Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Unlocking the Liberal Mind - Part 2 - Patterns and Intentions

Go to: Part 1 - Perception

A few definitions:


When we have to carry out a task involving physical effort we will usually try to do it using the least energy. We take the path of least resistance – unless we have some other motive for doing more. The same is true of mental effort. Psychological studies show consistently that people adopt strategies to cut down the amount of mental effort required in all types of mental processing. This includes the effort needed to solve problems and the effort needed to assess social situations. We are cognitive misers – we avoid unnecessary expenditure wherever possible. We adopt various strategies to decrease effort and avoid information overload. If we had to assess all the possible options in every situation we would quickly become paralysed by too much information and too many choices.

For this reason we have strategies which cut down the range of possible choices quickly and enable us to make quick judgements. These strategies are known as heuristics: rules of thumb which allow  inferences to be made and conclusions reached rapidly. These heuristics, though essential, often lead to biases and omissions in our thinking. For example, people use stereotypes to evaluate individuals and groups. Stereotypes are over-generalisations made about a certain category of person. The Occupy Wall Street movement has a stereotype of the “1%” of America’s richest people which consists of white, male businessmen. This has some truth in it but not all of America’s richest 1% fit this description. Tiger Woods and Oprah Winfrey are among this group, as are many movie and pop stars. These latter don’t fit the stereotype so they are easily filtered out of OWS's minds. These short-cuts and biases easily become filters for the information we don’t like or which doesn't fit with intuitive patterns that we take for granted.


Cognition is a term used by psychologists to describe areas of mental activity which involve some form of information processing. Things like perception, thinking, memory, attention are forms of cognition. Cognitive psychology has been heavily influenced by the model of the mind as an information processing system akin to a computer. These might best be seen as forms of lower cognition. Disciplined thinking involving language or other systems of symbols, such as mathematics, are higher forms of cognition. A cognitive ability such as perception just happens, whereas a higher form of cognition requires considerable conscious effort.


Intuitions are the domain of hunches, gut-feelings, and guestimates. They are not rationally considered but emanate from a semi-conscious, emotionally toned area of the mind. They are linked with the lower cognitive levels. They are also linked to feelings and the motivational drivers of the personality. You are experiencing intuition when you know something (perhaps the way home when you are lost or that an action is wrong)  but can’t explain why or how.

Looking into the Righteous Mind

Having looked in some detail at the psychology of perception in Part 1, I'm going to move on to one of the most crucial areas of psychology for helping us to understand why the Liberal Mind is so locked. I will be basing the first part of this on a section from Jonathan Haidt's book The Righteous Mind, and I will be largely paraphrasing what he has written.

In The Righteous Mind Jonathan Haidt shows a clear link between moral reasoning and emotional/intuitive responses to issues like incest, oppression and cruelty. What may well surprise you is that the emotional/intuitive response comes first and the moral reasoning second, not the other way round. A piece of work by Howard Margolis proved to be crucial in helping to understand why this relationship exists and why the emotional/intuitive response comes first.

Howard Margolis, a professor of public policy at the University of Chicago, was trying to understand why people's beliefs about political issues are often so poorly connected to objective facts and he turned to cognitive science to try and shed some light on the matter. He published his ideas in Patterns, Thinking, and Cognition. He took the view that the best model for the way we think about political issues was lower cognition: processes like perception. One of the most important features of perception is that it carries out rapid pattern matching. Margolis took as his starting point the effect of illusions like the Muller-Lyer illusion (see Part 1) and from this he concluded that there are two very different kinds of cognitive processes when we make judgements and solve problems: he called them "seeing-that" and "reasoning-why". The seeing-that type of cognition is the pattern matching that brains have been doing for millions of years. Simple animals can react to patterns of light and dark with particular behaviours. The way that we instantly recognize faces, letters of the alphabet, all derive from pattern matching. Pattern matching is instant, automatic, and seemingly effortless, although the brain devotes large resources to it. To see your own pattern matching processes at work have a look at the old/young woman image below:

The mind uses pattern matching to detect the young woman then the old woman and vice versa. Because the image is ambiguous in a balanced way, it is quite easy to see first one then the other. Note how your mind seizes on one pattern then the other.

