to scrutinize ideas more critically when we disagree with them than when we agree. We are also much more likely to recall supporting rather than opposing evidence. The  Simmelweis Reflex is a reflection of this phenomenon. Upton Sinclair offered perhaps its most popular expression: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

Donald Trump – the Donald Trump who emerged out of nowhere with a political story that began as publicity stunt but quickly jumped to Republican frontrunner to nominee to unelectable underdog to President and beyond – provided what is perhaps tribalism’s most powerful expression.

Shockingly, Mr. Trump seems to be right. A Monmouth poll found that 61 percent of Trump supporters say there is nothing he could do to make them change their minds about him. Nothing. When supporters were shown Mr. Trump’s more outrageous and cringe-worthy statements, the strength of their support actually increased. Peggy Noonan calls it the “power of human denial.”

When asked about President Trump’s false statements regarding his inauguration crowd numbers, presidential counsel Kellyanne Conway famously referred to her boss’s reliance upon “alternative facts.” When asked about the president’s bogus claims regarding widespread voter fraud, his spokesperson Scottie Nell Hughes said, “Mr. Trump’s tweets, amongst a certain crowd, a large — a large part of the population, are truth.” For committed anti-Trumpers, between what they see as the lies and the abject stupidity, it is easy to fear that Trump voters are nuts.

However, one should be careful to avoid jumping to the conclusion that such behavior only happens to others. That conclusion fits with a delightful narrative emphasizing our careful consideration of facts, our considered adjudication of the evidence presented, and our good decision-making generally. But, as Mark Twain is famous for perhaps saying, “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Indeed, because White House reporter Maggie Haberman of The New York Times is generally tough but fair to the president, many Times’ readers are outraged at her.

“For many people who subscribe to the Times, reading about Trump is a form of rage-reading, and some of those feelings inevitably translate to Haberman, whose relationship with the orange-hued interloper in the White House can be misconstrued as coziness. As aggressive as Haberman’s Trump coverage can be, it may still come as a letdown to the types of readers who would rather see Trump’s most ardent chronicler skewering him, taking him down – as opposed to presenting tough, but fair, assessments of his words and actions.”

Tribalism 06When one’s opponents are stupid, delusional or evil, rather than merely in error, outrage is a far more appropriate response. Moreover, outrage (Mr. Trump’s key weapon) has a special power to motivate people.3 The higher the outrage, the stronger the support and the less that actual truth matters. When false information is central to our sense of self and self-worth, it becomes almost impossible to correct. As Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker explains, once Mr. Trump makes a visceral connection with his supporters, “He could say what he wants, and they’ll follow him.” Perhaps saddest of all, no political viewpoint today is deemed insignificant and unconnected to one’s self-worth, irrespective of its relation to factual accuracy.

Keith Stanovich is an academic expert on rationality and cognitive science. His latest book, The Rationality Quotient, written with Richard West and Maggie Toplak, is a rigorous analysis of cognitive thinking and of how one should construe “rationality.” In a new article for Quillette, provocatively entitled “Were Trump voters irrational?,” Stanovich applies his academic expertise to this controversial subject and answers, unequivocally, “No!”

Stanovich first considers what he calls instrumental rationality, which he conceives as a way to behave. One is instrumentally rational if she acts in such a way as to further her goals. Conversely, one is instrumentally irrational if he acts in ways that are inimical to his goals. For years now, many on the American left have been consistently shocked that conservatives repeatedly vote in ways that the left sees as contrary to their personal (frequently economic) interests. This idea is the premise for Thomas Frank’s book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, for example.

Stanovich’s response is straightforward and powerful: There is nothing irrational about seeking to serve a higher good than one’s personal interests. Indeed, the American left consistently wants to be praised for what they perceive as looking out for others at the expense of themselves. Thus, “rationality” need not mean “self-interested.” Thus, the arguments of Frank and those like him positively drip with condescension. “In addition to being misplaced, leftists never seem to see how insulting this critique of Republican voters is. Their failure to see the insult illustrates precisely what they get wrong in evaluating the rationality of the Trump voters.” There is nothing inherently irrational about voting in ways consistent with one’s values and worldview. The left claims to do it all the time. To see one’s own purported sacrifices as enlightened – noble even – while the other side’s are deemed irrational is classic tribalism.

