Reason, Change, and the progressive mind

In my post: Why People Don’t Believe Scientists Even When There Is ‘Consensus’ (via A Thinking Person) I mentioned that he explained:

the phenomenon of where people accept studies that are poorly supported over those with oodles of support, peer review, etcetera. That is people are more inclined to believe things that fit their worldview. Change requires effort and is uncomfortable, thus people prefer inactivity and status quo.

In the ideal world, people would be logical rather than susceptible to their emotions. Unfortunately, people are more inclined to let their emotions sway them, no matter how irrational that may be.

I am not alone in wondering this as other progressives, such as George Monbiot recently wrote an article in the Guardian, which was posted to his blog about this phenomenon.

We see someone who is Jewish allying herself with neo-nazis or a person who feels free because he can work 62 hours and not have any vacation which are totally irrational positions. George Monbiot points out that:

[we are] forming an orderly queue at the slaughterhouse gate. The punishment of the poor for the errors of the rich, the abandonment of universalism, the dismantling of the shelter the state provides: apart from a few small protests, none of this has yet brought us out fighting.

The acceptance of a course of action which run contrary to perceived interests is the pervasive mystery of the 21st Century. But most Progressives use the enlightenment model of thinking which holds that people make rational decisions by assessing facts. Psychological experiments are showing that it doesn’t work the way we would expect. Instead of performing a rational analysis, people accept information which confirms our identity and values, and reject information that conflicts with those values. We mould our thinking around our social identity, protecting it from serious challenge. Confronting people with inconvenient facts is likely only to harden resistance to the conflicting idea.

The US Tea Party crowd angrily demands that they be left without healthcare, while insisting that millionaires should pay less tax. People in the US insanely demand their “gun rights” and are easily manipulated with wedge issues. Not that they are the only victims of this irrationality as other countries seem set to abandon the social progress for which our ancestors risked their lives with barely a mutter of protest.

Our social identity is shaped by values which psychologists classify as either extrinsic or intrinsic. Extrinsic values concern status and self-advancement. People with a strong set of extrinsic values fixate on how others see them. They cherish financial success, image and fame. Intrinsic values concern relationships with friends, family and community, and self-acceptance. Those who have a strong set of intrinsic values are not dependent on praise or rewards from other people. They have beliefs which transcend their self-interest.

We are not born with our values. They are shaped by the social environment. By changing our perception of what is normal and acceptable, politics alters our minds as much as our circumstances. In addition, advertising and the media are used to persuade people by obsessive promotion of celebrity, fashion, fast cars, expensive holidays: all of which inculcate extrinsic values. They also suppress intrinsic goals by generating feelings of insecurity and inadequacy – which means reducing self-acceptance.

George Monbiot
suggests that:

People with strong intrinsic values must cease to be embarrassed by them (those who encourage selfishness). We should argue for the policies we want not on the grounds of expediency but on the grounds that they are empathetic and kind; and against others on the grounds that they are selfish and cruel. In asserting our values we become the change we want to see.

I have to admit a dilema in dealing with the severely brainwashed since I am not sure than anything short of a religious experience would convert them from their positions. It will take quite a bit to change our society so that it values community and family, not just work. We must stand up for those who believe there is more to life than the bottom line.

Perhaps the most important point that George makes is that we shouldn’t rely upon politicians to bring about this change as “their ambition must supplant peace of mind, family life, friendship – even brotherly love.” We must assert the values that we believe in and become the change that we seek.

See this report for more on the concept of reenforcing beliefs:
http://assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/common_cause_report.pdf

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