Margolis came to the conclusion that people often use simple pattern matching to address more complex problems. This pattern matching uses the lower rather than the higher cognitive processing. It is intuitive rather than rational. He summed it up thus:
 “Given the judgements (themselves produced by the non-conscious cognitive machinery in the brain, sometimes correctly, sometimes not so), human beings produce rationales they believe account for their judgements. But the rationales (on this argument) are only ex post rationalizations.”
The non-conscious cognitive machinery responsible for the “seeing-that” is intuitive and affective, the rationale is the “reasoning-why” which attempts to give a rational justification for the position taken by the non-conscious mind. Margolis again, “reasoning-why is the process by which we describe how we think we reached a judgement, or how we think another person could reach that judgement.” Reasoning-why can only occur for creatures with language who have a need to explain themselves to other creatures. Reasoning-why is done specifically with a view to convincing others.

This pattern matching can also be seen in the way we make assumptions and logical fallacies. Take the example of post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this therefore on account of this). This error is based on the misapplication of the causality pattern. When one event follows another it sometimes means that the first event caused the second, but not always. It's an easy trap to fall into. The lower level cognitive pattern matching sees one event following another and jumps to the conclusion that the first caused the second. Take the example of Grandpa suffering from a fever, he takes a shot of fine whisky and low and behold he feels better the next day. Searching around for an explanation he seizes on the (notable) fact that he had the whisky the night before. "That whisky made me better", he says. This is a case of post hoc ergo propter hoc; he might have got better irrespective of whether he drank the whisky. Motivation can also play a part in the explanation we seize upon. Grandpa may well welcome the prospect that fine whisky can "cure" his fevers!
Jonathan Haidt uses the metaphor of a rider and an elephant to describe the relationship between the reasoning and verbal part of the self and the intuitive/motivational/emotional part of the self. They generally work together with the elephant being the powerhouse and fundamentally in charge while the rider can present things to others in the most acceptable way, thus looking after the elephant's reputation. This is a very powerful metaphor because it describes well the relative power and influence of the two aspects of the self and because, if you take note, you'll realise how your elephant leans one way or the other when confronted with information, other people, or situations. The elephant thus gives the lead and the rider searches for a way of explaining the response to the world outside. The elephant has all the advantages of the animal brain: supremely adapted from millions of years of evolution and very fast to respond (remember the affective flashes referred to in Part 1?). Do take time to reflect on this metaphor or, better still, get yourself a copy of The Righteous Mind.

It is very important to understand that our minds are primed to accept or reject pieces of information. This may not necessarily be our conscious intention, it just is the way we are and the reason we are like this is due to the elephant, that powerful set of responses that reaches back into the animal brain. Tom Gilovich has studied the psychology of strange beliefts and he has identified two basic responses to information. When we like a piece of information we quickly ask ourselves the question "Can I believe it?" because we are already willing to accept it but we need a small justification. We search for a reason to accept it and when we've found one, we can stop thinking (remember we are cognitive misers). But, when we don't like a piece of information, or our suspicions are aroused that it contradicts deeply held views in some way, we ask ourselves the question "Must I believe it?". We search for a reason to reject it and when we've found one, we can stop thinking. Psychologists have accumulated abundant evidence of "motivated reasoning"; it's just the way we are. As Jonathan Haidt puts it in The Happiness Hypothesis (see chapter 4 - The Faults of Others),
 "Over and over again, studies show that people set out on a cognitive mission to bring back reasons to support their preferred belief or action. And because we are usually successful in this mission, we end up with the illusion of objectivity. We really believe that our position is rationally and objectively justified." [my italics]
He quotes an anecdote from Benjamin Franklin which illustrates very well how the mind goes about its business. Franklin was a vegetarian out of principle but on a long sea voyage he found his mouth watering at the smell of grilled fish:
I balanc'd some time between principle and inclination, till I recollected that, when the fish were opened, I saw smaller fish taken out of their stomachs; then thought I, "if you eat one another, I don't see why we mayn't eat you." So I din'd upon cod very heartily, and continued to eat with other people, returning only now and then occasionally to a vegetable diet."

This episode shows Franklin searching for a justification for the action he wants to undertake. He sets out on a cognitive mission. The mission is given to him by his elephant, hungry and drawn by the smell of fish. We can all recognise this experience. It's something we all do in order to provide a rationale for something we want to do but which conflicts with another principle or interest.

The mind is a very integrated system which continuously adapts perceptions, thinking, and memories  to the demands of the moment. It is strongly coloured by intentionality, an inward pursposefulness which is not wholly, or even mainly, conscious. When we are attached to a viewpoint we are terrible at looking for information which contradicts it. We are very good at finding and accepting information that confirms it. Psychologists call this confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is universal and very strong - always bear this in mind when dealing with people holding different views to yourself. It's as if the mind has filters allowing some information to pass and keeping other information out. Once the mind goes into combat mode, your opponent's cognitive mission intensifies along with his search for information confirming his viewpoint and discounting yours. The filters lock down and only attend to your evidence and arguments with the purpose of shooting it down. The chances of changing any attitude or opinion are virtually zero in this state.

A few of us are sufficiently reflective and honest with ourselves to overcome this tendency on our own but most of us need the help of friends and people we respect to get us to look at things differently; to see a different pattern in the same image; to look at the same information from a different perspective.

The kinds of judgements that I want to address with respect to the Liberal Mind are essentially concerned with moral and political questions: is it wrong to prefer your own culture? When should you oppose oppression and when should you ignore it? Do some groups have a right to be protected from criticism? 

Questions such as these are intimately bound up with the subjects I’ve been discussing. I may not like the way some people behave; that’s largely an emotional (affective) response but in order to convince anyone else that they shouldn’t behave like that I’ve got to come up with some justification for my response and articulate it as a principle that all people should uphold. In other words, I’ve got to find reasons why people ought to share my (intuitive) judgement. I shall be arguing that the Liberal Mind is falling into the trap of applying simple pattern matching to issues that are far too complex for such an approach. In the next section I’ll be explaining what I think this pattern consists of and then how it is applied and how it constrains the Liberal Mind in disastrous ways.

Go to Part 3

Thursday, 10 January 2013


Reciprocity runs very deep in the human psyche. We feel the urge to reciprocate for good and ill. When someone does us a good turn we feel a need to return the favour. When a psychology researcher posted Christmas cards at random to strangers, she found that most responded by sending her a card too. Mints left in the saucer by the waiter at the end of a meal result in more generous tips being given. The Golden Rule is based on the deep-seated human sense that reciprocity is right. "Do unto others as you would they would do unto you." Many of us feel distinctly uncomfortable when we are in debt to someone's generosity. We have to find a way to rebalance the situation. Failure to reciprocate or, even worse, to return ill for good is cause enough for great moral opprobrium.

Reciprocity most definitely underpins some of the best guidance for living. Confucius extolled its virtues; many religions uphold it as a fundamental principle. But can it mislead us too? What happens when the assumption of reciprocity is used as the founding principle for foreign policy towards a culture that does not accept the principle of reciprocity (at least not as far as we're concerned)?

The Obama administration, with its absurd notion of smart power (how arrogant), is proceeding on the basis that if we show sufficient goodwill towards the Muslim world, they will feel better about us and respond in kind. But they fail to understand the rift that Islam creates between believers and non-believers; a fact which undercuts reciprocity completely. There must be some research somewhere into the way in-group/out-group perceptions affect reciprocity.