Moreover, tribalism leads to claims of “denialism” where it perhaps does not exist (or exists less than often assumed). Tom Nichols (a five-time undefeated Jeopardy! champion, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and a Twitter must-follow) goes so far as to suggest that climate change “denial” is largely predicated not on a disagreement over science, but over climate policy. “[S]cientific elites…don’t seem to understand that knowing things is not the same thing as winning a policy argument” because “knowledge and policy are not the same skill set.”

As the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “[e]veryone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” That sage assessment is often used to criticize conservatives, frequently with good reason. Yet the demarcation line between fact and opinion is often a very fine one and one blurred by aggressive partisans eager to jump from fact to societal or policy conclusions without making careful distinctions between them and thoughtful arguments for them.

Tribalism is ubiquitous, and it has been known for some time that it is displayed across the political spectrum, so the extreme argument that Republicans are characterized by “myside bias” and that Democrats are unbiased in how they view evidence was falsified years and years ago. However, a weaker form of this false hypothesis has remained in psychology and in general discourse for some time: the idea that Republicans are more “mysided” in their thinking than Democrats. After all, pretty much everybody in the Hastorf and Cantril study thought that the Dartmouth players were out of line, the issue was whether Princeton had followed suit.

The Democrats declare themselves to be the “party of science” – history’s most powerful tool for ferreting out falsehood – and label the Republicans as science deniers, pointing to books like Chris Mooney’s The Republican War on Science. They argue that there must be something better about liberalism because they consistently get the right answer while the GOP does not. Democrats rely most often on one high-profile illustration of how Trump supporters (and Republicans generally) are epistemically irrational: climate change. To wit….

On a chilly February afternoon in 2015 Washington, D.C., Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma took to the floor of the United States Senate, skeptically muttered a few things about rising global temperatures, and threw a snowball. His point, such as it was, seemed to be that since frozen water vapor still exists in nature (even in winter), climate change must not really be happening. Or something like that. The jokes pretty much write themselves.

Isn’t this sort of thing slam-dunk proof positive that Republicans are highly epistemically irrational and much worse than Democrats? Lots of smart people seem to think so.

Ezra Klein (formerly of The Washington Post) founded Vox Media in 2014 to establish and grow what he calls “explanatory journalism,” whereby he claims to “explain” the news. Apparently, journalists had never done that. Who knew?

Vox features consistently progressive “explainers” for various policies by a talented but ideologically pure staff. Klein seems to believe that many of our most bitter political battles are mere misunderstandings. If only the citizenry were more informed, the thinking goes, there wouldn’t be all this fighting. Accordingly, having the truth explained will cause the unenlightened to see the errors of their ways and bring them (or at least some of them) around to the truth of progressivism. Of course, the more cynical and realistic among us will reject the premise. Tribalism is a much better explanation for the disputes than ignorance.

Klein’s big introductory think piece cited research (already familiar to regular readers here) showing that people understand the world in ways that suit their preexisting beliefs and ideological commitments. Thus, in controlled experiments, both conservatives and liberals systematically misread the facts in a way that confirms their biases. Irrespective of actual expertise, experimental subjects tend to equate “expert” with “credentialed person who agrees with me.” For all intents and purposes, Klein affirmed Tribalism 101. If some fact, policy or belief threatens the tribe or threatens one’s social standing within the tribe, all rational bets are off. It’s what Yale’s Dan Kahan calls Identity-Protective Cognition. “As a way of avoiding dissonance and estrangement from valued groups, individuals subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values,” he explains. In other words, “What we believe about the facts, tells us who we are.”

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A study from Duke University (disclosure: I went to school there) finds that we evaluate evidence – even scientific evidence – based on whether we see its policy implications as ideologically palatable. If we do not, we tend to deny the problem even exists. “The more threatening a solution is to a person, the more likely that person is to deny the problem,”  according to study co-author Aaron Kay.

The researchers conducted experiments on three different issues – climate change, air pollution, and crime. The climate change experiment tested why more Republicans than Democrats seem to deny its existence, despite strong scientific evidence that supports it. Participants in the study read a statement asserting that global temperatures will rise 3.2 degrees in the 21st century and were then asked to evaluate a proposed policy solution to address it. When the policy solution emphasized a tax on carbon emissions or some other form of government regulation, only 22 percent of Republicans said they believed the temperatures would rise at least as much as indicated by the statement they read. However, when the proposed policy solution instead emphasized the free market, such as with innovative green technology, 55 percent of Republicans (two and a half times more!) agreed with the warming statement.

