impervious to reason?

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It's no secret that I've had my share of encounters with conservatives who seem impervious to reason (see here and here for some recent examples), but I'm unable to make headway against their my-mind-is-made-up-don't-confuse-me-with-the-facts mindset. I am amazed (and dismayed) at the tenacity with which they hold their untenable positions: although lacking any means of logical support, the GOP talking points are seemingly immune to corrections, and are repeated like magic spells to ward off critical thinking.

Even the most die-hard dittohead GOP-bots aren't completely irrational, of course, it's just that their cherished myths and media misinformation help them compartmentalize entire subject areas of discussion that are declared off-limits to correction...the "I don't care about the facts" or "let's agree to disagree" dodges are the ones I commonly see, although there are other, more aggressive forms of ignorance.

While I was ruminating on this problem, I came across Jonathan Haidt's article at AlterNet, "What Makes People Vote Republican?" Haidt wrote that he "began to think about liberal and conservative policies as manifestations of deeply conflicting but equally heartfelt visions of the good society," and I expected a primer on George Lakoff's "strict father"/"nurturant parent" model to quickly follow. Instead, Haidt turned to John Stuart Mill and Emile Durkheim:

First, people in all cultures are emotionally responsive to suffering and harm, particularly violent harm, and so nearly all cultures have norms or laws to protect individuals and to encourage care for the most vulnerable. Second, people in all cultures are emotionally responsive to issues of fairness and reciprocity, which often expand into notions of rights and justice. Philosophical efforts to justify liberal democracies and egalitarian social contracts invariably rely heavily on intuitions about fairness and reciprocity. [...]

My recent research shows that social conservatives do indeed rely upon those two foundations, but they also value virtues related to three additional psychological systems: ingroup/loyalty (involving mechanisms that evolved during the long human history of tribalism), authority/respect (involving ancient primate mechanisms for managing social rank, tempered by the obligation of superiors to protect and provide for subordinates), and purity/sanctity (a relatively new part of the moral mind, related to the evolution of disgust, that makes us see carnality as degrading and renunciation as noble). [emphases added]

Haidt's TED talk, "The Real Difference Between Liberals and Conservatives," (h/t: Explicitus Est Liber) expands on this thesis, amply demonstrating that conservative morality is skewed toward tribalism, totalitarianism, and taboo (my words, not Haidt's). Their worldview's composition, however, doesn't explain its frequent variance with reality; I found that answer in Shankar Vedantam's WaPo article "The Power of Political Misinformation." Vedantam discusses research showing that "some refutations can strengthen misinformation, especially among conservatives." A so-called "backfire effect" actually strengthens conservatives' misinformed views when those views are refuted:

In a paper approaching publication, Nyhan, a PhD student at Duke University, and Reifler, at Georgia State University, suggest that Republicans might be especially prone to the backfire effect because conservatives may have more rigid views than liberals: Upon hearing a refutation, conservatives might "argue back" against the refutation in their minds, thereby strengthening their belief in the misinformation. Nyhan and Reifler did not see the same "backfire effect" when liberals were given misinformation and a refutation about the Bush administration's stance on stem cell research.

The "backfire effect" explains the impervious-to-reason problem I've seen, although it leaves me with another question: if exposure to the facts won't change conservatives' minds, what will?

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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on September 18, 2008 9:04 PM.

Dan Hind: The Threat to Reason was the previous entry in this blog.

Harris responds to Haidt is the next entry in this blog.

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