About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Monday, January 22, 2007
The psychology of bias: why Republicans win more arguments than they should
Apparently, psychologists have been busy providing intriguing (if depressing) answers to these sorts of questions, and a recent article by Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon in Foreign Policy briefly summarizes the findings. The basic idea is that humans are affected by a large number of “biases,” i.e. instinctual reactions affecting our judgment in a non-rational, and often downright irrational, way. Many of these biases, according to Kahneman and Renshon, explain why political “hawks” win arguments in the public arena much more often than they ought to when compared to their stereotypical rivals, the “doves.” (The authors are of course quick to point out that their argument doesn't prove that a hawkish strategy is always, or even often, wrong, just that the hawkish argument often carries the day for the wrong reason.)
One such bias that has been well studied in psychology is the tendency that we all have to overestimate our own strengths: most of us think we are smarter and more attractive than the average, which I guess goes a long way toward explaining some devastating failures in the dating department. But it also explains why our politicians tend to see wars they are about to embark on as “cakewalks.” The stunning example discussed by Kahneman and Renshon is the fact that every single soon-to-be combatant nation in World War I predicted a swift and easy victory. It turned out to be a long drawn-out carnage instead.
Another interesting bias documented by researchers is called “reactive devaluation,” and it occurs every time we consider an offer from a rival party during a negotiation: we systematically devalue the offer because, after all, it comes from the enemy, so it can't be good for us. A study in this respect showed that when a given peace plan was considered by a group of pro-Israeli Americans, and presented as if it were a Palestinian proposal, they commented that it was biased in favor of the Palestinians. Interestingly, when the same exact proposal was presented as forthcoming from the Israelis, it was considered “evenhanded”!
Finally, a bias particularly relevant at the moment is our aversion to cutting losses. Again, this has been well documented, with people insisting in the attempt to recover from even a great loss, despite the fact that they are likely to incur an ever greater one by persisting in their behavior. Even when the odds are clearly statistically in favor of a “strategic retreat,” we keep “staying the course.” Sounds familiar?