This finding will not surprise Democrats, who have long argued that reality skews left generally and that Republicans have a long history of being willing to deny the obvious about climate change and otherwise. In other words, they draw a distinction between the “reality-based community” and Republican ideologues, who are guilty of “epistemic closure” in that they remain “worryingly untethered from reality as the impetus to satisfy the demand for red meat overtakes any motivation to report accurately.” It is a consistent trope among Democrats because they see themselves as superior in that respect.

Interestingly, if unsurprisingly, Klein’s argument conceded the universality of this problem in theory, but all of his examples pointed out the biased stupidity of his political opponents. Paul Krugman – a terrific economist but an often insufferable political shill – saw Klein’s bid and upped the ante, exhibiting classic bias blindness in direct response to Klein’s Vox piece: “the lived experience is that this effect is not, in fact, symmetric between liberals and conservatives.” In other words, his “lived experience” trumps the empirical research evidence (science at work!). “The facts have a well-known liberal bias,” affirmed Krugman, quoting Rob Corddry, “and experience keeps vindicating his joke.” Jonathan Chait mostly agreed. “In American politics,” he wrote, “reliance on empiricism is an ideology” and, to be more specific, that ideology is liberalism.

In Krugman’s view, conservatives are simply much stupider than liberals because reality skews liberal and because conservatives have no “genuine interest in the facts.” He even goes so far as to deny that there are examples where liberals engage in the “overwhelming rejection of something that shouldn’t even be in dispute.” Think about that for a bit. Without a hint of irony, Paul Krugman, Nobel laureate and columnist for The New York Times, argues that everyone is subject to confirmation bias except for people who agree with him. Look up “self-refuting argument” and a link to Krugman’s piece ought to be displayed. It is thus self-evident to Krugman that conservatives are slaves to their heinous ideology while liberals are simply following the facts wherever they lead.

Tribalism 08Source: Tom Gauld

However, and consistent with the Kahan’s research, the solution aversion found by the Duke study referenced above cuts across ideological lines. In the gun control portion of the study, one set of participants was told that they would read an article arguing that “strict gun control laws prevent homeowners from getting guns that they could use to protect themselves from intruder violence” and they then would read an article espousing this pro-gun rights ideal. The rest were told that they would read an article arguing that “loose gun control laws lead to more gun violence by intruders and more homeowner deaths” and they then read an article espousing this pro-gun control ideal. All participants were then asked to read about “Intruder violence — the act of breaking into a home and attacking the resident, usually as part of a robbery. Intruder violence often ends in the death or injury of the resident.” Consistent with the solution aversion expressed by Republicans concerning climate change, liberal participants who had a strong pro-gun control ideology indicated a significantly higher belief in the severity of intruder violence when the solution was gun control friendly than when it was friendly toward the possibility of arming civilians.

Yale’s Kahan, who was Klein’s primary interviewee in the referenced Vox piece and an author of much of the relevant research, found Krugman’s view “amazingly funny,” in part because the research is so clear. Biased reasoning is in fact ideologically symmetrical. Kahan puts it better than I could, even though he cannot resist ridiculing Krugman’s viewpoint.

“There’s the great line, of course, about how his ‘lived experience’ (see? I told you, he’s doing empirical work!) confirms that motivated cognition ‘is not, in fact, symmetric between liberals and conservatives.’

“But what comes next is an even more subtle — and thus an even more spectacular! – illustration of what it looks like when one’s reason is deformed by tribalism:

“‘Yes, liberals are sometimes subject to bouts of wishful thinking. But can anyone point to a liberal equivalent of conservative denial of climate change, or the ‘unskewing’ mania late in the 2012 campaign, or the frantic efforts to deny that Obamacare is in fact covering a lot of previously uninsured Americans?’

“Uh, no, PK. I mean seriously, no.”

Kahan hastens to point out that “[t]he test for motivated cognition is not whether someone gets the ‘right’ answer but how someone assesses evidence.” Indeed, “[t]hat Krugman is too thick to see that one can’t infer anything about the quality of partisans’ reasoning from the truth or falsity of their beliefs is … another element of Krugman’s proof that ideological reasoning is symmetric across right and left!”6 (Kahan’s emphasis). In other words, liberals assess the evidence and come to their conclusions using a process that is no better than that of the allegedly stupid conservatives (more here).

