Furthest Right

Are political choices intentional at all?

We have a founding illusion, us humans, and it’s that what we do is deliberate. Not only do we intend to do things fully knowing how they will work out, but we can re-program ourselves at will, and with the right amount of education or training, become anything we want.


If we pay attention to the science that doesn’t make it to the front page of CNN — because the only science that they want to publish is science that will be popular, and sell television news — we’ll see that the idea of us as autonomous decision-makers is dubious at best. That is of course the ultimate unpopular view. It tells people that they are big bundles of nerves that reactions, not godlike intellects that choose from some divine insight.

Researchers at UofT have shown that the psychological concern for compassion and equality is associated with a liberal mindset, while the concern for order and respect of social norms is associated with a conservative mindset.

“Conservatives tend to be higher in a personality trait called orderliness and lower in openness. This means that they’re more concerned about a sense of order and tradition, expressing a deep psychological motive to preserve the current social structure,” says Jacob Hirsh, a post-doctoral psychology student at UofT and lead author of the study. – ScienceDaily

These attributes — openness, orderliness — aren’t political choices. They’re personality traits. As in hardwired like a preference for light and open rooms versus dark and closed ones, or placing a greater value on being near the beach than near the woods. Hardwired. They don’t discuss a correlation with IQ or other abilities, but since traits tend to cluster because of evolutionary advantage to their interaction and not singular existence, it’s surely there.

Zogby researcher Zeljka Buturovic and I considered the 4,835 respondents’ (all American adults) answers to eight survey questions about basic economics. We also asked the respondents about their political leanings: progressive/very liberal; liberal; moderate; conservative; very conservative; and libertarian.

Rather than focusing on whether respondents answered a question correctly, we instead looked at whether they answered incorrectly. A response was counted as incorrect only if it was flatly unenlightened.

In this case, percentage of conservatives answering incorrectly was 22.3%, very conservatives 17.6% and libertarians 15.7%. But the percentage of progressive/very liberals answering incorrectly was 67.6% and liberals 60.1%. The pattern was not an anomaly. – WSJ

Here we see the correlation between abilities and personality traits. These people aren’t bad at economics because they are liberals; they became liberals because they’re bad at economics, and have related personality traits. If you’re not good at orderliness, you’d better not have a personality geared toward it — in addition, you’re unlikely to have that personality, since appreciation for orderliness only comes with an ability to do it well (this is a restatement of the Dunning-Kruger effect).

People like to believe in “nurture,” or social conditioning and education, over “nature,” or inherent traits, but that’s basically an illusion. It makes us feel good to think we choose how to be, we choose our decisions, and that we plan our lives. Sounds like we’re in control, doesn’t it? But time and again, the results returned are that we act as we are wired by nature, and then invent a nurture excuse to justify or explain it.

Critics of new media sometimes use science itself to press their case, citing research that shows how “experience can change the brain.” But cognitive neuroscientists roll their eyes at such talk. Yes, every time we learn a fact or skill the wiring of the brain changes; it’s not as if the information is stored in the pancreas. But the existence of neural plasticity does not mean the brain is a blob of clay pounded into shape by experience.

Moreover, as the psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons show in their new book “The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us,” the effects of experience are highly specific to the experiences themselves. If you train people to do one thing (recognize shapes, solve math puzzles, find hidden words), they get better at doing that thing, but almost nothing else. Music doesn’t make you better at math, conjugating Latin doesn’t make you more logical, brain-training games don’t make you smarter. Accomplished people don’t bulk up their brains with intellectual calisthenics; they immerse themselves in their fields. Novelists read lots of novels, scientists read lots of science. NYT

You can train yourself to do a task, but you can’t rewire your brain to make you better at any such task. This is why conceptual geniuses are ranking higher than virtuosos, because a virtuoso can be a case of someone who spent the mythical 10,000 hours to develop an ability, but it doesn’t put them on par with someone who has an inborn genius for creating music.

In fact, if you look at popular research — like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers — you’ll see that it comes down on the “nurture” side of the equation, because that is what makes it popular thus sells books/magazines/TV, but the more in-depth researchers like the three cited above are the exact opposite, coming down on the “nature” side of the equation:

Studies suggest that the key to success in any field has nothing to do with talent. It’s simply practice, 10,000 hours of it — 20 hours a week for 10 years.

Indeed, a scientist would suggest that both are true. To make a talented person, nature requires some nurture, but achieves results nurture without nature cannot. As Pinker put it above:

Accomplished people don’t bulk up their brains with intellectual calisthenics; they immerse themselves in their fields. Novelists read lots of novels, scientists read lots of science.

This entirely collides with how we, thinking machines, like to see ourselves, which is as autonomous thinking machines that make their decisions a priori or without previous input or conditioning. Reality looks like that is a miscalculation by our thinking machine, in part as it tries to understand itself; we are not autonomous, but self-reflective, and that self-reflection can lead us astray.

Share on FacebookShare on RedditTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedIn