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

1 comment:

  1. For the most part, I agree with your take on politics. There are very few people who are beginning to connect the science of human cognition with the tactics of deceit and manipulation that the two-party system employs. The message you (and I) are trying to get out is, in my opinion, critically important. Maybe even necessary for the survival of the human species.

    To get a wider audience for your points, I suggest you consider commenting on large politics web sites. It is easy to integrate the scientific mind set with most of the content that most politics sites convey. If you do that, you will get a very hostile response from the right and little or no response from the left. No one's mind will be changed, but that isn't the point. What is important is to begin to raise matters of cognition and deceit by a corrupt two-party system with as many people as possible. There will be some people who can understand and consider what you would be saying. That is where fundamental reform has to come from.

    I think society is slowly moving in the direction you seem to advocate. The concern is whether there is time to let it play out naturally or is it better to try to accelerate the process. In my opinion, it is better to try to accelerate. It is not clear how much time the human species has to piddle around with politics as usual. As you point out from Haidt's book "people's beliefs about political issues are often so poorly connected to objective facts." The more people know about how they have been deceived, the better off we will all be. Well, at least, that's the hope.

    Because they allow anonymous commenting, here are some sites I regularly comment on:

    Anyway, that's just a suggestion. No one reads my blog, which has content similar to yours, so I decided to go to where the big audiences are to get my points into a wider discussion. Tip: If you decide to comment on other sites, don't link to your own blog - some site will kick you off, e.g., http://www.nationalreview.com/ .