Klein gets to his desired tribal conclusion (Democrats good; Republicans bad) by recognizing (as the research demands) that Republicans and Democrats are similarly prone to partisan self-deception on the individual level, but suggests that the weakness of the Republican Party establishment has left the Democratic Party more capable of checking its worst impulses on the national level. He then asks the requisite follow-up in an effort to buttress his point: “So the question, then, is for conservatives: on what major policies is the bulk of the Democratic Party establishment ignoring…the evidence?” Apparently, in Klein’s world, “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

Nobody thinks he’s joining a cult

Back on a warm April evening in 1989, an investment banker at Salomon Brothers was raped and left for dead in New York City’s Central Park. The woman, as she later revealed in a book, was Trisha Meili, and she had been abused so brutally that when she was finally discovered, stripped and covered with mud, she had lost three-quarters of her blood and had already turned cold to the touch. Her beating was so severe that she remembered none of it.

Tribalism 09Much of the rest of New York was perfectly clear about what had happened to her and who was to blame for it (as the headline shown here aptly demonstrates). Then-Mayor Ed Koch called it “the crime of the century.” As The New York Times reported: “The youths who raped and savagely beat a young investment banker as she jogged in Central Park Wednesday night were part of a loosely organized gang of 32 schoolboys whose random, motiveless assaults terrorized at least eight other people over nearly two hours, senior police investigators said yesterday.” Moreover, “she was raped by at least 4 of the 12 boys, Chief Colangelo said.” The five schoolboys who were eventually tried (only one as old as 16), the “Central Park Five,” were all black or Hispanic.

Tribalism 10The next month, while Mayor Koch and Cardinal O’Connor cautioned against “rancor and hate,” Donald Trump took out a full-page ad in four New York newspapers (the version from The New York Daily News is shown here) to outline what he thought he knew about the case. The attackers were a “roving gang” of “park Marauders” and “crazed misfits.” He wanted the “criminals of every age” involved “to be afraid.” The Donald knew precisely what was needed. “How can our great society tolerate the continued brutalization of its citizens by crazed misfits? Criminals must be told that their CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS! (Emphasis in original)” Moreover, and obviously (at least to Mr. Trump), the accused juveniles deserved the death penalty.

Despite the certainty of so many, including the future president, this widely accepted narrative was false. The wildly inconsistent confessions coerced out of the boys under the pressure of hours of police interrogations without being able to speak to their parents were false. And the inevitable convictions of the Central Park Five were also false.

It turns out that the rape of the Central Park jogger had been committed by a career criminal, serial rapist and murderer named Matias Reyes. The crime was consistent with his standard M.O. and his DNA was recovered from the victim (no DNA from any of the Five was recovered at the scene). After the convicted boys had completed serving their prison sentences of between six and 13 years, Reyes confessed and had his DNA tested. Over the objections of many police and the original lead prosecutor, the convictions of the Central Park Five were vacated. Finally, in 2014, after a new mayor was elected, the City of New York paid over $40 million to the Central Park Five. True to form, Mr. Trump called the settlement a “disgrace.”

To be clear, as reported by the Times, on April 19, 1989 a mob of “teenagers invaded Central Park to assault, rob and harass joggers, bikers and others in a night that came to symbolize an era of rampant crime and racial tensions in the city.” The Central Park Five almost surely were among them and, as reported by a NYPD-appointed Armstrong Commission, may well have contributed to the attack on Ms. Meili. However, as the Commission conceded, there was insufficient evidence to conclude that the Five were guilty of the crimes with which they were charged.

For a particular tribe of true believers, the sort of people for whom the Willie Horton ad  was created, the Central Park Five defendants were bad kids who did a lot of very bad stuff on the night in question even if there is a chance they were not guilty of the specific rape with which they were charged (and Al Sharpton still had to pay demonstrators to protest). For others, police misconduct was evident from the start. As Harlem pastor Calvin Butts told The New York Times, “The first thing you do in the United States of America when a white woman is raped is round-up a bunch of black youths, and I think that’s what happened here.”