Other possible viewpoints that are inspired by reciprocity: the belief that others only threaten us because they in turn feel threatened by us. If we adopt a more welcoming and less hostile attitude they will reciprocate. Israel has often been urged to concede land in order to achieve peace. Just give the Palestinians more land and you will get more peace and because anger at the Israel/Palestinian conflict spreads into so many areas the whole world will become more peaceful. This whole argument rests of the principle of reciprocity which simply does not apply between Jews and Muslims since Muslims are religiously committed to the elimination of Jews.

A plea to my political representative for freedom of speech

Dear Phillip

Thank you for your reply to my letter of 17th December. I’m very pleased that you found it interesting. I know you care passionately about freedom of expression.

It seems to me that we know several things in connection with this issue:

  1. Islamic doctrine does not tolerate freedom of expression, particularly with regard to blasphemy (which can be widely defined)
  2. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation is a powerful and extremely well-funded body which has committed itself to controlling freedom of expression and has made significant progress in this regard via the European Union and the United Nations
  3. The Muslim population of Britain and Europe is rising dramatically – as confirmed in the latest census figures
We can therefore safely conclude that pressure to enforce Islamic restrictions on freedom of expression is on an upward gradient.

Given these facts and the unavoidable conclusion to which they lead, can we not adopt a more proactive strategy in order to defend one of our nation’s and our civilisation’s core values. It is in my view, the rock upon which all our freedoms are built.

So that is my question to you: what is being or can be done to meet this challenge; to forestall it, anticipate it, to preempt it? It is no longer enough to support freedom of expression; it is no longer enough to defend freedom of expression; both of these are reactive and reduce our position to responding to carefully orchestrated assaults on our freedoms, which by being reactive stand less chance of success. We need a proactive stategy that anticipates future assaults and lays down intelligent preparations to defeat them and indeed which takes the banner of freedom into enemy territory.

Kind Regards

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Unlocking the Liberal Mind - Part 1 - Perception

Go to: Introduction

We all are engaged in a continuous process of evaluation of our social world, a world which includes both our political opponents, people from different cultural backgrounds to those closest to us in upbringing and outlook. To make evaluations of these people, their similarities to us, their beliefs, and their intentions we evaluate information that we get from outside in terms of criteria applied according to what is likely to be true for others. We might see Republicans as selfish and mean-spirited for example. This will make it more difficult to accept as a fact that Republicans give more to charity than Democrats (which is actually the case).

I want to begin an exploration of the factors which influence these processes by looking at some of the complexities of visual perception. Visual perception is the channel through which huge amounts of information regarding the social world enters our minds. The processes operating at this level are therefore important for understanding how accurate the information is and what factors are at work to make it less accurate.

Let’s start by looking at the constructed nature of visual perception of objects. Contrary to what common sense tells us about what we see, the world of objects is a mental construction from the information available to our visual cortex. I’m not suggesting that reality is completely made up. What psychological research tells us (from over 100 years of investigation) is that our brains build a representation of the physical world by using various cues. For example, take depth perception, our 3 dimensional image of the world around us; the information available to our brain is an inverted 2 dimensional image on each retina. Our brains use cues like superimposition (where an object near to us obscures an object further away) to infer that one object is closer than another. Take another cue: objects further away look smaller even though we know they don’t change size. This helps our brains to assess the relative distance of similar objects. Notice the word “infer”. Our brains do this automatically and generally arrive at the correct conclusions. There are instances where the depth cues can fool us, such as the Ames room.

In the Ames room one person looks huge while another person looks tiny. This is because the brain has been fooled into using depth cues to arrive at the wrong conclusion. Even though we know it is unlikely to be true the depth cues are too powerful and automatic to be overruled. The depth cues of linear perspective are so strong we can't prevent them from creating this illusion even though the relative sizes of the people in the room are completely improbable.

