Tuesday, September 06, 2011

What politics does to people

Psychologists and political scientists talk often of a phenomenon known as motivated skepticism. The idea, basically, is that we believe the evidence and arguments we want to believe, and reject ideas and information that undercut our preferences. 
My favorite study (pdf) in this space was by Yale’s Geoffrey Cohen. He had a control group of liberals and conservatives look at a generous welfare reform proposal and a harsh welfare reform proposal. As expected, liberals preferred the generous plan and conservatives favored the more stringent option. Then he had another group of liberals and conservatives look at the same plans, but this time, the plans were associated with parties. 
Both liberals and conservatives followed their parties, even when their parties disagreed with their preferences. So when Democrats were said to favor the stringent welfare reform, for example, liberals went right along. Three scary sentences from the piece: “When reference group information was available, participants gave no weight to objective policy content, and instead assumed the position of their group as their own. This effect was as strong among people who were knowledgeable about welfare as it was among people who were not. Finally, participants persisted in the belief that they had formed their attitude autonomously even in the two group information conditions where they had not.”
In other words, politics causes what are presumably otherwise perfectly rational people to take leave of their senses and behave in an almost tribal manner. As I have said before, voters are deeply flawed people and we should be wary of giving them any more power than is absolutely necessary. The answer, however, is not to dispense with democracy -- the only thing scarier than rule by the uninformed masses is rule by unaccountable autocrats -- but limited government whose reach extends only to those areas that cannot be handled by the private sector.

This video, meanwhile, serves as a reminder that the damage caused by politics goes far beyond bad policies -- it tears at the very fabric of our society. The divisiveness and "us vs. them" mentality it promotes is absolutely toxic.

The less of our lives governed by politics, the better off all of us will be.

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