For those who were convinced of a certain sort of narrative about street crime and black teenagers in the city (like Donald Trump), the Central Park jogger case checked every box. They knew what happened…even though it did not. However, if – like Ezra Klein – you are feeling a bit smug and self-satisfied about not being a Trumpkin, you should not think you are somehow immune to this very type of problem. The evidence does not support your hubris.

Tribalism 11By way of contrast to the cast of the Central Park Five, for people who believed a certain type of narrative about white privilege and preppy rich-kid high-handedness and misadventures at elite universities, the Duke lacrosse scandal was too good not to be true, facts be damned. It checked every box. Three wealthy Duke student-athletes, all of them white, part of a team known for hard-partying aggressive jocks, were charged with raping a poor black stripper during a spring break party at an off-campus rental that regularly served as the team’s party house.

Even after the comprehensive dismantling of the accuser’s claims and after the prosecutor was disbarred for multiple acts of blatant misconduct, the underlying narrative remains largely intact because the false accusation “was a virus that landed in the most hospitable petri dish imaginable, a culture rife with unresolved racial, sexual and class tensions and grievances.” Besides, these were not very nice kids and they were taking advantage of a poor black woman. For example, “the players’ behavior at that party was apparently despicable. Among other things, they yelled racial epithets at the two strippers, both of whom were African-American. They acted like spoiled, arrogant rich kids” (more here). The facts may not have proved out, but they felt true and still do for many. (See Jon Stewart’s trenchant commentary here.)

Thus, for a particular tribe of true believers, the people for whom Tom Wolfe’s I am Charlotte Simmons was written, the players were bad guys despite their exoneration (and the prosecutor was merely overzealous for a good cause). Civil libertarians and activists who typically oppose government overreach in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion bent over backwards to support a corrupt public official committed to withholding and hiding evidence and to railroading innocent defendants. Meanwhile, “law and order” conservatives were eager to denounce a system they had so often supported in the face of dreadful disconfirming evidence in the past when the conflicting narratives on offer demanded an either/or conclusion. But you did not see them taking up the struggle of others who may have been wrongly convicted by a corrupt prosecutor but who don’t have the money and the platform to fight back the way the Duke defendants did.

These very public and clear examples ought to establish the universality of our tribalism. Yet it does not deal specifically with Klein’s question: “So the question, then, is for conservatives: on what major policies is the bulk of the Democratic Party establishment ignoring…the evidence?”

Fortunately, Stanovich also addresses this issue head-on by considering epistemic rationality: how well one’s beliefs map onto the actual structure of the world – that is, whether or not they are accurate or true. Kahan makes the “no” case based upon how we think. “What people ‘believe’…doesn’t reflect what they know,” explains Kahan. “It expresses who they are.” As one excellent high school student who is also a Christian conservative in a coal-mining town told The New York Times about a climate change video shown in class, “It was just so biased toward saying climate change is real. And that all these people that I pretty much am like are wrong and stupid.”

For Stanovich, the answer is also a “no” because the Democrats have engaged in classic data-mining. I would suggest that the answer is a less-than-resounding, “No more so than others”7 rather than a simple “no,” but that is a distinction without a great deal of difference. Looking at the evidence more broadly shows that both (all!) sides frequently ignore fact in order to “let their colors fly” and stay “true to [their] school (rah rah rah rah sis boom bah).”

The idea that typical voters – left, right or center – make their selections rationally is about as persuasive as the classical economic idea that markets are an aggregation of ultra-informed rational consumers and producers making decisions based upon marginal utility and opportunity costs.

Democrats claiming to be the “party of science” has provided some good marketing, at least to the already converted. However, Republicans can readily and powerfully counter. Psychologist Peter Ditto of the University of California, Irvine and colleagues recently performed a meta-analysis of 41 experimental studies of partisan differences in “myside bias” (tribalism) that involved over 12,000 subjects. After amalgamating all of these studies and comparing an overall metric of myside bias, Ditto and colleagues concluded that the degree of partisan bias in these studies was quite similar for both progressives and conservatives.

Tribalism 12

None has the public profile of climate change (perhaps in part due to the biases of the media), but there are also many examples of progressives denying or ignoring well-established science. The National Science Foundation published a study showing that an astonishing number of Democrats – significantly more than Republicans – do not know that the earth revolves around the sun and that it takes a year to do so. Belief in the power of astrology has grown from 32 percent in 2006 and 35 percent in 2010 to 45 percent in 2012 and Democrats are far more likely than Republicans to believe in it.