What is the brain doing?  The eminent British psychologist Richard Gregory suggests that the brain is engaged in a process of hypothesis testing, looking for the best fit for the available information and using the "rules of thumb" that our brains have developed over millions of years. This hypothesis testing activity can be seen when looking at the Necker Cube:

The brain looks at the cube one way and then finds another way which is equally plausible (the nearest face can be bottom left or top right)Our brain switches back and forth trying one “hypothesis” then the other. The key point to take from this is that the brain, even at this basic level of perceiving simple figures, is interpreting the available information. There is no fact in the na├»ve sense. The only "fact" in this instance is a set of black lines on a white background. Our brains build this into a cube.

Another example of our inability to overrule the interpretive nature of perception is the Muller-Lyer illusion.

In the Muller-Lyer illusion one of the horizontal lines looks longer than the other.  Measure the two lines and you’ll find that they’re exactly the same length. So now you know, consciously and rationally, that they’re the same length but they still look different. But, can you make them look the same length? This is a good example of a lower cognitive level (perception) being more powerful than a higher cognitive level (reasoning and knowledge).

There is another important facet of perception at this level and that is selection. The amount of available information is huge so the brain filters out what appears to be less relevant. The area around the focal point, for example a face we recognize in a crowd, is given more detail, while the faces around it are given much less. We can choose to attend to particular areas of the visual field but we can’t give the same amount of attention to all of them at once.

These processes start to get even more interesting when look at the issue of perceptual set. Perceptual set refers to a whole range of factors which lead to systematic filtering and biased interpretation of the visual information (though it can also apply to other senses like hearing). One important factor in perceptual set is expectation. We interpret what we see in terms of what we expect to see. A simple piece of research shows this in action. One group of people is shown a list of numbers and a second group is shown a list of letters. In each case the letters or numbers are shown briefly for a fraction of a second, one after the other. At the end of the sequence in each case an ambiguous figure which can be either 13 or the letter B is shown. You can test this yourself by scanning left to right, then top to bottom.

The group that has been shown the list of numbers identifies the middle figure as 13 whereas the group that has been shown the list of letters identifies it as B. In each case what has gone before has preset the likely interpretation of the figure. There are many other factors that have been experimentally demonstrated to show an effect similar to this: motivation, context, and mood, for example.

Affective priming is another important factor in perception. The founder of experimental psychology, Wilhelm Wundt, proposed the concept of "affective primacy". Affect refers to small flashes of positive or negative feeling that prepare us to approach or avoid something; it instantly primes us towards acceptance or rejection. Everything and everyone we encounter will trigger a small flash of affect. Try scanning through the headlines of a newspaper and take note of the flashes of emotion they set off. Wundt argued that affective reactions are so tightly integrated with perception that we find ourselves liking or disliking something the instant we notice it. (I'm basing a lot of this on Jonathan Haidt's book: The Righteous Mind where you can enjoy a much more thorough discussion of this topic.)

Research carried out by Robert Zajonc between the 1960s and 1980s showed that feeling of this kind occurs much faster than thinking and is much more powerful. Thinking is an evolutionarily newer ability which is rooted in language. Feeling carries far more motivational force and is much more closely integrated with behaviour.

Zajonc concluded that thinking could work independently of feeling in theory, but in practice affective reactions are so fast and compelling that they act to steer our thoughts and prime our perceptions.

Jonathan Haidt goes on to cite very interesting research which looks at alterations to peoples' reaction times when presented with faces from different racial groups. Depending on the nature of the task, a person's pre-judgements, which include affective flashes, can be shown to slow down or speed up response times. You can try this for yourself at ProjectImplicit.org

As Jonathan Haidt says, "The bottom line is that human minds, like animal minds, are constantly reacting intuitively to everything they perceive, and basing their responses on those reactions. Within the first second of seeing, hearing, or meeting another person, the elephant [Haidt's metaphor for the animal brain] has already begun to lean toward or away, and that lean influences what you think and do next. Intuitions come first." [my emphasis]

We can also add that the affective response will configure your perceptual systems to "see" in accordance with those affects. This feeling-toned thinking is part of the human condition. We are not computers. There is always an emotional and intuitive substrate to our thinking; it guides us, deceives us, compels us. We are held in the orbit of the lower self to a greater or lesser degree.

