Friday, August 02, 2013

We Only See the World as Black-and-White When We Are Afraid.

When people are afraid, they tend to see their problems in black-and-white terms.  They tend to block out contrasting information, and want a muscular solution.  These are the characteristics that lead to authoritarianism, which we are all prone to sometimes.

I often hear laments about the polarization and partisanship that comes from people - other people - being closed-minded, narrow-minded, or, again, seeing things only in black and white. 

As I review the psychological studies I know and the anecdotes I can think of, I have a hunch:  we only see the world in black-and-white terms when we are fearful.  When we are reasoning calmly, everyone is able to see positions in the middle.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Rational Rider Can't Control the Emotional Elephant If They Have No Internal Conversation

Our emotions are like an elephant, and our reason is like an elephant rider.  Thus does Jonathan Haidt give a sense of the proportions between our emotional judgments and our reason's ability to sway them.  Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, says that our emotional systems are very old and refined, whereas our reason is a relatively new addition.  Reason has to bring something that the emotional elephant can use.

What reason gives us is the ability to imagine alternative futures.  Our emotional cognitions lead us to want to feel a certain way, but there might be several paths to that feeling.  On a good day, the rational rider can sway the elephant to choose one path over another by bringing out the advantages of one imagined future over another.

We are reading Haidt in Theory Camp now.  I have also been reading critical realist social theory this summer, especially the work of Margaret Archer.  Archer makes the case that our internal conversation works in a similar way.  The 'I' that I am now is in conversation with the 'You' that I want to be in the future.  Archer understands our emotions to be part of the future self that we wish to have.

Archer, like most intellectuals, imagines this conversation as a rational discourse.  She is unusual among rationalist intellectuals in giving even this much weight to emotions.

Haidt, unlike most intellectuals, has worked his way to the scientific conclusion that our internal conversation is primarily an emotional intuition rather than a rational discourse. He thinks intellectuals are prone to a rationalist delusion that all people are primarily rational.

Archer, in her recent works, has attempted to conduct a small empirical study of how different people conduct their inner conversations.  The results seem to me to show that the educated and privileged classes have more elaborate internal conversations.  Indeed, the people with the most disrupted lives sometimes had no inner life at all.

So what do we get when we put Haidt and Archer together?

We all make instantaneous moral judgments all the time, which our 'elephants' are inclined to follow. The people who have cultivated reason the most have the greatest chance of swaying the elephant toward one imagined future over another.   And the people who have cultivated reason the least will be guided by their first emotional reactions. They may not have much internal conversation at all.

Intellectuals imagine that everyone has internal conversations that rationally weigh alternative futures.  But really, only intellectuals do that, and even they (we) are not nearly as rational as we like to think.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Fathers of Daughters Are More Generous

Men become more generous to serve women.  This is one of the best things about the ingenious complementarity of our species.

This new finding that fathers of daughters are more generous - including paying their employees more and giving more money away - is a wonderful elaboration of that theme.

I know that my daughters have helped me to expect more giving of myself.

Monday, July 29, 2013

We Need Egyptian Democracy, Warts and All.

The Egyptian military overthrew the government, as they are prone to do. The difference this time is that they overthrew the first and only elected government that Egypt has ever had.  And that makes all the difference.

U.S. law requires us to stop giving aid to countries if the government is overthrown by a military coup.  The Obama administration has been dancing around describing what the Egyptian military did as a 'coup' to avoid having to face this consequence.  The president is afraid that we will lose crucial leverage with the government there is we stop sending them a billion dollars a year.  And the president is right to worry - keeping Egypt as a peaceful neighbor to Israel is critical to our interests and the larger interests of peace.

I also believe the sketchy reports that the Saudi government colluded with the Egyptian military. The Saudi monarchy has benefited, in a perverse way, from the seeming antipathy between Islamist government and democracy.  If the Arab Spring succeeds in creating an elected Islamist government, then the Saudi absolute rulers would reasonably fear that the Arabs in Arabia would demand the chance to do the same.

Nonetheless, democracy serves peace and order better than even useful dictatorships do.  That means America's real interests are in promoting elected governments, even if the parties elected are not as compliant as the dictators they replaced.

The United States should oppose the coup and support the restoration of democracy in Egypt, warts and all.

Addressing the Bad

I have been holding back from blogging for the last few weeks.  I realize that I was trying to say only positive things, and some of the world's news has been disheartening.

I think, though, that I have been thinking about this the wrong way.  Addressing the bad things is just as much part of building up the world as promoting the good.

Besides, It's My Blog. So I should say what I am thinking.