Liberals tend to deny the overwhelming consensus in psychological science that intelligence is moderately heritable. Progressives tend to deny or obfuscate the data  suggesting that single-parent households lead to more behavioral problems among children. Overwhelmingly progressive university schools of education deny the strong scientific consensus that phonics-based reading instruction facilitates most readers and especially those struggling the most. Largely Democratic cities and university towns are at the forefront of the anti-vaccine movement which denies a scientific consensus. In the same cities and towns, people find it hard to believe that there is a strong consensus among economists that rent control causes housing shortages and a diminution in the quality of housing. [Research citations are available here.]

Thousands of studies and meta-analyses have confirmed beyond any reasonable doubt that homeopathy is nonsense. Homeopathy is so ineffective that science geeks across the world have staged massive collective “overdoses” of homeopathy in order to demonstrate its impotence. Yet, more than a quarter of Americans continue to believe in its efficacy, with liberals being the worst offenders.

Based on reviews of more than 900 studies, every major health organization in the world has confidently declared GMOs safe to eat. This is about as clear-cut as things get – much like the science of climate change. There is no longer any legitimate debate over their safety. Yet skepticism persists. Pew Research reports only 37 percent of Americans believe they are safe. Liberals are slightly better than conservatives on this point, with 41 percent agreeing with the science, compared to 37 percent of conservatives, but neither side covers itself in glory, with liberal stalwarts like Greenpeace and Bernie Sanders falling under the spell of science-denialism. Moreover, studies show that Democrats are significantly more likely than Republicans to believe that astrology is somehow scientific.

Ironically, one of the environmental movement’s biggest victories over the past five decades – crippling the expansion of nuclear power – has actually done irreparable harm to the environment. Nuclear power is responsible for exactly zero – none, squadouche, nada – greenhouse gas emissions. Nuclear power is unquestionably the safest form of energy in existence, even safer than wind or solar, and is supported by 70 percent of the scientific community. Yet only 30 percent of Democrats support increased use of nuclear power, compared to 54 percent of Republicans. This is perhaps the strongest and clearest response to Klein and Krugman of all.

As Stanovich concluded, “You can say whatever you want about the rationality or irrationality of Trump himself, but cognitive science does not support the claim that his voters were irrational — or, more specifically, that they were any less rational than the Clinton voters. Politics is not the place to look for objective rightness or wrongness – and that is what judgments about the rationality of voting entail. Our judgments in this domain are uniquely susceptible to myside bias.”8

We all like to think that our outlooks and decision-making are rationally based processes — that we examine the evidence and only after careful evaluation come to reasoned conclusions as to what the evidence suggests or shows. We do not. Rather, we spend our time searching for that which we can exploit to support our pre-conceived tribal commitments, which act as pre-packaged means of interpreting the world. We like to think we are judges of a sort, carefully weighing the alternatives and possibilities before reaching a just and true verdict. Instead, we are much more like lawyers, looking for anything – true or not – that we think we might be able to exploit to help to make our case or to suppress that which hurts it.

Tribalism 13

As the Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” To pull the commentary a little closer to home, Warren Buffett says, “What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.”

There is no easy remedy for tribalism in large part because we all fall prey to it. However, as Kahneman said, “You are going to be more accurate and produce more accuracy by leaning against the biases.” There are a few things we can do to lean against our erroneous tribal assumptions. A few – often interconnected – suggestions follow.