Just how compelling are these effects? There is a massive amount of research showing that we judge attractive people to be smarter and more virtuous (it's known as the halo effect), and we are more likely to give a pretty face the benefit of any doubt. Juries are more likely to acquit attractive defendants, and when beautiful people are convicted, judges give them lighter sentences, on average.

When these affective flashes contain feelings of approval or condemnation, we are experiencing moral emotions. These are particularly relevant for understanding both our own minds and the particular dynamics of the Liberal Mind.

I'll be returning to these findings and making use of them when I focus more directly on the Liberal Mind. Obviously, all that I have said so far can be applied to any of us but they can be used to help us understand the Liberal Mind too.

Go to: Part 2 - Patterns and Intentions

Friday, 4 January 2013

Unlocking the Liberal Mind – Introduction

I’ve undertaken a more long term project looking at some of the dynamics of the Liberal Mind. As I have a full-time job as well as other responsibilities I’m not in a position to write the whole thing at once. I therefore propose to publish a section at a time. This is the introduction where I will set out my aims, give an overview of the territory I’m venturing into, and counsel my readers to prepare for the long haul.

Over the last 10 years I have educated myself about the nature of Islam and have become distinctly alarmed both by its incursions into the West and the increasing evidence of radicalisation both at home and abroad. That in itself is bad enough but what has exasperated me almost as much is the continued blindness of so many people in the non-Muslim world. They continue to make assumptions about Islam that bear no relation to reality; they continue to defend a political position which takes absolutely no account of Islamic doctrines or of the many instances of behaviour inspired by those doctrines. This attitude which encompasses people on the political left, the political right, and the political centre is what I mean by the Liberal Mind. It’s liberalism in a broad sense: the habits of mind which originated with John Locke and the British empiricists, encompassing as they do both a theory of society and an approach to knowledge; habits of mind that were built upon by utilitarianism (seek the greatest happiness of the greatest number) and the progessive movements of the 19th century; Thomas Paine and the rights of man; the Founding Fathers of the American Constitution; culminating in such achievements as the abolition of slavery, the emancipation of women, the fairer treatment of minorities, all underpinned by a belief that societies could progress by better education for all, tolerance of diverse viewpoints, respect for empirical evidence rather than clerical or academic authority, and so on.

Liberalism in this sense constitutes what Thomas Kuhn called a paradigm. It’s an all-encompassing set of ideas as to what is possible, what is knowable, and the best means of achieving progress in human affairs; in short, it provides the context in which all things, including human life, are to be understood. This mode of thought and living has hitherto been adamantly opposed to all forms of tyranny, oppression, inequality, ecclesiastical dogma, and social forces that can be broadly described as reactionary (that is, wanting to turn back the tide of liberal progress). And yet, today these liberal forces are unable to bring themselves to oppose the most reactionary, tyrannical, oppressive, non-egalitarian, and clerically dogmatic force on earth today: Islam. Why is this? That is the question that I hope to shed light on.

I have drawn primarily on well-tested insights from psychology using such areas of research as: attitude formation and prejudice, cognitive processes such as memory and perception, moral psychology, cultural and evolutionary psychology, and studies of social influence. I use these to explore why and how the Liberal Mind has become “locked”; why it has become incapable of looking facts in the face and adjusting its attitude and behaviour to address a considerable threat to the very values it claims to espouse. Why is it that when you tell a liberal that you are concerned by the spread of Islam that they are more likely to see you as the problem rather than Islam? Why is it that a liberal will avoid finding out about Islam, except from sources approved by such bastions of liberal thinking as The Guardian?

Be prepared for a long haul. I have to lay down a lot of groundwork in psychology before I can apply the insights of psychology to the question at hand. In the next section I'll look at some aspects of the psychology of perception for this is important for our understanding of how we see the world - both in terms of our physical environment and the social environment. By the social environment I mean the whole global social world which is not your individual self.

Go to: Part 1 - Perception