  1. We need real and broad engagement. It becomes much harder to hate people with whom you have real relationships.
  2. We need careful argument, which – quite naturally – requires actively listening to one’s opponents rather than merely pausing to figure out your next attack.
  3. We need understanding. If we assume the other side has nothing substantive in its favor, there is no basis for connection and, in all likelihood, we do not understand the other side or its positions.
  4. We need equanimity. As Tom Nichols argues, “confirmation bias, the echo chamber, can’t be overcome by anger or polemics. Confirmation bias has to be worn away by a steady plodding refusal to accept the mistaken assumptions of other people, because people react to attacks on their confirmation bias by doubling down. You can’t shatter it; you have to wear it away.”
  5. We need to dial down the outrage. Most of your opponents are well-intentioned.
  6. Read. Widely and deeply. Try to understand your viewpoints and their consequences as well as you can. Make sure you read people and arguments you disagree with and even hate. Read the best arguments against your ideas and consider them charitably. Warren Buffett spends as much as 80 percent of his day reading. When asked once about the key to his success, he pointed to a stack of books and said, “Read 500 pages like this every day. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.” Do you?
  7. Write. If you cannot articulate your arguments on paper clearly and cogently, with good supporting evidence, you do not understand them well enough to be able even to have a very good idea if you are right or not.
  8. Think. We would all benefit from taking more time simply to reflect and consider. Therefore, given the sheer amount of stuff competing for our attention, eliminating distractions unlikely to provide substantive benefit will improve the likelihood of our success. We should also actively try to think differently, to invert our thinking.
  9. We need to demand evidence as a matter of consistent routine. Science wins.
  10. Although the distinction between them is finer than we tend to think, we need to focus more on facts and less on interpretations, opinions and beliefs. Kahneman again: “Leaning against biases means drawing people’s attention to facts that they normally would not pay attention to or might not even want to pay attention to.” In related news, we should focus more on processless on outcomes, and include carefully designed defaults.
  11. We need to slow down. Do not jump to conclusions. Measure twice. Cut once.
  12. We need to simplify our lives and our processes. Accordingly, we should employ the law of parsimony established in the 14thCentury by William of Ockham  (Ockham’s Razor): “All other things being equal, the simpler solution is the best.”
  13. We need to memorialize what we do. Good notes. Good records. Careful post-mortems. To improve, we need to understand what worked, what did not as well and then try to figure out why.
  14. We need well-aligned incentives: “skin in the game.”
  15. We need to consider – really and truly – that we might be wrong. Pride goeth before a fall. Indeed, we should look at it as a good thing when we are wrong because that allows us to improve. The key here is curiosity. Genuine curiosity about the world is, in all likelihood, the most powerful weapon we have to combat our various behavioral and cognitive biases. Even though it takes a healthy amount of self-confidence to be an investment success, arrogance and certainty are frequent enemies of continued investment success. Your accountability partners can and should help here, of course. Spouses are especially expert at promoting humility. You will screw up and screw up often. Perform a premortem to try to anticipate where you might go wrong (what Harvard Medical School’s Atul Gawande calls “the power of negative thinking”). Make sure to seek the “outside view.” As Jeff Bezosof Amazon insightfully expresses it, people who are right a lot of the time are people who change their minds a lot.
  16. We need readily to acknowledge our humanity. Part of that is taking our fallibility seriously, as noted directly above. It also means recalling that we do not need to be like Spockto make good decisions. In fact, that would be a problem. Investing like Spock (unemotionally) would leave us devoid of phronesis – the subtle, embodied, practical wisdom that comes from combining learning with judgment born of experience, and that which used to be the goal of education in the Renaissance. It would also leave us cold and thus less likely to follow through with our plans. More intense feelings can actually aid investment decision-making. We need both reason and emotion to make good decisions.
  17. We need to maintain focus on the big picture. Once we think we have a solid option, we tend to want to move on, and thus fail to explore alternatives that may be superior. To address this problem, decision experts Chip Heath and Dan Heath recommend a mental trick: Assume you cannot choose any of the options you are weighing and ask, “What else could I do?” This question will trigger an exploration of possible alternatives.
  18. Encourage diversity (of ideas and people as well as in portfolios). Bill Bernstein  provides a nice summary on this from an investment context. “First and foremost, don’t even think about trying to extrapolate macroeconomic, demographic, and political events into an investment strategy. Say to yourself every day, ‘I cannot predict the future, therefore I diversify.’”
  19. Emphasize empowered teams with people who do not all think alike and foster adversarial collaboration. Kahneman yet again: “you should get the help of your friends. And you should get the help of a friend who doesn’t take you too seriously, since they’re not too impressed by your biases.” In other words, the best advice is to “[s]low down, sleep on it, and ask your most brutal and least empathetic close friends for their advice.” Round out your perspective by looking to outsiders for ideas, advice and counsel.
  20. We need to be accountable. That means allowing people to hold us accountable (and demanding that they do so) as well as building in accountability structures.

We all like to think that we see the world and its component parts as they truly are. We do not. Instead, we tend to see the world and its component parts as we really are. That means that our tribal instincts and inclinations are a constant threat even though they are often obscure or opaque to us. Fixing or even ameliorating the problem requires that we think different.

Harder still, fixing or even ameliorating the problem requires that we be different. It should come as no surprise to anyone that working to be different is excruciatingly hard. I have offered my insights about the problem of tribalism and some suggestions for dealing with it above. I also remain most interested in hearing any suggestions that you might offer.


Sources for quotes within images: Rush Limbaugh; Marilynne Robinson; Andrew Sullivan; Warren Buffett.


1/ Philosophers Willard V. Quine and J.S. Ullian described this problem in The Web of Belief:

“The desire to be right and the desire to have been right are two desires, and the sooner we separate them the better off we are. The desire to be right is the thirst for truth. On all counts, both practical and theoretical, there is nothing but good to be said for it. The desire to have been right, on the other hand, is the pride that goeth before a fall. It stands in the way of our seeing we were wrong, and thus blocks the progress of our knowledge.”

2/ As CBS CEO Les Moonvessaid about television news, “people like to see people who agree with them.”

3/ In his book Tribe, Sebastian Junger notes that in the centuries in which white Europeans lived alongside Native American tribes, many Europeans left their fellow colonists to join Indian society but almost no natives voluntarily did the reverse. What was so compelling to such Europeans and such a remarkable hold on the natives? Junger argues that it was the power of the tribe.

4/ This cavalier attitude about the seriousness of brain injuries in football is, obviously, a product of its era. Given what medicine has since uncovered about the dangers of CTE, nobody should make light of “slight concussions” today.

5/ It is almost as if the President sees himself as the protagonist in a John Hughes flick, using what he perceives to be rapier wit against the “establishment” (standing in for the typical high school hierarchy of drone-on teachers, administrators and parents). As is typical in Hughes’ film world, the authority figures are at best a hapless, cheerless bunch and at worst dangerous and evil — rule-mongers who flaunt their positions to lord over the rebellious kids who are smarter and better than they are in every way. Always, always the principalparentteacher establishment is at least three steps behind and on the wrong trail. As usual, the story stacks the deck totally against the bad guys in every way.

6/ Obviously, as an active partisan, we should not be surprised at Krugman’s convictions or his bias blindness. Overcoming inherent bias is exceedingly difficult. Moreover, Krugman makes a difficult situation much worse by failing even to consider opposing viewpoints, which is vital if one is to have a hope of beating bias.

“Some have asked if there aren’t conservative sites I read regularly. Well, no. I will read anything I’ve been informed about that’s either interesting or revealing; but I don’t know of any economics or politics sites on that side that regularly provide analysis or information I need to take seriously. I know we’re supposed to pretend that both sides always have a point; but the truth is that most of the time they don’t. The parties are not equally irresponsible; Rachel Maddow isn’t Glenn Beck; and a conservative blog, almost by definition, is a blog written by someone who chooses not to notice that asymmetry.”

You can’t make stuff like this up. Krugman’s piece definitively disproves the claims he makes therein and an earlier piece gives one pretty good reason why. It is both hysterically funny and tragically sad.

7/ The University of Chicago’s Richard Thaler just won the Nobel Prize in Economics essentially for showing how people are irrational. Asked how he would spend the prize money, he replied, “This is quite a funny question.” He added, “I will try to spend it as irrationally as possible.”

8/ Very broadly conceived, I think the American political Left and Right are each generally attached to a different set of ideas about human perfectibility and human limits, different notions of what the shape and purpose of society are, and a different ordering of values such as liberty and equality. The genius of the Constitution is that it assumes (a) we will never fully persuade one another in politics; and (b) we are all likely to wrong pretty much all the time. See, e.g., Madison, Federalist 10. Both of these assumptions hold up to the most rigorous of empirical challenges. This view is wholly consistent with the American Right’s (traditional – all bets are off in TrumpWorld) view, as expressed by Yuval Levin, “that public policy should work largely by enabling the dispersed social institutions of civil society, local community, and the market economy to address problems from the bottom up through incremental trial-and-error learning processes. This is a view of public policy that is generally compatible with the limits the constitutional system places on government, while the progressive preference for consolidated knowledge and centralized action tend to be far less so, and not by coincidence.”


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